Ruling

10506-20 The Russian Direct Investment Fund, Ekaterina Kvasova and Polina Petrova v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      2nd September 2021

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 12 Discrimination

Decision of the Complaints Committee –  10506-20 The Russian Direct Investment Fund, Ekaterina Kvasova and Polina Petrova v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. The Russian Direct Investment Fund, Ekaterina Kvasova and Polina Petrova complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) in an article headlined “Client offered me prostitutes at Davos party, says consultant” published 24 March 2020.

2. The article also appeared as two online articles headlined “Client offered me prostitutes at Davos party, says consultant” and “Davos investigation: champagne flowed and music played as women greeted guests” published on 23 and 24 March respectively.

3. The print article reported on concerns about sexual harassment and sexism at events taking place over the week of the World Economic Forum (WEF) held at Davos.  The article led with allegations – unconnected to the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) or its event – regarding the presence of “prostitutes” at Davos, with the assertion that “at least 100 sex workers travel to Davos” during the week of the WEF. It referenced “the prevalence of sex workers” at the evening events which took place alongside the formal conference and also mentioned one such event in 2019, again unrelated to the RDIF, where a guest alleged that he had been “offered…prostitutes”. It then proceeded to discuss an evening event held during the week of the 2020 WEF which had been hosted by the RDIF, the Russian sovereign wealth fund, on 21 January 2020. The article reported that “Guests arriving at the [event] were greeted […] by eight beautiful young women” and that “[s]everal people got the impression that they were sex workers”. It went on to report that when “[a]sked by an undercover reporter how the women had behaved towards guests, [an anonymous] staff member replied: ‘Oh very friendly, trust me.’ ‘How friendly?,’ the reporter asked. ‘They would do something for you, definitely,’ he said”. According to the article, “[t]wo other members of staff said that they also thought the women were offering sexual services in exchange for money. One […] claimed that she witnessed a female party organiser directing some of the hostesses to leave with certain men. Asked how she knew whether the women were offering sexual services, she said: ‘They don’t tell you who they are, but you understand.’” A third member of staff also “claimed that some of the women left in the company of men”.

4. The article also reported that “Ekaterina Kvasova, head of corporate marketing at RDIF […] recruited the hostesses” and that when “[a]sked about the selection criteria [by an undercover reporter, she] admitted: ‘We were looking only for looks and only for ambience, nothing else’”. The article reported that she “also told the undercover reporter that the hostesses were not escorts. ‘Frankly speaking some of them were actually students from quite a reputable school speaking two or three languages,’ she said. However, she admitted that she had felt it necessary to warn the women to behave themselves, telling a reporter that she had told them they were there for ‘ambience’ and that if any of them did anything more than that they would have difficulty getting out of the country”. The article also noted that “[i]n a statement, RDIF said that the women were hired to meet guests and provide information about the programme for the event. This was necessary because there were 450 attendees and only 20 employees at the event. They ‘strenuously denied that any of the women were escorts or that they had been directed to leave with men’”. That the RDIF had “strenuously denied [that the hostesses] were offering sexual services” was also repeated elsewhere in the article.

5. The online articles contained the same information but appeared as two distinct articles. The first -“Client offered me prostitutes at Davos party, says consultant”- focused on concerns about sexual harassment and sexism at events taking place over the week of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos and allegations – unconnected to the RDIF or its event – regarding the presence of “prostitutes” at Davos. It did briefly mention the RDIF’s 2020 event, stating that it had “held a nightcap event for investors [at which e]ight women had been flown over from Moscow to work as hostesses”. It noted that “the atmosphere at the event was such that several people there got the impression that they were sex workers”. The second online article – “Davos investigation: champagne flowed and music played as women greeted guests” – discussed the RDIF’s 2020 event in more detail and included the comments and impressions of the anonymous staff members which had been included in the print article.

