Ruling

19508-17 The European Business Assembly v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      8th March 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 19508-17 The European Business Assembly v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. The European Business Assembly (EBA) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Harassment), and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Oxford in fake awards farce”, published on 24 July. The article was also published online as three separate articles headlined “Oxford university in fake awards farce”, “And the winner is . . . anyone able to stump up for ‘Oxford’ award” and “Figures from politics and academia signed up to lend EBA events some credibility”.

2. The print article began on the front page, and continued as a double page spread inside the newspaper, with a number of separate articles under the banner headline “And the winner is …anyone able to stump up for ‘Oxford’ award”.

3. The article claimed that the academic reputation of Oxford University was being exploited by the complainant, who it said sold “fake awards”. The article reported that former employees had said they were encouraged to send “mass emails”, and to ‘cold-call’ foreign businesses and academics “with claims that they had been nominated for an award”. The article went onto explain that anybody expressing an interest in an award would be given several cost options, ranging from £3000 to £9000. It claimed that “anyone who agreed to pay to attend a ceremony was given an award”. The article reported that after being told he had been nominated, a named individual had been told he had won an award, despite submitting no information. The article stated that multiple recipients typically received each named award.  It claimed that several award winners “acknowledged that the awards were a ‘PR exercise’ to generate positive press coverage”.

4. In support of the claim made by the newspaper that the complainant “sought to trade on the reputation of the University of Oxford”, the article claimed that it used photographs of Oxford colleges in its advertising, the university’s typeface in its logo and claims to offer attendees at its events access to “exclusive Oxford University lectures”. It claimed that a former employee had said that they were told to “muddy the distinction between [the complainant] and Oxford University”. The article claimed that the business was run from an office in Ukraine by Anton Savvov, and his son, Ivan. One of the article’s subheadlines referred to them as “Ukrainian businessmen”, and claimed that they had “exploited [the] university to make millions from made-up honors”. The article claimed that “[The complainant’s] business model has proved lucrative but it is not illegal. It claimed that although higher education providers must be accredited to award degrees, no legislation exists to prevent companies marketing “vanity awards”.

5. The complainant said it was a bona fide organisation, and that its awards were genuine and no less worthy than other industry-type awards. It said that its awards must be considered in light of its stated aim to promote and encourage links between like-minded individuals, and to enhance the communities in which it operates. It said that the thrust of the article was that it was a purveyor of fake awards and was inappropriately exploiting the academic reputation of the University, which was a serious inaccuracy.

6. The complainant said that the account of its business activities contained in the alleged comments of former employees, as reported in the article, were false. The complainant explained that there were a number of stages to the awards process. At the first stage, its researchers collect evidence and facts in support of nominating an individual, including facts such as corporate or academic rankings, or winning other awards. Based on this research it would contact nominees with a request for information to support the nomination. It said that 80% of nominees did not pass beyond this first stage. The complainant said it was unable to provide details on what proportion of applicants are successful having submitted an application for an award, and following the decision stage. However, it said that only a very small number of companies or individuals reach the stage of being presented with one of its awards. For example, it said that in 2014 and 2015 there were 3 and 9 winners of one of its named awards, respectively. It said that the assertion that its awards were “fake” was without foundation.

7. The complainant denied it had “sought to trade on the reputation of the University of Oxford”. It said that it was a fact that it was registered and based in Oxford. It said it was perfectly proper for it to use images of Oxford in its marketing literature, as is the case with many other organisations situated there. The complainant said its logo’s typeface was the widely available Times New Roman, and the use of this font did not show it was exploiting the university’s reputation.

8. The complainant said that just over £2million had been generated by the company through conference fees, advertising, royalties, sponsorship packages, and executive training. The complainant said it was a clear exaggeration to report that Anton and Ivan Savvov had “made millions” from its operations. It said that Anton Savvov was not connected to the business, either as a shareholder or a director, and that Ivan Savvov’s salary was a five-figure sum.

9. The complainant said that Ivan Savvov was on holiday from 4 to 24 July. It said that he therefore did not personally open an email sent by the newspaper on 20 July, prior to publication, giving him the opportunity to comment. It said it was not normal practice to respond to emails while on holiday, and that when Mr Savvov returned, the article had been published.

