Ruling

14697-23 Friel v thejc.com

    • Date complaint received

      20th July 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 14697-23 Friel v thejc.com


Summary of Complaint

1. Chris Friel complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thejc.com breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Vicar guilty of 'antisemitic activity' banned until 2030”, published on 30 January 2023.

2. The article reported on a tribunal at which an Anglican priest had been found guilty of “antisemitic activity” and subsequently “defrocked until 2030”. The article reported that the priest had been “found to have carried out ‘conduct unbecoming’ of an ordained minister after sharing a platform with a Holocaust denier and promoting antisemitic material online”.

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that, whilst Allegation C – listed in the tribunal documents amongst 11 allegations against the priest – stated that he had allegedly “[spoken] at a conference in Indonesia in May 2008 alongside [named individual], a Holocaust Denier”, the tribunal had found that the priest’s attendance and participation at the conference was not conduct unbecoming for an ordained minister. This was in contrast with what was published in the article.

4. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to report that the priest had been found guilty of “promoting” antisemitic material online. He noted that Allegation H stated that the priest had “[p]romoted the idea that Israel was behind the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 by posting a link in January 2015 to the article entitled ‘9-11/Israel did it’ that blamed Israel for the attacks”, and the priest was found guilty of conduct unbecoming in relation to this allegation. The complainant  said that, whilst Allegation H clearly referred to the priest “promoting” material online by posting a link, the tribunal’s decision in relation to Allegation H stated the priest’s “conduct was unbecoming on the grounds that he provoked and offended the Jewish community and that by posting the link on Facebook to the article, he was engaged in antisemitic activity” – it had not contained any reference to him promoting the post. The complainant said that this point was the publication’s opinion of the tribunal, and should have been distinguished as such.

5. To support his position on both of the above points, the complainant provided the tribunal’s decision, which was publicly accessible online. He also noted that both sides had provided evidence in the tribunal, and provided a witness statement from the priest.

6. In its first substantive response to the complaint, the publication accepted that it was inaccurate to report that the priest had been found guilty of “‘conduct unbecoming’ of an ordained minister after sharing a platform with a Holocaust denier” – the tribunal had in fact found that this behaviour was not conduct unbecoming. The publication offered to amend the sentence under complaint to state: “He was also found to have carried out 'conduct unbecoming' of an ordained minister after promoting antisemitic material online – although he was not found guilty of unbecoming conduct in respect of the fact that he shared a platform with a Holocaust denier”. It also offered to publish the following as a footnote to the story:

An earlier version of this story failed to make clear that the tribunal did not consider Dr Sizer’s participation at the conference was conduct unbecoming for an ordained minister. We have amended it to make this clear.

7. The publication did not, however, consider that it was inaccurate to report that the word “promoting” was inaccurate. It said that there was no significant difference between “promoting” a link or simply “posting” it. It further said that the priest had endorsed the link, it was his intention the tribunal had been ruling on, and that the tribunal had ultimately found him guilty of unbecoming conduct in relation to this allegation.

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

8. The article was a report of the tribunal, and the full tribunal decision was in the public domain. The publication accepted that it had inaccurately reported that the priest had been “found to have carried out ‘conduct unbecoming’ of an ordained minister after sharing a platform with a Holocaust denier”; while the tribunal had made a finding of “conduct unbecoming”, this did not relate to the incident cited. Where the correct information was in the public domain and the tribunal’s decision clearly set out which allegations the priest had been found guilty of, reporting the findings of the tribunal inaccurately represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article and a breach of Clause 1(i).

9. The Committee considered the inaccuracy to be significant, where it inaccurately reported on serious allegations of misconduct against a named individual. As such, the publication was required by the terms of Clause 1 (ii) to correct the significantly inaccurate information.

10. The publication had offered to amend the text of the online article to make clear that the allegation of sharing a platform with a Holocaust denier was not found to be “conduct unbecoming” by the tribunal. It also offered to publish a clarification which identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record as a footnote to the article. As the inaccuracy appeared only in the text of the article and the article was to be amended to remove the original inaccuracy, the Committee considered this to be a duly prominent position. As the correction was offered in the publication’s first substantive response to the complainant this was found to be duly prompt. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

11. The Committee then considered the complainant’s concerns that the article inaccurately reported the finding made against the priest by the reference to “promoting antisemitic material online”, as the tribunal had not found that he had promoted the material. The publication had accurately reported that the tribunal had found that the priest was guilty of “conduct unbecoming”, a direct quote from the finding made by the tribunal.  The publication had gone on to explain that this finding related to promoting antisemitic material online, being a reference to the link to material which the priest had posted on a social media account he operated.  The Committee noted that this was not in quotation marks, in contrast to the finding of the tribunal which had been directly quoted in the article; that the priest was “promoting” the material was the publication’s characterisation of the effect of posting the link online. Where the tribunal had found that posting a link to antisemitic material online was “conduct unbecoming” of the priest and the effect of doing so was to draw attention to it, the Committee did not consider that the  reference rendered the report of the finding made by the tribunal significantly inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 in relation to this point.

Conclusions

12. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial action required

13. The correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.

 

Date complaint received:  02/02/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  02/06/2023

 

Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.