6. The complainants said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. They said that the number of quotes from anonymous staff members and sources included in the article gave the impression that the RDIF had invited sex workers to its event whom it directed to provide sexual services to specific male guests, which it said was false. In support of its position, it provided witnesses statements from two of the eight externally recruited hostesses, a member of staff at the hotel where the event had taken place, and the father of a pianist who had performed at the event, who had also been in attendance. The RDIF also provided a letter from the hotel at which the hostesses had been staying confirming that all eight had returned to the hotel at 3am and had spent the night there. It also provided a written brief sent to the hostesses by the event organiser prior to the event. Whilst the complainants did not dispute that some anonymous event staff members had made the comments attributed to them in the article, they considered that the views they had expressed were neither genuinely held nor reliable. Further, the complainants also said the article was misleading as to what Ms Kvasova had told the undercover reporter in the two phone calls. They denied that Ms Kvasova had said that the RDIF was “looking only for looks and only for ambience” when recruiting the women. They also disputed the claim that she had told the undercover reporter that “she had told them [the hostesses] they were there for ‘ambience’ and that if any of them did anything more than that they would have difficulty getting out of the country”. Ms Kvasova accepted that she told the undercover reporter that, hypothetically, sex work could have been unlawful and get the hostesses in trouble with the local authorities. Following the production of an audio recording of the first phone call taken by the publication, Ms Kvasova accepted that she had in fact told the reporter that the RDIF was “looking only for looks and only for ambience” when recruiting the women. However, she said that the word “ambience” was adopted by her after it had first been used by the undercover journalist in a way which implied it meant the opposite of escort, and that therefore her words had been reported out of context. Finally, the complainants said they were denied a fair opportunity to reply as the RDIF’s statements were only partially published and that there had been a breach of the Code because the publication failed to refrain from publishing the article after being told that it was inaccurate.

7. The complainants also said that the article had breached Clause 10 as the undercover journalist had employed subterfuge when speaking to Ms Kvasova in the two phone calls. Finally, they argued that the article was discriminatory towards the RDIF, Ms Kvasova and Ms Petrova in breach of Clause 12. They considered that the allegations that the RDIF employed sex workers constituted a pejorative reference to sex within the meaning of the Clause and stressed that the article did not make any distinction between the external event staff and the two permanent female RDIF employees who were present – Ms Kvasova and Ms Petrova, thereby entitling them to make a complaint.

8. The publication said that in November 2019, four months prior to the publication of the article, the publication had agreed to undertake a joint investigation with the producers of a TV programme into allegations of sexual harassment and sex work at events which took place during the World Economic Forum at Davos. According to the newspaper, two days after the RDIF’s event in January 2020, it received information from a source connected to a guest at the RDIF party who described a sexually inappropriate atmosphere at the event. Two journalists from the publication then attended an unconnected event at the same hotel where the RDIF event had taken place, in order to gather further information as they considered that staff members might also have been present at the RDIF’s party two days prior. They attended the event under their own identifies but spoke to guests and  members of staff whilst posing as employees of a private family office interested in making investments, although they said that this rarely came up in conversation. Some of the members of staff they spoke to alleged, among other things, that the hostesses at the RDIF party may have been offering sexual services and been instructed to do so. The publication said that these conversations were recorded by hidden camera and in notes taken on a journalist’s phone and that all quotes used in the article had been filmed. Following deliberations at editorial level, it was decided that Ms Kvasova, head of corporate marketing at RDIF, should be approached, and a phone call took place between an undercover journalist and Ms Kvasova on 27 February 2020, after the journalist had obtained her contact details from the hotel at which the RDIF’s event had taken place. The undercover journalist made this approach under the pretext of being involved in the organisation of a real estate event and wanting to find out more about how RDIF had organised its event. After the first phone call, the publication decided that the undercover journalist should make a second phone call to seek further information regarding the claims that the hostesses may have been acting as sex workers. The second call with Ms Kvasova took place on 6 March 2020.

9. The publication argued that under Regulation 8(a) of IPSO’s Regulations, standing to bring complaints under Clause 10 and Clause 12 is limited to natural persons who have been directly affected by the alleged breach. The publication argued that the RDIF, as a Russian government body, did not have standing to bring complaints under these Clauses.

10. In any event, the publication did not accept it had breached the Code. It emphasised that it did not adopt as fact the allegations made by anonymous sources and stressed that the article had made clear these were the comments and impressions of third parties. It also stressed that it had included the RDIF’s denials in its article, as well as the comments made by Ms Kvasova’s to the undercover journalist that the hostesses had not engaged in sex work.

11. In relation to Clause 10, the publication emphasised that the issues covered by the investigation and article, around the treatment of women at events taking place over the week of the World Economic Forum, were of significant public interest. It considered that it had received credible claims from sources at the hotel at which the RDIF event had taken place before making the approach to Ms Kvasova. Further, it said given the sensitive nature of sex work, it had reasonably considered that it would be impossible to explore RDIF’s motivations for hiring the hostesses, nor the truth of the allegations made by third parties, by approaching RDIF through official channels. It argued that the level of subterfuge used was proportionate to the public interest and that the decision to make a clandestine approach was made following extensive discussion at editorial level and with legal advisers. Finally, it said there was a public interest in publishing the information it had obtained: Ms Kvasova’s remarks reflected the attitude of RDIF towards women and the inclusion of her denial that the women had offered sexual services was integral to the accuracy of the story.

