Ruling

18938-17 Johnson v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      3rd May 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 18938-17 Johnson v The Sun

Summary of complaint

1. Robert Johnson, on behalf of Telecom2 Limited (T2), complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Scandal of punters duped into calling premium-rate lines”, published on 7 October 2017.

2. The article reported that some customers had been “duped” into calling premium-rate directory enquiries lines by phone line operators; customers would return missed calls received from landline numbers, and they would hear a pre-recorded message which redirected them to expensive directory enquiries lines. The article reported that this practice was known as “wangiri”, and it was banned by Ofcom, but the regulator was yet to punish any company for the practice.

3. The article reported a customer’s claim that after returning a missed call, he was automatically transferred to 118 004 and charged more than £16 for the call. It reported that the 118 004 number was owned by T2, and that T2 also owned the telephone number that had left a missed call on the customer’s telephone. The article included a comment made by BT, that the customer could not have been automatically transferred to the 118 number, and that he must have re-dialled the number after hearing the recorded message.

4. The article reported that the 118 004 number was Britain’s most expensive directory enquiries line, and that it had been “taken offline” earlier in the year following reports that customers had received large phone bills without realising.

5. The article also reported that companies that owned premium-rate directory enquiries lines had bought telephone numbers, which were very similar to popular public service helpline numbers. It reported that when callers misdial these numbers, they hear a message informing them that the number is out of service and redirecting them to a 118 directory enquiries number. The article reported that this had occurred when the newspaper had misdialled an NHS number by one digit – the number that it was redirected to was owned by T2.

6. The article reported that the Phone-paid Services Authority (PSA), the body which regulates premium phone lines, launched an inquiry into T2 and other unnamed 118 providers over claims that callers are not fully informed about how much directory enquiry calls will cost. It included a comment from a PSA spokesperson that the investigation was “ongoing”. The article also reported that Ofcom was conducting a “wider investigation” into directory enquiries lines and how they attract customers. It included a comment made by an Ofcom spokesperson that “we launched an overarching review of the 118 market earlier in the year to ensure prices are transparent and fair to consumers”.

7. The article included an image of the T2 logo underneath an image of a switchboard operator saying “hello, how con I direct your call?”, and it reported that T2 refused to comment on the matters.

8. The complainant, the chairman of T2, said that the article had given the misleading impression that T2 had been involved in “wangiri” with a view to generating income, and that the inclusion of the company’s logo underneath the image of the switchboard operator further created the impression that T2 had intentionally misled its customers.

9. The complainant said that the missed calls that customers had received had not originated from the T2 network; a third party dialler had made the calls and had presented the number as a T2 number. He said that once the company had received complaints from customers who experienced “bill-shock”, it had contacted the PSA and had worked alongside it to refund each customer, including the individual quoted in the article. The complainant said that he was not aware that T2 was under investigation by the PSA. He said that the PSA does not write to formally close matters; however, given the time which had elapsed since they had been in contact, T2 believed that the matter had been concluded.

10. The complainant said that it was not technically possible for callers to be automatically transferred from a low tariff call to a premium-rate number. If a caller dialled an unallocated telephone number, a pre-recorded message, with detailed information about the costs of calls to 118 numbers, would suggest they call a directory enquiries line. The complainant said that customers were not compelled to call the 118 number, rather they made a decision to disconnect and redial. He provided evidence which he said demonstrated his position that the customer quoted in the article had re-dialled the directory enquiries number owned by T2.

11. The complainant said that the tariff charged by T2 for calls made to the 118 number was compliant with all relevant regulations. He provided evidence which he said demonstrated that other phone line operators charged the same tariff. The complainant also said that he had informed the newspaper, prior to publication, that the 118 004 number had not been taken offline and that it was still “live”. He provided a copy of correspondence between himself and the journalist which demonstrated this.

12. The complainant said that T2 did not own and operate telephone numbers with one digit different from popular public service helplines, for the sole purpose of redirecting calls for a profit. As per common practice, numbers were allocated to T2 in consecutive blocks of 10,000 or 100,000, and therefore it was inevitable that some telephone numbers were one digit different from others. The complainant said that some telephone numbers remained unallocated or were decommissioned – this was technically unavoidable. In such circumstances, it was reasonable to offer a service redirecting callers to a directory enquiries service. He noted that the public service number referred to in the article had not been misdialled in the last 12 months.

13. The complainant said that T2 had not refused to comment, as reported; rather, it had refused to comment for the purpose of publication, unless the newspaper agreed to publish an unedited version of any comment that it made.

14. The newspaper did not accept that there had been a breach of the Code. It said that it had taken care to ensure the accuracy of the article, and the complainant had not identified any significant inaccuracies.

15. The newspaper said that prior to publication, the journalist had put the reported claims to the complainant: namely, that the 118 004 number had been taken offline; that this number charged the highest rates of all live 118 numbers in the UK; that callers who misdialled some out-of-service phone numbers also owned by T2 were directed by a recorded message to call 118 004; and that these out-of-service numbers included numbers one digit different from the customer service line for a popular public service provider.

