Ruling

11428-22 Blanchard v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      20th April 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11428-22 Blanchard v The Times


Summary of Complaint

1. Paul Blanchard complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in two articles; the first an online article headlined “PR boss who owes taxman £300,000 is living high life” and the second headlined “'Catch Me If You Can' PR man winds up latest firm owing £150,000”. The articles were published on 4 December 2021 and 23 July 2022 respectively. 

2. The first article – headlined “PR boss who owes taxman £300,000 is living high life” – reported that “a public relations entrepreneur [the complainant] whose company owes hundreds of thousands of pounds in tax has been posting images on social media of luxury cars, dining at exclusive members’ clubs and expensive holidays”. The article said that the complainant was “winding up his company, Right Angles PR, with tax debts of £306,695”. It went on to report that, over the past year, the complainant’s social media account had “shown images of a new Mercedes 4x4, a hot tub, iPhones, visits to exclusive members’ clubs and plans for a holiday to Canada”. 

3. The article also detailed a legal dispute between the complainant and an individual who the article referred to as the complainant’s “former worker”. It stated that the complainant had “lost a claim by a former worker to pay thousands of pounds in wages owed”, had terminated the “former worker[‘s]” contract in 2020 and “refused to pay her overdue invoices as well as an agreed severance after she denied his request to sign a non-disclosure agreement”. The article also reported that the complainant had “made a series of requests for adjournments [to court hearings] because of illness that appeared to be contrary to posts he made on social media.” The complainant was reported to have “posted photographs from an exclusive members’ club” after “one request for an adjournment because of an alleged positive coronavirus test and claims of breathlessness”. The article reported that the previous month the complainant “wrote to the court to say that he could not attend due to a positive coronavirus test” but that “days later he posted a photograph of [a] member’s club, and at an event with his client.” 

4. The first article ended with comments from the complainant, who was quoted as saying he “strongly dispute[d]” owing the “former worker” any money and that he “claimed that he had lodged an appeal and had lots of evidence to support it”. 

5. The second article – “'Catch Me If You Can' PR man winds up latest firm owing £150,000” – stated that “a company founded by the public relations mogul Paul Blanchard is being liquidated owing £150,000 to creditors, while he posts photographs on social media in the Bahamas with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.” It alleged that earlier in the year while the company “was being wound up Blanchard posted a tweet, later deleted, from a beach, with the caption: ‘OK I could get used to this’”. 

6. The second article also stated that the complainant was “visited by bailiffs at home” on behalf of the same “former worker” who was referred to in the first article under complaint and to whom he had been “ordered [by the court to] pay £13,152 in wages”. The article said that “bailiffs who were sent to [the complainant’s] house to retrieve money he owed to an alleged former employee found him in his hot tub, before he ran inside his home and locked the door.” The article went on to quote from a bailiff’s report, which said: “as the agent pulled up on the driveway the debtor was outside in a hot tub, he jumped out of the tub and locked [the] doors. The agent listed the hot tub for removal to see if payment would be forthcoming, the debtor called the police who advised him they wouldn’t attend.” The article also quoted a “former corporate client” of the complainant saying “this is a real life Catch Me If You Can. What’s incredible is that his very business is founded on providing reputation management advice — yet every couple of years he’s embroiled in another horrendous scandal.” 

7. The second article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “'Catch Me If You Can' PR man Paul Blanchard winds up latest firm owing £150,000”. 

8. Before the publication of the first article, at 10:29 on 2 December 2021 the publication emailed the complainant giving an outline of the proposed content of the article and asked for a response by noon the next day. The following day the complainant sent two emails in response, totalling approximately 2000 words. In the first email, sent at 12:56, the complainant set out his position in respect of some of the allegations and requested an extension of time of a couple of days to allow him to provide evidence in support. The publication sent an email in reply at 14:29, saying it would not be extending the deadline to which the complainant then replied further detailing his position: that he denied owing the alleged “former worker” any money; that he had applied that day to have the judgment against him set aside as no evidence had been presented to the court in support of the claim; that, in relation to his requests for adjournments he could prove that he had been granted the extra time he had requested; and that he was certain the next court hearing would clear up the matter. 

9. At 18:02 on 21 July 2022, the publication sent an email to the complainant requesting his comments by 16:00 the next day in relation to allegations – which were set out – which the publication intended to include in the second article. At 16:30 the following day, the complainant replied with an email of approximately 4500 words, disputing the allegations. 