12. In relation to Clause 12, the publication stated that Ms Petrova was not identified in the article and that there was no reference to her sex within the meaning of Clause 12. It also stressed that Ms Kvasova was identified in the article as the “head of corporate marketing at RDIF” who “recruited the hostesses”. She was not therefore referred to as one of the hostesses whom sources had commented had appeared to be prepared to engage in sex work and the article could not be discriminatory towards her in the way the complainants had argued.

13. In response, with regards to Clause 10, the complainants accepted that gender equality, sexism and the treatment of women at events taking place during the week of the World Economic Forum were issues of significant public interest. However, they argued that the article did not deal with these issues of public interest and stressed that there was no public interest in publishing the information obtained through the clandestine approach.

14. During the referral period, the publication offered to make additions to the two online articles to reflect the denials contained in the witness statements provided after publication by two of the hostesses at the event.

15. The complainants did not accept this offer as they considered a correction to be the appropriate remedy.

Relevant Code Provisions

Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be correction, promptly and with due prominence, and –where appropriate– an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)*

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

*The Public Interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.

Relevant Regulations

Regulation 8

The Regulator may, but is not obliged to, consider complaints: (a) from any person who has been personally and directly affected by the alleged breach of the Editors' Code; or (b) where an alleged breach of the Editors' Code is significant and there is substantial public interest in the Regulator considering the complaint, from a representative group affected by the alleged breach; or (c) from a third party seeking to correct a significant inaccuracy of published information. In the case of third party complaints the position of the party most closely involved should be taken into account. The Regulator may reject without further investigation complaints which show no prima facie breach of the Editors' Code and/or are without justification (such as an attempt to argue a point of opinion or to lobby) and/or vexatious and/or disproportionate.

Findings of the Committee

16. The article reported on concerns about sexual harassment and sexism at events over the week of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos. It featured allegations – unconnected to the RDIF or its event –regarding the presence of “prostitutes” at Davos, and the assertion that “at least 100 sex workers travel to Davos” during the WEF. The detailed account of the RDIF party had, therefore, been included in an article which discussed the prevalence of sex workers at Davos, and the Committee considered the complaint with this in mind.

17. The Committee noted that many of the reported comments concerning the alleged conduct of the women at the RDIF event were clearly presented as subjective impressions and were not reported as unequivocal statements of fact. For example, the article reported that two members of staff at the hotel at which the event was held “thought” the women may have been offering sexual services and that they “underst[ood]” this to be the case.  The article also reported that several people “got the impression” that the women were sex workers. The article also included observations made by members of staff, which were clearly presented as such, that the women had appeared to be “very friendly” towards guests and that some of the women had left “in the company of men”. These reported impressions were balanced with the inclusion of the denial of the RDIF that the women were offering sexual services, which was repeated on a number of occasions throughout the article, and the denial of Ms Kvasova given during her conversations with the undercover journalist. While the Committee understood the complainants’ concerns, on balance it was satisfied that the presentation of the subjective impressions of third parties who had attended the event, which were clearly identified as such, coupled with the inclusion of the denials both from RDIF and Ms Kvasova, were sufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1 (i); the publication had taken care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. Given the manner in which the impressions of the third parties had been presented in the article, and that the article had not reported these as fact, there was no significant inaccuracy which required correction under Clause 1(ii).