16. The newspaper said that the complainant did not provide a comment for publication; the complainant had said that he would only provide a comment if it was published in full, and the newspaper could not agree to such a request. The newspaper had informed him prior to publication that if he did not agree to provide a comment, then the article would state that T2 “refused to comment”. It argued that it should not be the case that when people are offered ample opportunity to engage with claims prior to publication and decline that opportunity, that they should then use the regulator to force a newspaper to put on record their position at a later date.

17. The newspaper said that in a further step to take care over the accuracy of the article, its journalist had also contacted Ofcom prior to publication; it had set out the customer’s claim in full, as reported in the article, and Ofcom had not disputed the information. It had included Ofcom’s response in the article.

18. The newspaper said that the article reported on the broad issue of customer “bill shock” and that T2 was merely used as an example in this context, based on the experience of the customer quoted in the article. Nevertheless, the article was not inaccurate or misleading in circumstances where it was not denied that calls were made from geographical numbers and when people rang them back, directory enquiries lines were promoted to them.

19. The newspaper said that T2 was charging the most expensive available tariff for calls made to the 118 004 number, notwithstanding that other phone line operators charged the same tariff. In March 2017, another newspaper reported that the number had been “withdrawn” following pressure from its own reporting; and it noted that the complainant had previously said that he had not had cause to complain about that piece. Before publication, its journalist had called the line, and although the 118 004 number still existed and was still owned by T2, no directory enquiries service was available if you dialled it. As such, it was not significantly misleading for it to have reported that the number had been “taken offline”.

20. The newspaper said that the article reported that “companies” had bought telephone numbers with one digit different from popular public service help-lines, and again, it had used T2 as an example. It said that T2 had not assigned the numbers for any other purpose than seeking to redirect callers who had accidentally called them, to their expensive directory enquiries lines. It was entitled to be critical of T2’s business model, and noted that the example provided in the article had not been disputed by the complainant when it was put to him prior to publication.

21. The newspaper said that it had contacted the PSA when it first began researching the story in August 2017, and it provided the email exchange. The reporter had asked for the PSA’s comments on the man’s claim that he had been automatically redirected to the premium line number, and it had not disputed his version of events. It had also confirmed that it had an “ongoing” investigation into T2. The newspaper had additionally asked BT for its comment on the man’s claim that he had been automatically redirected, and it had published its response.

22. The newspaper said that it had been unaware that the PSA investigation had concluded by the time the article was published. The investigation was closed “due to a lack of evidence to counter T2’s claims". The newspaper said that this did not suggest that there was insufficient evidence of the claims made against T2, but that the claims made by T2 in response to the investigation were so difficult to support that the case had to be closed. The newspaper said that in any event, the Ofcom investigation was ongoing. It said that Ofcom oversaw the PSA, and had final responsibility for the regulation of premium-rate services. The newspaper concluded that as the PSA had had an investigation into T2; that investigation had not cleared T2 of any wrongdoing; and as the overarching Ofcom investigation was ongoing, it was not significantly inaccurate to report that the PSA had an ongoing investigation into T2.

23. In light of the complainant’s comments following publication, the newspaper offered to publish an update on page two, as follows:

On 7 October, we accurately reported a consumer’s claim that he had been automatically transferred to an expensive directory enquiries line owned by Telecom 2, having returned a missed call from a standard landline number also owned by T2. We gave T2 the opportunity to respond to the claim prior to publication, but they asked us not to publish their response. They then made a complaint about the article. We are happy to put on record their post-publication position that a third party fraudulently made the call to the consumer from the landline number.

It also offered to publish the following clarifications on page two to address some of the complainant’s remaining concerns:

On 7 October we reported that Telecom 2 owned numbers only one digit different to popular public service numbers. Callers who misdialled would be prompted to call their costly directory enquiry number instead. T2 state they do not deliberately own numbers similar to popular services although they do not dispute they direct people to their expensive directory enquiries numbers. We also reported that there was an ongoing investigation into T2 by the Phone-Paid Services Authority; in fact, it closed on 7 September, before publication.

On 7 October, we reported that the 118 004 directory enquiries number had been taken offline after people inadvertently ran up huge phone bills. The number’s operator, Telecom 2, has asked us to clarify that the number is currently live, so consumers who wish to spend £15.98 on a one-minute phone call remain free to do so.

Relevant Code Provisions

24. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

1. The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

2. 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.

3. A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

4. The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

25. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had given the significantly misleading impression that his company, T2, had engaged in “wangiri”. It also noted his position that it had inaccurately reported that T2 had been responsible for calling the individual given as an example of the practice in the article. In fact, it had been a third party, perhaps a cold caller, who had fraudulently used T2’s number to obscure their identity in order to protect themselves from regulation.

