Ruling

17342-23 Marsh v Daily Mirror

    • Date complaint received

      28th September 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 17342-23 Marsh v Daily Mirror

Summary of Complaint

1.   Ceri Marsh complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mirror breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Charity faces claims of bad governance”, published on 11 February 2023.

2.   The article was published on page ten of the newspaper. It reported on a charity – the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA) – for victims of Britain’s Cold War radiation experiments, and in particular the “claims of financial irregularities and rule-breaking” it was facing. The article referred to the ex-CEO of the charity, the complainant, and stated she had been “fired […] for gross misconduct” and that an internal investigation had “found evidence of 32 misdemeanours, including her blocking trustees from using the bank account”. The article included the complainant’s denial of “all the allegations”. The article directed readers to the publication’s website for the “full details”.

3.   The article also appeared online, in substantially the same format under the headline “Veterans' charity boss fired for gross misconduct as questions asked about financial irregularities”. The online version of the article went into further detail about the allegations against the charity and the complainant. It stated that there were “allegations that an ex-trustee's details were used to log in to the charity's bank account, which caused an ‘online security breach’ and access was suspended” and that the complainant had told the newspaper “she reported the security breach to the bank, [and] made herself the primary user of the account only while trying to add other trustees to it”. The article stated that employees, like the complainant, “would not ordinarily have access to organisational bank accounts”. The online article included further detail about the charity’s finances, including that, “for the year ending in September 2020, the charity had an income of £146,000, much of it from Covid loans”. The article also quoted a “BNTVA source” who said the charity had “no money” and “outstanding bills we weren’t aware of”.

4.   The online article also stated that “at the turn of the year, the trustees claim an attempt was made to ‘fire’ one of them for ‘wrongful behaviour’". It reported that other trustees “resisted”, suspended the complainant and began an investigation, but that the complainant had claimed the chairman fired all the trustees “but they ‘overthrew the board’".

5.   The online article then referred to a “a two-year legal fight” between the charity under the complainant’s leadership and a nuclear veteran regarding “the return of papers [the charity] believes to be its archive”. The article reported that the cost of the legal case was “expected to exceed £37,000, with payments totalling £17,290 already made to lawyers”. The article also said that the complainant had been “paid £2,538.37” and had “claimed a further £8,044.30 as expenses” in 2022. It also reported that the complainant had “confirmed to the Mirror that [the payments] were all salary, and that she receives Universal Credit”.

6.   The online article referred to a campaign ran by the publication for a medal for test veterans. The article said the complainant “had previously refused to support” the campaign and had “ended” the charity’s co-operation with the publication in its campaign. It also said the complainant “signed a letter on behalf of the charity to Boris Johnson, saying it did ‘not believe it is appropriate to lobby the government to intervene’ over a medal for nuclear veterans while it was under consideration by a Whitehall committee”. The article also reported that veterans had attempted to contact the charity about the medal, items they had bought from the charity and not received, and official coffin drapes for veteran’s funerals but found they were “ignored”. It further reported that family members had been “blocked” by the complainant from the charity’s social media accounts.

7.   The online article also referred to a conference ran by the charity, which the article reported was attended by “around a dozen attendees” and that it left the charity “facing a bill of thousands for unused hotel rooms”. The online article reported that the complainant became “chairman” of the charity in 2020, “with her husband […] as treasurer”. It described her as being 49-years-old and “of Brecon”. It also stated that the “Charity Commission offered advice to the BNTVA last year after a series of complaints” but had told the publication “at the time there were no major concerns”.

8.   The complainant said that the article included several instances of inaccurate, misleading, and distorted information, in breach of Clause 1. The complainant first said it was inaccurate for the article to refer to her blocking trustees from using the bank account, as she said only the bank could do this. She said the online version of the article also included a further inaccuracy on this point as she had been the individual who raised allegations that one of the ex-trustee’s login was used wrongly, and had informed the trustees and bank of this. She also said she was made the primary user as she was the only person on the mandate at that time; this was not improper, and she had not “made herself” the primary user. The complainant further said it was inaccurate to report that employees would not ordinarily have access to the bank account – she said it was perfectly normal.