10. The complainant said the publication breached Clause (i) of the Editors’ Code because the time he was given to respond to the publication’s emails did not satisfy the terms of Clause 1 (iii), which provides that a fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for. He also said that the publication should have approached him with the bailiff report that was mentioned in the second article, because he said he would have been able to disprove the bailiff’s version of events. He also said the publication omitted to include his full comments in response to the allegations in both articles. 

11. Turning to the content of the articles themselves, the complainant said the first article breached Clause 1 because he disputed the individual described as his “former worker” had ever worked for him personally or that he owed her any money. He said no invoices had ever been submitted and that they had not entered into an agreement, which he said was acknowledged by the Judge in the transcript of the court hearing – therefore, the article was inaccurate to report that he had “refused to pay her overdue invoices as well as an agreed severance”. He also said that the court’s decision that he owed the individual money was wrong; that the Judgment had been made based on a technicality; and that he would be appealing the ruling, and for these reasons the report about the Judgment was inaccurate. 

12. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to report that he was “winding up his company, Right Angles PR, with tax debts of £306,695 […and] has paid back £26,500. It is the third time that one of his companies has been liquidated”. He said the true position was that the company had gone into members’ voluntary liquidation. He also said the article gave the inaccurate impression that he did not intend to repay his tax debt, when he had in fact begun payments and had only paused payment due to the pandemic and with the permission of the liquidator. 

13. The complainant had concerns about the reporting of the social media posts that showed him on the beach and with his well-known clients. He said it was misleading for the publication to reference his social media posts, which he said was done to create the impression he was lying about the reasons given for requesting adjournments of court hearings and that he was living the “high life” during the time his company collapsed. He said that some of the posts had been scheduled in advance, and such pictures did not depict his activities either at the time of the court hearings or the period when his previous company was being liquidated. 

14. The complainant also said it was misleading to report that he had “claimed” he would appeal the judgment. He said the use of the word “claimed” was a journalistic device used to cast doubt on his version of events. He said he was able to verify that he had appealed the judgment, but the publication had not asked him to do so. 

15. The complainant said the headline of the second article inaccurately reported that he had wound up a second company, CEO PR Ltd. He cited records from Companies House that showed his resignation as director on 31 March 2022 – three months prior to the company’s dissolution – following which he said the sole director had been in charge of the company’s affairs. He said the petition to wind up the company had been made by a third party and he had nothing to do with the process. 

16. The complainant also said the article did not accurately report on the bailiff’s visit to his home, and that it was inaccurate to report he had “jumped out of the tub and locked doors” when the bailiff had arrived. He said he was in the hot tub for medical reasons – and as such – he said he was in no position to “jump out” of the hot tub. He said that contrary to the article’s claim, he had spoken calmly with the bailiff outside his house and made no attempt to re-enter the house or lock the door. He said he had home security footage that he would have been able to provide to the publication that would prove this. 

17. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that he had posted “photographs on social media in the Bahamas with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton”. He said the correct position was that he was at the same conference as them and had taken photos of them onstage, which he had posted. He also said the article was in breach of Clause 1 because of the description of him in the headline as a “Catch Me If You Can PR man”. The complainant said the comparison was inaccurate as the main character in the film of that name was a convicted criminal, whereas he had never been found guilty of any criminal offence. He said citing the film in the headline suggested he was a “con artist” and a criminal, which he said was untrue and was not supported by the text of the article. He also said he believed the comment included in the article had been made by someone who had a “vendetta” against him, that the publication was biased against him and that the articles lacked balance and fairness. 

18. The publication did not accept that either article breached the Code. Regarding the complainant’s complaint that the publication did not give him a fair opportunity to respond before publication, the publication said it had taken care to put the allegations to the complainant before publication and to reflect his position in the articles. 

19. Turning to the alleged inaccuracies regarding the report of the court case, the publication provided the judgment of the court by which the complainant was ordered to pay the claimant the sum of £13,152.56. It also provided copy invoices which it said had been sent from the “former worker” to the complainant. It also did not accept that it was inaccurate to report that there was a contract in place between the complainant and the “former worker”. 

20. The publication said it was accurate to report that the complainant was “winding up” his company, rather than referring to the process as a Members’ Voluntary Liquidation (MVL), given that it was neither inaccurate nor unusual to refer to an MVL, like any other form of liquidation, as "winding up". 