26. The newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of the article by contacting the complainant before publication. It had asked for his comment on the allegation that T2 had been responsible for making the call to the man quoted in the article, an example of “wangiri”. The complainant had replied to this inquiry by stating that it was not possible for the man to have been automatically reconnected to the premium number; that it was inaccurate to state that “outbound calls were in anyway promoting 118 004 from a geographical number”; and that he would not provide a comment for publication unless it was published in full. As the published allegations had been put to the complainant in advance, and the complainant had not provided an on-the-record comment, the omission of his denial of the allegations from the article did not represent a failure to take care over its accuracy. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

27. The Committee understood the newspaper’s concern that it had given the complainant ample opportunity to deny the allegations before publication, and, as such, he should not now be seeking a correction via IPSO. Nevertheless, since publication, the complainant had made clear his position that T2 had carried out an internal investigation, which had concluded that a third party had fraudulently made the calls, and all those concerned, including the man referred to in the article, had received a refund. The Committee considered that the newspaper should put this position on the record so that the coverage does not give the significantly misleading impression that the company had engaged in the practice of “wangiri”; this would avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). While the wording of the update offered did not explicitly state that those who had been wrongly charged had been refunded, it did make clear the complainant’s position that the company had not engaged in any wrongdoing. This was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

28. The complainant had expressed concern that the article had inaccurately stated that the individual to which it referred had been automatically transferred to the premium line number. In reality, he would have been played a recorded message detailing the price of calling the premium number, and he would have had to redial it. However, the piece made clear that it was the man’s claim that he had been automatically reconnected. In addition, the article included a statement from BT in which it “insisted” that the man “was not transferred and must have dialled the number after hearing the recorded message”. The newspaper had distinguished clearly between comment and fact. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

29. The newspaper had reported that the PSA had launched an investigation, based on information provided by the PSA and Ofcom six weeks before publication, but it had not reported that the investigation had already concluded. In fact, the investigation had concluded a month before the article was published, due to “a lack of evidence to counter T2’s claims”. The Committee considered that the suggestion that the investigation was ongoing at the time of publication was significantly misleading. The newspaper’s failure to recheck the information before it published the story represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i). A correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

30. The newspaper had offered to publish a correction which made clear that the PSA investigation had concluded at the time of publication. It had offered to publish this on page two, 40 pages earlier than the article had appeared. This met the requirement of Clause 1(ii). 

31. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had alleged that his company had bought numbers that closely matched popular helplines so that it could profit when the numbers were misdialled. However, it was accepted that T2 owned the premium phone line, referred to in the article, which matched an NHS number closely. The fact that the number had not been called in the past 12 months did not render the article misleading on this point. The Committee also noted that the newspaper had put this point to the complainant before publication, and he had not explained his position that the company obtained phone lines in blocks of 10,000 and that it was therefore inevitable that some numbers matched other popular lines. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

32. The Committee also did not consider that the absence of this information from the coverage was significantly misleading, such that a clarification would be required under Clause 1(ii), as it was accepted that T2 owned numbers similar to popular helplines, including the example given in the article. The Committee nevertheless welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish the complainant’s expressed position following publication, that the company owned such numbers because it obtained them in bulk. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

33. The Committee noted that the complainant had told the reporter before publication that no premium numbers run by his company had been taken offline. In contrast, the reporter said that, although the line was live, it had not connected to a directory enquiries service. The Committee could not establish what the correct position was at the time of publication. However, it noted the article, provided by the newspaper to support its position, which reported that the number had “been withdrawn” following pressure from that newspaper’s reporting. The Committee did not consider that the newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point. The Committee did not consider that it was significant, in the context of this article, whether the company had taken one of its numbers offline as a result of this earlier coverage. It nevertheless welcomed the newspaper’s offer to address this point in a clarification.

34. The complainant had informed the reporter that other companies also charged the highest tariff. However, as T2’s number was charged at the highest rate allowed in Britain, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly inaccurate for the newspaper to have described it as “Britain’s most expensive directory enquiries line”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

35. Where the company’s involvement in the issues being reported was made clear in the article, the use of T2’s logo to illustrate the piece was not significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

36. The newspaper had contacted T2 for comment before the article was published, and the complainant had refused to provide a comment for publication, unless it was published in full. The newspaper was unable to agree to such a request and explained its position clearly to the complainant before publication in order to give him the opportunity to provide a response for publication. In this context, it was not significantly misleading for the newspaper to have reported that “Telecom2 refused to comment”. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion

37. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

38. Having upheld the complaint in relation to the report that the PSA had an ongoing investigation into T2, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

39. The newspaper had offered to publish a clarification on page two, which made clear that the PSA investigation had concluded at the time of publication. This wording should now be published.

40. To avoid breaching Clause 1(ii), the newspaper should also publish the update, as offered, in order to make clear the complainant’s position that a third party had fraudulently made the calls to the man referenced in the article.

Date complaint received: 10/10/2017
Date decision issued: 16/04/2018