9.   She also said that the online article was inaccurate as the charity did not have an income of £146,000, but of £95,348. The complainant also said the quote from the “BNTVA source” about the charity’s finances was inaccurate, as she told the trustees of the bills and outstanding spending by the curator – there were no “outstanding bills” that the charity wasn’t aware of, as the source claimed. The complainant also said it was misleading for the newspaper to state she had claimed £8,044.30 as expenses. She said that this sum was actually her salary, which had been labelled as expenses without her knowledge.

10. The complainant has said it was not a “claim”, as suggested in the online version of the article, that an attempt was made to fire the trustees. She said that four were in fact dismissed; it was not a claim, but a matter of fact. She also said this took place in the beginning of December, and therefore could not be described as the “turn of the year”.

11. The complainant then said it was inaccurate for the online article to report that the charity “believe[d]” the documents, at the centre of the legal dispute, belonged to the charity’s archive as this was a fact accepted by the subject of the dispute. She also said the expected cost of the legal action was £26,000, rather than over £37,000, that only £8,000 had already been spent – rather than over £17,000, as reported by the article – and that the subject of the legal action had been instructed by the court to pay 80% of this figure, so the cost to the charity would be lower than reported.

12. The complainant said it was inaccurate for the online article to state that she had refused to support the charity’s cooperation with the publication’s campaign for test veterans, and that she had ended the charity’s support of the campaign. She said the correct position was that the Charity Commission had told her that the charity would not be able to support the campaign, as to do so would fall outside its charitable aim. The complainant also said it was misleading to state that she had ended the cooperation with the campaign, or signed the letter on behalf of the trustees, as it had been a unanimous decision by the trustees.

13. The complainant also said the online article inaccurately reported she had ignored the families of veterans who had tried to contact the charity about issues including coffin drapes. She said the correct position was that she had been “inundated” with emails, and the coffin drapes were with the funeral directors, whose account she had been locked out of. The complainant did not dispute that she had blocked some individuals from contacting her, but said that this was due to “vindictive” and “judgmental” posts.

14. The complainant said that there were over 50 delegates at the conference, not a dozen as reported by the online article. She later provided a list of 63 names of attendees, which included charity staff and several people who were said to have attended virtually, and several photographs showing 22 people at an exhibition which formed part of the conference. She also provided a list of 46 individuals she said had stayed in 33 rooms.

15. The complainant said it was inaccurate for the online article to describe her as a chairman, as she was a woman. She also said the article gave the misleading impression she became chair whilst her husband was treasurer – when the correct position was that he became treasurer a year later and that she had not voted on his appointment. She also said the online version was inaccurate as she lived in Liverpool, not Brecon, and was 50 rather than 49. She also said that she had requested advice from the Charity Commission, rather than it giving advice after it had received complaints.

16. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It noted that the complainant had been recorded on tape saying that she had told the bank that trustees were seeking to use the bank when they should not have been as they had been fired by the ex-chairman – which it said constituted a “block” of the trustees. Whilst it did not provide this recording, it did provide the Conduct Hearing and Charges Information sheet against the complainant, which set out a charge of emailing the bank in order to deny the trustees access to the bank. It also provided a copy of an email to the bank, in which the complainant said that “I trust full security is in place to prevent” three named trustees “tak[ing] over the bank account”.

17. The publication said that, where the online article reported there were “allegations” that an ex-trustee had attempted to log in to the bank account, and where the complainant said she had made the bank aware of this, there was no inaccuracy on this point – both the complainant’s position and the article’s depiction of events tallied with one another. The publication said the complainant had been made the primary user of the bank account several months after the primary user had resigned as trustee, and therefore the online article was not inaccurate to report this. The publication also said it was not inaccurate to report that employees would not ordinarily have access to the bank account – it provided a document from the charity which stated that access should only be given to trustees.

