Ruling

11834-22 Phillips v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      9th March 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 11834-22 Phillips v The Sun

Summary of Complaint

1. Graham Phillips complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “BRIT YOUTUBER 'WAR CRIMINAL'”, published on 26 September 2022.

2. The article reported that the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Team were “investigating a pro-Putin Brit who taunted Ukraine PoWs [named individual] and [named individual] in videos following their capture”. The sub-headline of the article stated that the police were “prob[ing]” a man — the complainant, Graham Phillips — for “filming POWs” [prisoners of war]. The article stated that the complainant had uploaded a video of himself “interrogat[ing]” the first named prisoner online, which “MPs said… breached the Geneva Convention which bars filming designed to “humiliate” PoWs”. The article went on to include the first prisoner’s description of his interaction with Mr Phillips: he said that “[h]e was complicit in my torture. He’s a war criminal, scum. I want him prosecuted”. The article concluded with a comment from the Metropolitan Police, who said: “We continue to engage with the Ukrainian community in the UK to identify potential witnesses and victims”.

3. The article also appeared online on 25 September 2022, under the headline “Police investigate pro-Putin Brit who taunted Ukraine PoWs in videos following their capture” in substantially the same form. The online version of the article included further content: it stated that “[Police] are investigating a pro-Putin Brit who taunted Ukraine PoWs [named individual] and [named individual] in videos following their capture". A photograph of Mr Phillips and the first prisoner was also included in the article, and was captioned "Pro-Putin Graham Phillips, right, taunted Ukrainian Prisoners of War". The online article also included a video of the first prisoner discussing his experience with the newspaper. In the video the prisoner could be heard describing the complainant as “scum”.

4. The complainant said that the article inaccurately claimed that he had “taunted” the two named prisoners, in breach of Clause 1. He said that he is an independent journalist and had conducted an interview with the first prisoner at his request.  He did not believe that his behaviour could be accurately described as “taunting”; however, he did acknowledge that this was a subjective claim. In addition, he said that he had never met or communicated with the second prisoner and there had, therefore, been no interaction at all. Therefore, he said, he could not have “taunted” him.

5. The complainant further said that it was inaccurate to claim that he was being “investigated” and “probed” by the police. He said that the statement from the police, included in the article, was a standard ‘press line’ and did not amount to confirmation that he was being investigated. He said that, in fact, the police had confirmed that they do not comment on individual cases. He added that he had since been in contact with the police himself, who made no mention of an investigation and did not ask him any questions.

6. He also said that the article was in breach of Clause 1 to report that one of the prisoners had said “[h]e’s a war criminal, scum”. The complainant noted that in the video included in the online article, the prisoner had described the complainant as “scum” when asked what he thought of him, but he had not described him as “war criminal, scum”. The complainant said that the reference gave the impression that he was a war criminal when he had neither faced any such charges nor been convicted of war crimes by an international court and, therefore, the description of him in the article as a “war criminal” was inaccurate. The complainant said that this was a serious accusation, which was not based on any authoritative source. He further noted that the publication could have contacted him for clarification prior to the article’s publication – he had communicated with it in the past – but it had chosen not to do so, leading to the publication of inaccurate information.

7. On 28 September 2022 (which was prior to his complaint to IPSO), the complainant complained directly to the publication with his concerns about the article. Upon receiving this complaint, the publication removed the online article’s reference to the second prisoner, as well as the article’s references to the complainant having interviewed multiple prisoners.

8. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the second prisoner had told its reporter that the complainant had “’taunted’” him, while acknowledging the interviewer’s face had been obscured. The publication provided an explanation from the second prisoner: “In my first encounter with this guy, the interrogation guy mentioned Graham Phillips to his colleague in conversation after the [interviewer] had left the room and while I was hooded. To my knowledge I was under the impression it was [the complainant] who talked to me as additionally [the first prisoner] had told me at a later date he had been interviewed by him”. Further, the publication said that it did not consider whether the complainant had “taunted” one or two prisoners was significant. It noted that, upon receiving a direct complaint from the complainant, it removed the online article’s reference to the second prisoner, as well as the article’s references to multiple prisoners having been interviewed by the complainant.

9. The publication added that the description of the complainant having “taunted” the first prisoner was a subjective one, and it was entitled to characterise the complainant’s behaviour as such; therefore, this did not amount to an inaccuracy. During IPSO’s investigation, the publication said that it had been in contact again with the second prisoner and that he had said that he may have inadvertently misled the publication: he had learnt in October 2022 – after the article’s publication – that it was another individual, and not the complainant, who had interviewed him.