21. The publication said it was neither inaccurate nor misleading to report on the complainant’s social media posts. The images posted showed a new Mercedes 4x4, a hot tub, iPhones, visits to exclusive members' clubs and plans for a holiday to Canada and were not themselves in dispute. Regardless of whether or not they were pre-scheduled, they still conveyed an impression of a luxurious lifestyle. It also pointed out that it was not clear how anyone could tell whether the social media posts were contemporaneous or pre-scheduled. 

22. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code regarding the complainant’s complaint that the article gave the inaccurate impression he did not intend to repay his tax debt, where there was nothing in the article that stated this was the case. 

23. Turning to the second article under complaint, the publication first addressed the complainant’s position that he was no longer a director of CEO PR Ltd when it was “wound up”. It first noted that the individual who was the sole director at the time of the company’s liquidation had only been appointed director of CEO PR Limited three months previously, prior to which appointment the complainant had been a director. It also noted that this individual was listed on Companies House as a director of 155 companies, which suggested she was a nominee. It said the complainant was also named as a Person with Significant Control of the company in records at Companies House. The publication said this meant that he held, directly or indirectly 75% or more of the shares and voting rights in the company and had the right, directly or indirectly, to appoint or remove a majority of the board of directors of the company. The publication therefore said there was nothing to indicate that the complainant’s control over the company had lessened in any way after he resigned as a director and appointed a nominee. Furthermore, it said the complainant had been the controlling shareholder and beneficial owner of the company from incorporation through to winding up and that the company’s sole business was the provision of the complainant’s professional services. The publication said that whether the company was wound up on the petition of a third party or voluntarily at the instigation of its members was not significant. For these reasons, the publication did not accept that it was misleading to report that the complainant “winds up” his firm. 

24. The publication provided a copy of the bailiff’s statement that corroborated what was reported in the article. The publication said that where the article reported on the statement, it was not obliged to seek the complainant’s version of events, and if the complainant wished to dispute the agent’s account he could do so with the bailiff or with the court. 

25. Turning to whether it was accurate to report that the complainant had posted photographs “with” Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, the publication noted that the complainant tweeted that it was “Amazing to see Tony Blair and President Bill Clinton live on stage” and illustrated his post with photographs of them from the event. While it did not consider there to be a breach of Clause 1 on this point, it said it would be happy to clarify that Mr Blair and President Clinton did not share a platform with the complainant at the event. 

26. As for the complainant’s concerns about him being described as “Catch Me If You Can PR man, the publication pointed out that the text of the article quoted a “former corporate client” of the complainant, who had said: “this is a real life Catch Me If You Can. What’s incredible is that his very business is founded on providing reputation management advice – yet every couple of years he’s embroiled in another horrendous scandal.” As such, it considered the headline to be supported by the text of the article, as there was a clear basis for the headline’s comparison. 

Relevant Clause 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 corrected, 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. 

Findings of the Committee

27. The Committee first considered the complainant’s concerns over the report of the legal proceedings mentioned in the first article, given his concern that the Judgment had been made on a technicality. The Committee emphasised that the publication was not responsible for the decisions of the court: its obligation under the terms of Clause 1 was to report what the court had decided accurately, and the publication was entitled to report on the Judgment regardless of the complainant’s own views as to whether the Court had reached the right decision. To this end, the Committee noted that it was not in dispute that the complainant had been ordered by the court to pay £13,152 to the claimant. The court had accepted that the complainant had provided professional services either to the complainant or to one of his companies on a freelance basis and heard that she had submitted invoices to the complainant for payment. The court also heard that the complainant had agreed to pay a sum to the claimant in lieu of notice when their working relationship came to an end and that the complainant had, at one point, asked the claimant to enter into a non-disclosure agreement. These claims were not challenged by the complainant who did not appear at the hearing, and provided the basis on which the Judgment was made. In these circumstances, the description of the claimant as the complainant’s “former worker” was not inaccurate; the court had accepted that there had been a working relationship between the claimant and the complainant either directly or through one of his companies. The report that he had “refused to pay [his former worker’s] overdue invoices as well as an agreed severance” was not inaccurate; the sum which the complainant was ordered to pay reflected invoices which the complaint said she had sent to the claimant, but which were unpaid, and included an element representing a payment in lieu of notice. There was no breach of Clause 1. 