18. To support its position, the publication provided a link to the Charity Commission website, which stated that during the year ending 30 September 2020 the charity received £146,650. It also said this figure had been put to the complainant prior to publication. It also said that the claim from the source, that the charity had no money was clearly distinguished as the source’s comment, but in any case was supported by the Conduct Hearing and Charges Information sheet, which stated £30,000 had been wasted and that no more money would be made available. The publication said it had taken care to put the claims about the complainant’s salary and expenses to her prior to publication, and noted that the complainant had not disputed that she had received “expenses”. It also said that her position on the expenses was made clear in the article, where it reported that she “confirmed to the Mirror that they were all salary, and that she receives Universal Credit”.

19. The publication provided a statement from the charity’s board which said that, whilst there was an attempt to dismiss the four trustees, this was found to be in breach of its constitution. It therefore stated that it was not inaccurate to describe this as “a claim”, though it did not expand on why this was the case. Furthermore, it said that as the events took place between November 2022 and January 2023 it could accurately be described as “the turn of the year”.

20. The publication said that its reporting of the legal dispute was not inaccurate, and said it was not inaccurate to report that the charity “believe[d]” certain papers were the charity’s. It also provided the cost budget of the legal action, which it said the charity had supplied to the courts. This showed that the legal fees associated were expected to be over £37,000. It also provided a statement which showed that £5,000 in payments to legal representatives had been made, and a reporter had made notes, which were provided, of further payments made to lawyers which altogether amounted to £17,290.

21. The publication said that the online article’s description of the complainant’s involvement with its campaign was accurate. It disputed the complainant’s assertion that the Charity Commission had stated that the charity could not support the campaign. It also noted that the charity had previously supported the campaign, until the complainant became chair, and had begun supporting the campaign again after her departure from the role. It also said the complainant had emailed it saying that the charity would support the publication’s campaign if it could liaise with a different journalist. It also provided the letter which the article reported had been signed by the complainant on behalf of the trustees; this letter was signed by the complainant.

22. The publication said the online article distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact when referring to the emails being “ignored”, the claims regarding the missing coffin drapes, and further claims about shop orders not being received by charity users. It also said the complainant had blocked people on social media, as the article reported. It also provided a screenshot of the complainant directly interacting with people on social media.

23. The publication provided a photograph of attendees at the conference. It said that there were around a dozen veterans in attendance, as well as charity staff, and whilst it did not consider this to be a significant inaccuracy it offered to amend this to state there were around a dozen veterans in attendance. The publication noted that, whilst the complainant had provided a list of names of people who had attended the event, far fewer had booked into 33 rooms and of these several were duplicated names, charity members, academics and experts. It said that only 13-15 of those people were veterans, and noted that the charity had booked 75 rooms in total which it had not cancelled.

24. The publication noted the website had described the complainant as the “chairman” and did not consider it to be inaccurate, though it offered to amend this. It also did not consider it to be significantly inaccurate to refer to the complainant’s husband as the charity’s treasurer, when he had become the charity’s treasurer during her tenure as chair. It also did not consider it to be significantly inaccurate for the article to say that the complainant was 49-years-old rather than 50 – but it offered to amend this. The publication also stated that the charity commission had confirmed it offered advice after it had received complaints.

Relevant Clause Provisions

  • 1 (Accuracy)
  • The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
  • 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. 
  • A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
  • The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

25. Both versions of the article had referred to the complainant “blocking trustees”, which the complainant denied; she considered that only the bank had the power to block people from using the account. However, where the complainant had emailed the bank, telling it that she trusted “full security” would be put in place to stop three named trustees “tak[ing] over the bank account” – the result of which was the bank blocking those trustees – this was not inaccurate. Similarly, where the bank made the complainant the primary user after she alerted it that the other registered primary user was an ex-trustee and - subsequent to this – she became the only primary user, it was not inaccurate to report that the complainant had “made herself the primary user of the account”. There was no breach of Clause 1 in relation to these points.