10. The publication said that, given the account first given by the second prisoner, it was content that it had taken care over the accuracy of the claim that the complainant had interviewed two prisoners. The publication also maintained that this did not amount to a significant inaccuracy. However, given that the second prisoner had since learnt he was not interviewed by the complainant, the publication offered to publish the following correction in its established Corrections and Clarifications column:

A 26 Sept article stated that Graham Phillips posted video of himself interviewing and taunting [prisoner one] and [prisoner two] UK nationals held prisoner by Russia after being captured fighting with Ukrainian forces. Although [prisoner two] originally believed it was Mr Phillips who talked to him, he subsequently discovered that it was a different individual, and video of the interview was not posted by Mr Phillips. We are happy to clarify.

The publication also offered to publish the following correction as a footnote on the online article:

This article, now amended, originally stated that Graham Phillips posted video of himself interviewing and taunting [prisoner two]- another UK national held prisoner by Russia after being captured fighting with Ukrainian forces - as well as [prisoner one]. Although [prisoner two] originally believed it was Mr Phillips who talked to him, he subsequently discovered that it was a different individual, and video of the interview was not posted by Mr Phillips.

11. In relation to the alleged Metropolitan Police “investigation”, the publication said that the complainant was not able to know beyond doubt that the police were not formally investigating him. The police would not typically inform an individual in advance that they are being investigated. It said that the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Team of the Counter Terrorism Command had removed the first prisoner from his interview with the publication’s reporter in order to speak with him. The publication provided the prisoner’s account of his interaction with the police at that time: "I spoke with SO15 [the war crimes team of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command] about Phillips and his interview and they did ask me questions about him as well as me passing this information along to the war crimes team, who are investigating him as well for possible breaches of the Geneva Convention." The publication further said that it had contacted the police who did not deny that an investigation into the complainant was being undertaken, and it considered that this, taken with the prisoner’s account of his interview with the police, could only be understood as confirmation of an investigation. It supplied a copy of the statement from the Metropolitan Police, which said: “We would not comment about with whom our War Crimes Team may or may not be speaking”.

12. The publication said that, in its interview with the first prisoner the reporter had asked the prisoner if he believed the complainant was a war criminal, and he replied: “Yes, he knew 100 per cent what he was doing”. The publication added that the complainant had also described the complainant as “scum” when asked what he thought of him now that he was home. The publication provided two audio clips, where these comments could be heard. It added that the man was entitled to this view and this was accurately reported in the article. Further, the publication highlighted that the words “war criminal” appeared in inverted commas in both the print and online versions of the article, which it said clearly denoted this was the description of the complainant attributed to the prisoner in the article.

 

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

13. The Committee first considered the complainant’s concerns in relation to the claim that he had been filmed interviewing two Ukrainian prisoners of war rather than one. It was not in dispute that the complainant had interviewed the first prisoner; however, the complainant said that he had never met the second prisoner. The publication had provided comments from the second prisoner, who had said that he “was under the impression it was Phillips who talked to [him]”. Although the complainant had been identified by the two prisoners as the interviewer, the publication was aware that, in the case of the second prisoner, the face of the interviewer had been obscured. In such circumstances, the Committee considered additional steps should have been taken to verify the identity of the interviewer. Alternatively, the article should have made clear that the identity of the interviewer was speculation on the part of the second prisoner and potentially sought to include the complainant’s own position. The article had claimed as fact that the complainant had interviewed two individuals, and that there were videos of both interactions. Where the publication had claimed this as fact, and where the identity of the interviewer in the second case had not been verified nor had the article made clear this was speculation, there was a failure to take sufficient care over the accuracy of this claim. This raised a breach of Clause 1(i) of the Code.

14. The Committee considered that the difference between the complainant interviewing two prisoners on video as opposed to one was significant given that it suggested that the complainant had conducted multiple interviews of prisoners of war in a manner for which the complainant was being severely criticised. Therefore, the newspaper was obliged, in accordance with the terms of Clause 1(ii), to correct this information promptly and with due prominence.

