Ruling

14311-16 Coulter v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      22nd June 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 14311-16 Coulter v The Times

1. Jonathan Coulter complained on behalf of the Palestinian Return Centre, in addition to 20 other complainants, that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Jews blamed for Holocaust at ‘shameful’ House of Lords event", published on 27 October 2016, and in an article headlined “Tonge's obnoxious ideas on Jews set a terrible example”, published on 28 October 2016.

2. The 27 October article reported that Baroness Tonge had launched a campaign for Britain to apologise on the hundredth anniversary of the ‘Balfour Declaration’, which it said pledged support for a home for the Jewish people in Palestine, at an event at the House of Lords. The article claimed that at the event, “an audience member was applauded after suggesting that Hitler only decided to kill all the Jews after he was provoked by anti-German protests led by a rabbi in Manhattan.” The article quoted from this individual’s remarks at length. It reported he had claimed that in 1905, the rabbi had said that there were “six million bleeding and suffering reasons to justify Zionism”, and “urged the audience to note the number”. The article said that this quotation was regularly used by Holocaust deniers. It also reported that this audience member had compared Israel to Islamic State. The article reported that a spokesperson for the Israeli embassy described the event as “a shameful event, which gave voice to racist tropes against Jews and Israelis alike”.

3. The 27 October article also reported that another audience member had suggested that “the ‘Zionist movement’ had power over the British parliament comparable to the power which was once believed to have been wielded internationally by Jews”. It reported that another audience member had said that “if anybody is anti-semitic, it’s Israelis themselves.” The article claimed that Baroness Tonge made no attempt to challenge the provocative comments.

4. The 28 October article was published in the newspaper’s ‘Thunderer’ column, and was a comment piece, critical of Baroness Tonge. It referred to the House of Lords event, and opened with the statement: “The thing that got me was the bright-faced young people sitting behind her at the meeting in the House of Lords”. It claimed that the PRC was “an organisation that wants there to be no Israel at all”. The article referred to the audience member claiming that the Jews had “antagonised” Hitler, and said that “in a parallel universe Lady Tonge was horrified. The speaker was barely a sentence into his tirade when she interrupted him…In the real world, she didn’t. She respectfully let him finish and then tacked her own opinion about the need for a boycott of Israel on to the end of his speech. The young people must have believed that the Jew-blamer’s views were perfectly respectable”.

5. The complainant said that he had attended the meeting, along with the 20 other complainants. He said that the articles reported inaccurately on the PRC’s event. He said the articles failed to report on the invited speakers, and gave prominence to the comments of the Israeli embassy. He said that the audience member who made the comments about the Rabbi provoking Hitler spoke at a speed such that he was virtually unintelligible, although he accepted it was possible to hear snippets.  The complainant denied that this individual was applauded. The complainant said that Baroness Tonge did not challenge other comments made at the meeting because she lacked a base of evidence from which to challenge them. He said that there was a mass of evidence to support the comment about Zionist power over Parliament.

6. The complainant said it was inaccurate for the 28 October article to refer to the PRC as an “organisation that wants there to be no Israel at all”. He accepted that the PRC sought to achieve a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, but denied that this was the same as denying Israel’s right to exist. The complainant said that the columnist’s criticism of Baroness Tonge was inaccurate, as neither she nor the other attendees could follow what the audience member in question was saying.

7. In relation to the 27 October article, the newspaper said that its reporter watched a video of the event prior to publication. It said that the audience member the article claimed was applauded had been interrupted by Baroness Tonge, who took up his mention of boycotts to remind the audience to support the ‘Boycott Divestment and Sanction” campaign against Israel. The audience then applauded, which was the first opportunity they had after the audience member’s comments. The newspaper said that the audience member was audible in the video, and that Baroness Tonge had picked up on, and referred approvingly to the audience member’s mention of a boycott. It noted that another attendee had written about the event on a blog, which suggested he had no difficulty in understanding what was said.

8. The newspaper said that a number of other anti-semitic remarks at the event were applauded, which suggested that the audience would have applauded the audience member in question directly, had they had the opportunity. Amongst others, the newspaper referred to the applause given to the audience member who said that the Zionist movement exercised the same power over Parliament as the “world Jewry was believed to have enjoyed a century ago”. It said that in these circumstances, it was not significantly misleading to report that the audience member who made comments about Hitler was applauded. Nevertheless, in its first response to IPSO’s investigation of the complaint, the newspaper offered to publish a clarification in relation to the applause following Baroness Tonge’s interruption of the audience member. It subsequently offered to amend the online article on this point, and to publish the following clarification as a footnote, and in its corrections and clarifications column in the print edition of the newspaper:

In reporting a meeting hosted by Baroness Tonge we said that "An audience member was applauded after suggesting that Hitler only decided to kill all the Jews after he was provoked by anti-German protests led by a rabbi in Manhattan" (Jews blamed for Holocaust at 'shameful' House of Lords event, News, October 27). We have been asked to make clear that the applause came only after Baroness Tonge had interrupted the speaker to thank him for introducing the word "boycott" into the discussion. Baroness Tonge has stated that she “acted correctly to move swiftly on and not draw further attention to what seemed ... to be a rather crazed individual.”  We are happy to put this on record.