26. The complainant had also said the online article inaccurately reported that there were “allegations that an ex-trustee's details were used to log in to the charity's bank account”, as she had informed trustees and the bank of these allegation. Where the complainant accepted she had made such allegations, the article was not inaccurate on this point. In addition, where the charity itself had stated only trustees, not employees, should have access to the bank account it was not inaccurate for the publication to report employees would not ordinarily have access to organisational bank accounts”. There was no breach of Clause 1 in relation to these points.

27. The Charity Commission website reported that the charity had an income of £146,650 in the year ending 30 September 2020 – it was therefore not inaccurate for the publication to report this. In addition, regardless of whether the complainant had told the trustees about outstanding spending, it was not inaccurate for the article to report claims from a “BNTVA source” who had raised their concerns about the charity’s finances, as published in the online article. Further, whilst the complainant had said her salary had been incorrectly labelled as expenses, where the wording of the article accurately reported the wording of her bank statement, and contained her position that they “were all salary” it was not inaccurate to report the claim. There were no breaches of Clause 1 on these points.

28. The Committee did not consider that it was inaccurate to report that trustees “claim[ed] an attempt was made to ‘fire’ one of them for ‘wrongful behaviour’”. The complainant had said that the use of the word “claim” was inaccurate as this had occurred and was therefore a fact, rather than a claim. While the Committee appreciated the complainant was concerned by this phrasing, it was not inaccurate in circumstances where the complainant had not disputed she had alleged this. In addition, as December is the last month of the year, it was not inaccurate to describe events which occur in this month as taking place at the “turn of the year”. There were no breaches of Clause 1 on these points.

29. With regards to the legal dispute, and the article’s statement that documents were “believed” to belong to an archive, and as above, the Committee did not consider this phrase to be inaccurate; legal proceedings were, at the time of publication, ongoing, and it was not in dispute that this was the belief of at least one of the parties in the legal action, regardless of if the other party accepted the accuracy of this belief. Turning to the article’s reporting of the legal costs associated with the case, where the publication supplied the cost budget and evidence of further payments that reflected the figures published in the article, these were not inaccurate. There were no breaches of Clause 1 on these points.

30. The online article had said that the complainant had refused to support its campaign, and had referenced a letter about the appropriateness of the campaign, signed by the complainant. The complainant said she had been acting on advice from the Charity Commission and on behalf of the charity as a whole, and she should not have been individually named as being opposed to the campaign or as being the letter’s signatory. However, the Committee noted that the complainant was the chairman of the charity when this decision was made, and did not therefore consider it significantly misleading to ascribe the decision to her – particularly in circumstances where this appeared to have been a position adopted by the charity only during the time when the complainant was its chair. Similarly, where the complainant accepted she had signed a letter to Boris Johnson herself, it was not inaccurate for the article to report this. There were no breaches of Clause 1 on these points.

31. The complainant had said she had not ignored families of veterans – but that she had too many emails to respond to and had not been able to post the coffin drapes as they were with the funeral directors. Where it was not in dispute that she had not responded to the families, and that they had not received the coffin drapes, it was not inaccurate to characterise this as the complainant “ignoring” them or that they had not received items they had paid for. Similarly, the complainant accepted she had blocked people online, and therefore it was not inaccurate for the article to report this.

32. The online article had stated there were around a dozen attendees” at the charity’s conference and that it left the charity “facing a bill of thousands for unused hotel rooms”. There was a dispute between the charity and publication about how many people had attended the conference, as well as the breakdown between total attendees including charity staff, and the veterans. However, where it was not in dispute that a large number of hotel rooms had been left unoccupied and had not been cancelled, and a small number of actual veterans attended, the Committee did not consider this to be a breach of Clause 1.

33. The Committee did not find describing the complainant as a “chairman” or writing her age a year wrong to be significantly inaccurate. In the context of the article, and where she had been chair whilst her husband was treasurer, the article was not significantly inaccurate to refer to this in relation to her becoming chair in 2020. Finally, where the Charity Commission gave advice to the charity it was not significant whether this had been solicited from the charity or not – and the complainant was not in a position to know whether complaints had been made against the charity that had an impact on the advice given. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

Conclusions

34. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 08/03/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 06/09/2023

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.