15. The Committee then turned to the question of whether the action undertaken by the publication was sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). Upon receipt of a direct complaint from the complainant and prior to the complaint being made to IPSO, the publication had removed mention of the second prisoner and references to the complainant having interviewed multiple prisoners from the online article. Further, during the IPSO process, the publication offered to publish a correction in its established Corrections and Clarifications column and as a footnote to the online article. The Committee considered that the proposed corrections identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record, which was that the complainant had only been filmed interviewing one prisoner of war rather than two. It also considered that the corrections had been offered promptly; the publication had offered them during the early stages of IPSO’s investigation after it became aware that the second prisoner had been incorrect about the identity of his interviewer. In addition, the online article had been amended within a day of the complaint being made direct to the publication, prior to the commencement of IPSO’s investigation

16. Turning to the prominence of the proposed corrections, the Committee was satisfied that the print correction was duly prominent given that it would be published in the newspaper’s dedicated Corrections and Clarifications column and the claim had appeared in the body of the article, rather than in the headline. However, the Committee noted that prior to amendment, the inaccuracy had appeared in the headline to the online article, and it did not consider that publication of a correction as a footnote to the article was duly prominent in the circumstances. As such, there was a further breach of Clause 1 (ii) in respect of the online correction.

17. The publication had said that, while its reporter was speaking with the first prisoner, the prisoner was removed by the Metropolitan Police. It provided a quote from that prisoner, who said that the police were investigating the complainant and had asked him questions about the complainant and the interview which had taken place whilst he was being held in captivity. The Committee did not consider that this account provided a sufficient basis to report, as fact, that the police were “investigating” the complainant. While the publication had contacted the police before publication, the police had neither confirmed nor denied that there was an investigation into the complainant. In these circumstances, the publication had not taken care over the accuracy of this reported claim, and there was a breach of Clause 1(i).

18. Given the nature of the criticism of the complainant made in the article, the Committee considered that reporting as fact that the police were investigating his conduct was significantly misleading and required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). The publication had not offered to publish any corrective action on this point, and so there was a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

19. The Committee next considered the use of the word “taunted” in relation to the complainant’s interview with the first prisoner. The Committee noted that “taunted” was the publication’s characterisation of the interaction and the basis for this was made clear in the article. While the Committee noted the complainant disagreed with this characterisation, it was distinguished as comment and as such there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. Finally, the Committee then turned to the complainant’s concerns regarding the following quote, which was attributed in the article to the first prisoner: “He’s a war criminal, scum”. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that the prisoner did not expressly describe him in such terms. However, in one of the audio clips provided by the publication, the reporter could be heard asking the prisoner whether he considered the complainant to be a war criminal; he answered: “Yes, He knew 100 per cent what he was doing”. In another audio clip, and in the video included in the article, the prisoner described the complainant as “scum”. The Committee also noted that the description “war criminal” appeared in the article in quotation marks, or inverted commas, indicating that it was the opinion of someone, rather than being a statement of fact. Where the prisoner had agreed when asked if he considered the complainant to be a war criminal, it was not inaccurate or misleading to quote the prisoner as having described him in such terms and this was clearly distinguished as comment. In these circumstances, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

 

Conclusion(s)

21. The complaint was partly upheld.

 

Remedial action required

22. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

23. In relation to the claim that the complainant had interviewed two Ukraine prisoners “in videos following their capture”, the Committee found that the publication was unable to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of this claim, as required by Clause 1(i). The Committee considered there to be a significant difference between the complainant having interviewed two prisoners on video as opposed to one, and therefore found there to be a significant inaccuracy requiring correction. The Committee considered that the corrections offered by the publication identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record and were also offered promptly. The print correction, once published, would appear with due prominence and should now be published.

24. However, the Committee did not consider that the publication of a footnote correction to the online article would satisfy the requirement for due prominence, and there was a further breach of Clause 1(ii) arising from the proposed placement of the online correction. The Committee decided that in the circumstances, the appropriate remedy was the publication of the proposed correction as a standalone correction; a link to the correction should also be published on the homepage for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way. In addition, the correction should also be added to the article as a footnote as proposed by the publication. The wording of this correction should state that it was published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position of this correction should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

25. The Committee next turned to the remedial action regarding the claim that the complainant was being “investigated” by the police. The Committee considered that the publication had not taken the necessary care when reporting that the complainant was being “investigated” by the police, where the police had not confirmed the existence of any such investigation and the complainant disputed that any investigation was ongoing. The references to an “investigation” or “prob[e]” appeared in the body of the print article and in the headline, sub-headline, and body of the online article. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. It should appear in the dedicated Corrections and Clarification column in print and as a standalone correction online given that the claim appeared in the online headline. A link to the online correction should also be published on the homepage for 24 hours before archived in the usual way. In addition, if the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, a correction should be added to the article and published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, this correction should be published as a footnote. The correction should make clear that the police had not confirmed whether there was an investigation ongoing, and that it was the complainant’s position that he was not under investigation. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

 

 

Date complaint received:  05/10/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  23/02/2023