28. The Committee then considered the complainant’s concern that the first article said he had “claimed” he would appeal the Judgment. While the Committee appreciated the complainant was concerned by this phrasing, it was not inaccurate in circumstances where, at the time of responding to the publication, he had indicated that was his intention. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

29. The Committee considered the complainant’s complaint that as his former company had entered a members’ voluntary liquidation, to report that he was “winding up” the company was inaccurate. Whilst the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that the article did not make clear that the liquidation had been instigated by the members of the company, publications are entitled to simplify issues for their readers and to report that the complainant was “winding up” his company was not misleading or inaccurate in circumstances where the term is generic and can include a members’ voluntary liquidation. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

30. The Committee turned to the complainant’s concerns about the article reporting on his social media posts. It was not in dispute that the posts had appeared after the complainant had been due to appear in court and over a period in which his company was experiencing financial difficulties. The publication had reported what the posts appeared to show; the car the complainant drove, the clubs he visited and the holidays he took. That the complainant was living a “high life” was the publication’s comment based on these posts. The article had also noted the timing of some of the complainant’s posts and had commented that the reason he had given for his requests for adjournments “appeared” to be contrary to the posts. Whilst the Committee understood that the complainant did not accept the inferences being drawn, there was no breach of Clause 1 where the basis for the publication’s comments had been set out in the article. 

31. The Committee turned next to the complainant’s concern that the first article gave the misleading impression he would not repay his tax debt, by reporting he was “winding up his company, Right Angles PR, with tax debts of £306,695. [The complainant] has paid back £26,500. It is the third time that one of his companies has been liquidated”. The article did not say that he was not intending to repay the balance of the debt, and it had accurately reported the sum which the complainant had repaid at the date of publication. There was no breach of the Code on this point. 

32. Turning to the second article, the Committee considered whether it was inaccurate to report that the complainant “winds up latest firm”, which the text of the article identified as CEO Ltd. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that he had already resigned as a director and that the petition to wind up the company had been presented by a creditor. However, the report was not significantly inaccurate in circumstances where he had founded the company, as reported in the article, and where he had remained a Person with Significant Control after his resignation as a director only three months previously. There was no breach of Clause 1. 

33. Regarding the report of the visit from the bailiff, the Committee understood that the complainant disputed the bailiffs’ version of events. However, where the article made clear that it was reporting on the statement made by the bailiffs following their visit, the article was not misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1. 

34. The Committee considered whether it was inaccurate or misleading for the publication to report that the complainant had posted “photographs on social media in the Bahamas with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair” in circumstances where the complainant had taken the photographs but had not appeared in them. The Committee noted that the term “with” in the sentence was ambiguous, but the photographs were mentioned in the article to demonstrate that the complainant had been in the Bahamas, and the complainant accepted that both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair had been at the same event. In these circumstances, the Committee did not find a significant factual inaccuracy on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1. 

35. While the complainant disagreed with the description of him as “Catch Me If You Can PR man”, the Committee noted that the headline was supported by a quote in the article from a former client of the complainant who had referenced the film. The Committee further noted the Code explicitly protects the right of publications to publish the views of individuals provided comment is distinguished from fact. The article had set out the comment made by the individual in which the film title had been referenced and as noted by the complainant, the article did not suggest that the complainant had committed any criminal offences. The article was not inaccurate or misleading on this point and there was no breach of Clause 1. 

36. The complainant had expressed concern that the second article quoted individuals who he said had a personal vendetta against him. However, the Code does not prevent the publication of quotes from sources who may have negative opinions or views; there was nothing to suggest the quotes were inaccurate. There was no breach of the Code on this point. 

37. The Committee then considered the complainant’s concerns he had not been given enough time to respond to the allegations which were put to him before publication of the articles and that this amounted to a breach of Clause 1(i). The Committee noted that the publication had contacted the complainant in advance of both articles setting out many of the substantive allegations. The complainant produced a very detailed reply to both pre-publication emails, which ran to thousands of words, and he was clearly able to respond extensively during the time allotted to him. His position was included in both articles. There was no breach of Clause (i). The complainant had, additionally, relied upon Clause 1(iii), but this sub-clause applies in circumstances where, post publication, significant inaccuracies have been established. That was not the case in this instance and there was no breach of Clause (iii). 

Conclusions

38. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial action required

39. N/A 

 

Date complaint received:  31/08/2022 

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  04/04/2023