Ruling

12317-15 Levi v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      5th May 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 3 Harassment, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 12317-15 Levi v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. Daniel Levi, acting on behalf of Sefton Resources Inc, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Harassment) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an online article headlined “The armed robber who rode into the Wild West”, published on 27 July 2015, and an online article headlined “New questions over armed robber’s funding”, published on 28 July 2015.

2. The 27 July article, which had been written by a freelance reporter and a staff reporter, said that the complainant, who was standing down as executive chairman of an oil company called Sefton Resources, had previously been known as David John Hopkins. It stated that the complainant, as Mr Hopkins, had been convicted of armed robbery and had “a reputation for violence and for having links to Britain’s criminal underworld”. It reported that by not disclosing his previous name and by failing to disclose an unspent conviction, the complainant had breached the rules of AIM, a sub-market of the London Stock Exchange.

3. The second article reported that the complainant had links to Mohammed Waris Ashraf, a businessman who had been convicted for drug offences in 1997, but had been cleared in 2005. The registration details for an investment website called guerillainvesting.co.uk had stated that the site was owned by Mr Ashraf “trading as Daniel Levi Associates”, the company through which the complainant had invested in three oil companies, including Sefton Resources. The article said that this contrasted with stock market information, which had referred to DLA as “a partnership between Daniel Levi and Christopher Williams”. It stated that the complainant had “tabled a rescue fundraising for Sefton”, as part of what he had called “the SaveSure Consortium”. It said that Mr Ashraf had been the owner of two dissolved companies called Savesure Management and Savesure Management and Trading, but that the complainant had said that Mr Ashraf had not funded the “Sefton rescue”; the choice of name had been “coincidental”.

4. The complainant said that before the first article was published, the freelance reporter had attempted to “extract/extort” money from Sefton Resources. He said the reporter had told the company that he was working with a “private investigator”, and that he had sought payment for “investigative services”. He said the reporter and his partner were not “registered private investigators”; they had used subterfuge to request confidential information about him. The omission of the fact that the journalist had attempted to extract money from the company had rendered the article misleading. He also provided an email from the freelance reporter to Sefton Resources’ Financial Consultant, dated 21 August 2015, in which he appeared to ask for assistance in “exposing” the complainant further.

5. The complainant also contended that the staff reporter had called Mr Ashraf four times, and had pretended to be a potential buyer for guerillainvesting.co.uk; he provided a statement from Mr Ashraf to that effect.

6. The complainant said that his relationship with Mr Ashraf was not a secret and so the use of subterfuge was not justified. He explained that Mr Ashraf owned guerillainvesting.co.uk, and he had a partnership agreement with him to blog on the site. It was not the case that this relationship should have been declared. He considered that the newspaper had no evidence to support its suggestion of criminal activity. He said Mr Ashraf had amended the website’s registration details because he was concerned about harassment from the newspaper.

7. The complainant also claimed that the journalists had contacted his broker alleging that his passport was fake and that he had been “laundering money”; both reporters had made false allegations to various legal authorities, including the American consulate alleging that his entry to the USA had been illegal; and his ex-partner had received a number of anonymous phone calls at night, including one in which the staff journalist had pretended to be a friend. He said this conduct constituted harassment. In addition, he said that the journalists had obtained private, confidential information about him, including copies of his passport, VAT registration documents, National Insurance Number, and his ex-partner’s contact details.

8. The complainant provided emails sent between the reporters in January 2016, following his complaint to IPSO, in which they appeared to discuss the complaint, the proposition to Sefton Resources, and a potential follow-up piece. He argued that the tone of the emails demonstrated that the journalists had a vendetta against him.

9. The newspaper said that it had been unaware of the freelance journalist’s investigation into the complainant’s criminal background until 19 July 2015 when the reporter contacted its Business Editor. The staff reporter subsequently became involved in checking the information provided by the freelancer in preparation for an article.

10. The newspaper provided the business proposal that the freelance journalist had made to Sefton Resources on 1 July 2015. In the proposal, the journalist explained that he and a partner were creating a consultancy specialising in “background checks and person-focused due diligence for AIM-listed companies”. He said that his previous efforts had allowed him to “publish numerous articles on ShareProphets, as well as sell one story to The Times”. He proposed to produce a report on the background of “Daniel Levi, formally known as David John Hopkins”, which would verify the information that he had supplied on his CV and questionnaire that had been submitted to the nominated company advisor. He said that to do this, he required a copy of the complainant’s CV and the questionnaire. The newspaper considered that it was “ludicrous to categorise this as an attempt at extortion or blackmail”: the company had not accepted the offer, and the freelance reporter had continued his investigations independently.

11. The newspaper said that the freelancer had obtained his information on the complainant using publicly available sources. The staff reporter had also checked the information using public sources, and by speaking to people who were involved with the complainant and his business activities.

12. The newspaper accepted that it had used subterfuge in order to verify that Mr Ashraf was a “secret backer” of the complainant: the staff reporter had called Mr Ashraf and had introduced himself as someone who was interested in buying guerillainvesting.co.uk. The decision had been taken by a senior editor, with advice from the legal department.