10. The complainant said that the newspaper had breached Clause 3 (Harassment) by approaching its business partners in a manner which damaged its reputation, and which was intimidatory and harassing. The complainant said that the article’s emphasis on Ivan and Anton Savvov being “Ukrainian businessmen” was highly discriminatory, in breach of Clause 12.

11. The newspaper said that the meaning of the allegation that the complainant had sold “fake awards” was that it had sold awards which were made to look real or valuable, in order to deceive. It said that the complainant’s awards were, both by their physical design, and the names given to them, designed to convey a value they did not have. In support of this position, it said that from the information available on the complainant’s website prior to publication, there did not appear to be a meaningful selection process for the awards, and that no or little merit was required to receive an award. It provided letters notifying individuals that they had been nominated for awards, which it noted contained identically worded paragraphs explaining the reasons why the complainant had selected them. The newspaper said it had also been told by former employees that there was no meaningful judging process, and that it had spoken with the individual referred to in the article who had been told he had won an award without having submitted any information about his company.

12. The newspaper said that it was not inaccurate to report that the complainant had sought to exploit the reputation of Oxford University. It referred to the complainant’s making frequent use of the word “Oxford”, including in its website name (awards.ebaoxford.co.uk), and email addresses. It said that this word was often used alongside words associated with universities, such as the “Club of Rectors”, operated by the complainant, and entitling members to use of the “Oxford Rector’s Lounge”.  The newspaper said that the article’s claims that Ivan and Anton Savvov had “made millions”, that they “were likely to have made millions of pounds” or that they had sold “millions of pounds worth of fake awards”, were based on the amount charged for an award and the length of time for which the business had operated. It said that in 2016, there were 124 award recipients, that this was from one award ceremony, and that the business had been operating since 2000. It said that the average price charged for attending an award ceremony, multiplied by the number of recipients of awards, justified the claims that the complainant had “made millions”.

13. In relation to the claim that the complainant was run by Anton Savvov, in addition to Ivan Savvov, the newspaper noted that Anton Savvov was described on the complainant’s website as a board member, and that the complainant’s first public response to the article under complaint was signed by Anton Savvov as “Board Member, EBA”. In relation to whether it was discriminatory to refer to Anton and Ivan Savvov as “Ukrainian businessmen”, the newspaper noted that the business has a large office in Ukraine, and that Ivan Savvov is described as Ukrainian on his Companies House entry, and on the complainant’s documentation.

14. The newspaper said that on 20 July, it sent an email to Ivan Savvov and another director of the company, setting out what it intended to report, and providing an opportunity for them to comment. The newspaper said it called the complainant, before sending the emails, and spoke to an employee. When it made clear that it wanted Mr Savvov to see its email that day, the employee said that she would send it to him and let him know that day. It said that it was not suggested that Mr Savvov was on holiday or out of contact. In addition, it said that its email technology had been able to confirm that the email had been opened multiple times shortly after it was sent on 20 July.

Relevant Code provisions

15. 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.

Clause 3 (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 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 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

16. The Committee first considered the article’s claim that the complainant “seeks to trade on the reputation of the University of Oxford”. The article explained the basis for this claim: it alleged that the complainant uses photographs of Oxford colleges in its advertising, that it copies the university’s typeface in its logo and that it claimed to offer “exclusive access to Oxford University lectures”. The Committee considered that these factors, which were clearly identified in the article, provided a basis for the newspaper’s broader claim that the complainant had sought to “trade on the reputation of the University of Oxford”. For this reason, the Committee considered that there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information on this point, such as to raise a breach of Clause 1 (i). The Committee considered that the manner in which the newspaper had presented its claim that the complainant had sought to trade on the reputation of the university was not misleading, such as to require correction under Clause 1 (ii); the basis of the claim was identified in the article.

17. An allegation that an award is “fake”, is capable of a broad range of interpretations. The Committee recognised that the complainant’s awards existed, that the recipients of the awards may not have been deceived, and that the awards may be of value to those that received them. However, the article under complaint explained clearly what the newspaper meant by its allegation. Namely, that it was the newspaper’s view that the manner in which the awards were presented was not justified by the process by which the recipients were selected. The Committee considered that care that had been taken over the accuracy of the claim that the awards were “fake”, in the context of the article as a whole.