18. The complainants first said that it was misleading to report that Ms Kvasova had admitted to the undercover reporter that the RDIF was “looking only for looks and only for ambience, nothing else” when recruiting the hostesses. It was later accepted that Ms Kvasova had said these words, as a recording of the phone call had been made, the authenticity of which was not in dispute. The complainant said, however, that the word “ambiance” had been used by Ms Kvasova because it had first been used by the undercover journalist.  Bearing this in mind, the Committee considered whether the way in which the quote had been included in the article was misleading such as to give rise to a breach of Clause 1. Newspapers are generally free to report the comments of individuals where they do so accurately and clearly attribute the comments to the person who made them. Having listened to the recording, the Committee was satisfied that Ms Kvasova’s comments had not been reported out of context; they appeared in a separate paragraph in the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The complainants had also said it was inaccurate to report that Ms Kvasova told the undercover reporter that “she had told them [the hostesses] they were there for ‘ambience’ and that if any of them did anything more than that they would have difficulty getting out of the country”. The Committee noted that it did not have a recording of the phone call in which these remarks were allegedly made, but that it did have a reporter’s note of the conversation and that the recording of the second phone call demonstrated that Ms Kvasova had said that the women were recruited to provide “ambience”. Given that Ms Kvasova had referred to “ambiance” as the reason the women were at the event in the second phone call and that the reporter’s notes evidenced that she had also said this in the first phone call, the Committee did not find a breach of Clause 1 on this point.  Whether or not she had relayed this information to the women themselves, as reported, was not a significant detail within the context of the article. With regards to the report that Ms Kvasova had told the reporter that she said “if any of them did anything more than that they would have difficulty getting out of the country”, the article did not report that this was what Ms Kvasova had actually told the hostesses; only that she had told the undercover reporter that she had said this. It was accepted that Ms Kvasova had said to the reporter that, hypothetically, behaviour such as sex work could lead to trouble with the authorities and legal difficulties. As such, to report that Ms Kvasova had said to the reporter that she had told the women engaging in such activities would have “difficulty getting out of the country” was not significantly misleading as to Ms Kvasova’s views. In light of this and the record of Ms Kvasova’s comments in the reporter’s notes, there was no breach of Clause 1 in relation to the reporting of these remarks.

20. The Committee noted the publication’s argument that Regulation 8(a) meant that the RDIF did not have standing to bring a complaint under Clause 10 and Clause 12. However, the publication accepted that the clandestine approach was made to the RDIF to explore the RDIF’s motivations for using sex workers, if this claim was true. The individual who was subject to the clandestine approach, Ms Kvasova, was acting in her professional capacity as a member of staff of the RDIF. For these reasons, the RDIF was directly affected by the alleged breach of Clause 10 and had standing to complain. In relation to Clause 12, the complainants’ concerns related to allegedly pejorative references to the protected characteristics of individuals. This part of the complaint only related to Ms Kvasova and Ms Petrova. The RDIF, as a body, did not have standing under Clause 12.

21. It was not in dispute that the undercover journalist had engaged in misrepresentation within the meaning of Clause 10 in his two phone calls to Ms Kvasova. The issue for the Committee was whether this misrepresentation, and publishing the information uncovered through it, was justified in, and proportionate to, the public interest.

22. How women are treated at events during the week of the World Economic Forum in Davos, including the availability of sex workers, allegations of sexual harassment and sexist attitudes towards women, are issues of undeniable public interest. The two undercover approaches to Ms Kvasova, about the impressions of third parties that sex workers may have been in attendance at the RDIF event, were part of an investigation that related to these matters of public interest. The two approaches were made only after concerns had been raised by a number of sources who had attended the RDIF’s event and were made in order to investigate the position. It was reasonable to expect that an open approach to the RDIF would not have been successful in obtaining information which might corroborate the comments made by the third party sources, given that hiring sex workers would be controversial. The Committee noted that the undercover approaches had not uncovered any evidence that women at the RFID party were sex workers. Nevertheless, including the information gained from these approaches in the article was reasonably part of the efforts to take care over the accuracy of the story, and showed that Ms Kvasova’s unofficial remarks to an undercover journalist tallied with the RDIF’s ‘on the record’ denial of the allegations. Further, the undercover approaches had revealed information about the role of and views towards women who had been engaged to appear at an event taking place during the week of the WEF, namely the admission that the women had been hired because of their appearance. This information, which was included in the published article, did relate to the wider issues of public interest around the treatment of women at Davos. For these reasons, the actions taken by the undercover reporter, and the decision to publish the information he gathered, was justified in the public interest. There was no breach of Clause 10.

23. The complainants had said that the article discriminated against the two permanent female RDIF employees at the event: Ms Kvasova and Ms Petrova. Ms Petrova was not identified within the article and there was no reference, pejorative or otherwise, to Ms Petrova’s sex in the article. Ms Kvasova was identified as the “head of corporate marketing” at the RDIF and it was reported that she had “recruited the hostesses” in respect of whom the third parties had made the reported comments: she was not the subject of the comments herself. The reference that the complainants had said was discriminatory, namely the comments that the women may have been prepared to engage in sex work, did not therefore apply to Ms Kvasova. There was no breach of Clause 12 on these points.

Conclusion

24. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

25. N/A

 

Date complaint received: 19/06/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 16/08/2021