13. The reporter had learned that the complainant had invested in Sefton Resources through DLA, which had been described in Stock Market announcements as “a partnership between Daniel Levi and Christopher Williams”. The reporter checked the domain registration details for the website and found that it was described as being owned by Mr Ashraf “trading as Daniel Levi Associates”. This relationship was not acknowledged on the website and the reporter could find no reference to it anywhere else. The newspaper did not consider that the domain registry information was sufficiently reliable to justify an accusation of a secret relationship between Mr Ashraf and the complainant. It noted that the registry information was changed on 27 July, the day before the second article was published.

14. The newspaper said that if a reporter had telephoned Mr Ashraf and had identified themselves as a journalist it was highly unlikely that Mr Ashraf would have answered honestly. The newspaper also believed that as Mr Ashraf had served several years in prison for a conviction that was later quashed, it was unlikely that he would be open and cooperative with a reporter asking questions about his relationship with a convicted bank robber.

15. It considered that there was a clear public interest in exposing the complainant’s past so that potential investors and others considering doing business with him would be fully informed about it. It argued that there was also a public interest in disclosing Mr Ashraf’s secret link to the complainant and DLA. The connection raised questions about whether the complainant had been honest with Sefton Resources and investors when he had described DLA as a partnership between himself and Christopher Williams. The newspaper also considered that the level of subterfuge used was proportionate to the public interest it had identified: it had involved a brief phone call.

16. The newspaper said that the freelance reporter had been sent a photocopy of the complainant’s passport by a source; it denied having any of the other documents alleged by the complainant. It also denied that its reporters had called the complainant’s ex-partner, and that they had made false allegations to legal authorities, the complainant’s broker or to an American consulate.

17. The newspaper said the conduct of its reporters had not amounted to harassment; their enquiries had been entirely proper. It also noted that the emails that the complainant claimed had been exchanged between the reporters in January 2016 had been doctored: they appeared to have been sent from the freelancer’s email address, but they had not. The staff reporter had replied to one email, which appeared to have been sent from the freelancer’s email account, but he had become suspicious when he received the reply.

Relevant Code provisions

18. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

     i.   i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

    ii.  ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.

   iii.   iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 3 (Privacy)

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

Clause 4 (Harassment)

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

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 private 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.

The public interest

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

i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety.

ii) Protecting public health and safety.

iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

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

3. Whenever the public interest is invoked, the Regulator will require editors to demonstrate fully that they reasonably believed that publication, or journalistic activity undertaken with a view to publication, would be in the public interest and how, and with whom, that was established at the time.

Findings of the Committee

19. It was accepted that before the first article was published, the freelance reporter had approached Sefton Resources offering to carry out an investigation into the complainant’s background. In the business proposal, the reporter had given his own name and had been open about his role as a journalist: he had said he had previously published articles about AIM-listed companies, and had supplied an article to the newspaper under complaint. The reporter had not engaged in misrepresentation or subterfuge. There was no breach of Clause 10 on this point.

20. Sefton Resources had rejected the reporter’s business offer, and had not supplied him with information about the complainant. Given the nature of his approach, the reporter was not prohibited under the terms of the Code from continuing his investigation independently for an eventual article. The newspaper was not obliged to mention the proposal in its coverage of the story; the omission of the information was not misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. It was not in dispute that the domain registration details for guerillainvesting.co.uk had said that the site had been owned by Mr Ashraf “trading as Daniel Levi Associates”, while stock market announcements had referred to DLA as “a partnership between Daniel Levi and Christopher Williams”. The newspaper had been entitled to highlight in its report that the website’s registration details appeared to contrast with information given to shareholders and potential investors in DLA. The article had included the complainant’s statement that Mr Ashraf had not funded the “Sefton rescue”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1.

22. The newspaper had accepted that it had engaged in subterfuge in order to verify the registration details for guerillainvesting.co.uk with Mr Ashraf. To comply with the Code, the newspaper had to demonstrate that it had genuine reason to believe that subterfuge would uncover material that was in the public interest, and that the level of subterfuge employed was proportionate to the public interest the newspaper had identified. 

23. The newspaper had detected potentially conflicting information about the sources of DLA’s funding. There was a clear public interest in investigating whether shareholders and potential investors had been given misleading information. The subterfuge had involved one telephone call in which the reporter had claimed to be a potential buyer for the website. There was no suggestion that he had presented an involved backstory, and he had not met with Mr Ashraf face to face. The Committee considered that this level of subterfuge was minimal and proportionate to the public interest identified. It was reasonable for the newspaper to conclude that it could not have verified the connection between Mr Ashraf and Daniel Levis Associates by open means. The newspaper had justified its methods. There was no breach of Clause 10. 

24. There was no evidence to suggest that the newspaper had obtained confidential documents, which had contained private information about the complainant. If the newspaper had been passed such documents, it had not relied on them for the articles under complaint. The newspaper had based the articles on publicly available sources, and had made journalistic enquiries as previously described. The complainant’s criminal record and previous name were matters of public record, and the newspaper had detected potentially conflicting information in public records relating to the complainant’s funding declarations. The newspaper had not disclosed private information about the complainant in breach of Clause 3.  

25. The complainant had contended that the reporters’ conduct had amounted to harassment. The newspaper and the complainant had provided differing accounts, which the Committee could not reconcile. However, the reporters had been entitled to carry out their inquiries into the complainant and his background, as long as they did so in accordance with the requirements of the Editors’ Code of Practice. There was no evidence that they had persisted with questioning the complainant once asked to desist. The complaint under Clause 4 was not upheld.    

Conclusions 

26The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 30 December 2015

Date complaint concluded: 18 April 2016