9. In relation to the 28 October article, the newspaper said that one of the goals of the PRC was to ensure the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to their pre-foundation homes. It said that such a right would be granted to approximately 5.4million registered Palestinian refugees. It said that Israel has a population of roughly 8.5 million, of which approximately 75% are Jews. With the addition of 5.4 million returning refugees to the roughly 1.8 million Arab Israelis, Israel would no longer be a Jewish majority state. It said that it in these circumstances, Israel would no longer be recognisable as the country founded as a homeland for Jews.

10. The complainant said that the other audience member’s comments about the Zionist movement’s power over Parliament were not anti-semitic, but were a comment on Zionism. He rejected the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification, which he said did not address the articles’ misleading omission of the comments of the invited speakers.

Relevant Code provisions

11. 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

12. The video of the event showed an audience member claiming that a boycott on Germany in the 1930s had “antagonised” Hitler, with the result that he wanted to systematically kill Jews. During his comments, the audience member was interrupted by Baroness Tonge, who said: “Thank you very much. I think it’s very important that the word ‘boycott’ has come up, because ‘BDS’, the campaign to boycott Israeli goods and services and for divestment from Israel, a lot of us think—most of us think—that it’s very, very important indeed.” The audience then applauded.

13. The Committee noted that the reporter had watched the video of the event, prior to publication.  In the Committee’s view, it was clear from this video that the audience was applauding Baroness Tonge’s further comments about the BDS campaign, which did not reflect the remarks of the audience member in question. In these circumstances, to report that the audience member had been applauded after his remarks represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, in breach of Clause 1 (i).

14. The 27 October article contained criticisms of the event on the basis that it was anti-semitic. In that context, the claim that audience member had been applauded after his comments was a significant inaccuracy, such as to require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The newspaper offered to publish a correction to this claim which identified the inaccuracy, and set out the correct position, and the Committee was satisfied that the newspaper’s offer of correction was sufficiently prompt. The article under complaint was published on the second page of the newspaper, and on its website. The newspaper had offered to publish the correction in its established corrections and clarifications column on its letters page, and to amend the online article and to add the correction as a footnote. Having regard for the nature and prominence of the inaccuracy, the Committee considered that this represented due prominence under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

15. The 27 October article did not suggest that the comments reported were the only comments that had been made at the meeting. The newspaper was not required to report a balanced account of the comments made at the meeting. To report certain comments made by audience members, and to omit the outcome of the meeting was not significantly misleading.

16. The 28 October article was clearly presented as an opinion piece. The columnist commented on two previous incidents where Baroness Tonge had been subject to criticism for her views on Israel. He then claimed that “this week, in the Lords, there she was chairing an event for an organisation that wants there to be no Israel at all”. ”. This was a significant claim about the PRC, denied by the complainant. However, the column was concerned with Baroness Tonge, and was not a detailed examination of the aims and objectives of the PRC. In response to the complaint, the newspaper explained its position that granting the right to return for Palestinian refugees would threaten Israel’s status as a Jewish majority state. This was not disputed by the complainant. The newspaper explained its position that Israel was founded as a homeland for the Jews; in circumstances where it was no longer a Jewish majority state, it would no longer be recognisably Israel. The claim was clearly presented as the columnist’s opinion, and this aspect of the article was not significantly misleading.

17. The complainant also raised concern that the articles contained inaccuracies in relation to Baroness Tonge’s conduct at the event. The Committee considered that the complainant was a third party in relation claims about Baroness Tonge’s conduct at the meeting. Having considered the position of the party most closely involved, Baroness Tonge, it declined to consider these aspects of the complaint further. However, having watched the video of the event, the Committee considered it was not misleading to report that the audience member who had commented on the Rabbi antagonising Hitler was not challenged.

Conclusion

18. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action

19. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1 (i), the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee considered that the breach of Clause 1 had been appropriately remedied by the offer to amend the online article, and to publish a correction in print, and as a footnote to the online article.  In light of the Committee’s decision, they should now be published.

Date complaint received: 03/12/2016
Date complaint concluded: 19/04/2017