18. The article set out a number of factors in support of the newspaper’s position that little merit was required to win an award. These included: former employees stating that you would receive an award could be won if a fee were paid; an individual who had been told he had won an award despite providing no information to demonstrate he deserved one; and individuals who had received awards acknowledging that they were a “PR exercise”. Having set out the basis for its claim that little merit was required to win an award, the article contained a description of the award ceremonies run by the complainant, which was not in dispute. The Committee considered that the newspaper had taken care to set out in the article the basis on which it was claiming that the awards were “fake”.

19. Prior to publication, the newspaper contacted both Ivan Savvov and another company director on 20 July, to give them an opportunity to respond to the claims contained in the article. It called the complainant’s office specifically to obtain the correct contact details. The newspaper used the email address it was told to use by the complainant’s staff, and then called to receive confirmation it had been safely received. It was not told that Ivan Savvov was on holiday, or that he would not see its email. The email was sent on 20 July, with the article subsequently published on 24 July, which provided adequate time for the complaint to respond. The Committee noted the efforts to which the newspaper had gone to provide the complainant with an opportunity to respond, which demonstrated the care it had taken not to publish inaccurate information. There was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in relation to the article’s allegation that the awards were “fake”, and no breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point.

20. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that there was in fact a selection process for its awards, in which candidates were expected to provide information. It noted the complainant’s position that there were examples of candidates who had not been successful in their application for an award, although noted that the complainant was unable to provide information on the overall proportion of candidates that failed to pass through the substantive stage of assessment. However, it was not in dispute that recipients pay a fee to receive awards, and that the awards are marketed as providing a PR opportunity for recipients. In response to the complaint, the newspaper had been able to provide further material to support the article’s characterisation of the awards process. This included a number of letters from the complainant, explaining to individuals the reasons why they had been nominated for awards in identical terms. The Committee did not find that the article contained significant inaccuracies as to the process by which the complainant makes its awards. The Committee considered that in the context of the article, the claim that the awards were “fake” was not misleading, such as to require correction under Clause 1 (ii).

21. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that Anton Savvov was a non-executive advisor, but not a director or shareholder. The Committee noted that Anton Savvov was described by the complainant as being on the “Board of Directors” on its website. It noted that the complainant’s public response to the newspaper’s article was a statement signed “Anton Savvov, Board Member, EBA”. In these circumstances, the Committee considered it was not misleading to refer to the business being run by Anton and Ivan Savvov, such as to demonstrate a failure to take over the accuracy of this claim under Clause 1 (i), or as to require correction under Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

22. In relation to the claim that Anton and Ivan Savvov had “made millions” from their business, the Committee noted the complainant’s comments about Ivan Savvov’s salary. However, it was not in dispute that in the course of the business’ operation, it had “made” over £2million. Where Ivan Savvov was the owner of the company, and given the nature of Anton Savvov’s involvement in the company,  it was not inaccurate to refer to them as having “made millions”, such as to demonstrate a failure to take care over the accuracy of this claim under Clause 1 (i), or as to require correction under Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

23. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that in approaching those who were involved with the business for comment, and informing them of what it intended to publish, the newspaper had been engaged in harassment, in breach of Clause 3. The Committee said it would be for those individuals to complain to IPSO, if they believe that they personally were harassed by the newspaper. The Committee made clear that while the complainant strongly contests the allegations, the fact that a journalist had asked questions of those involved in the business, about the business’ activities, did not represent harassment of the EBA, or Anton and Ivan Savvov.

24. Nationality is not a characteristic listed in Clause 12, but, in some circumstances, a reference to an individual’s nationality can amount to a reference to their race or colour, and therefore such references may need to be considered in their specific context. In this case, the complainant had not complained that the reference to Anton or Ivan Savvov as Ukrainian, was a reference to their race or colour. In any event, the Committee was satisfied with the newspaper’s explanation that this information had been included because a substantial part of the business appeared to operate out of Ukraine, and this was genuinely relevant to the story. There was no breach of Clause 12.

Conclusions

25. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

22. N/A

Date complaint received: 31/10/2017
Date decision issued: 29/01/2018

Review

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.