Ruling

20116-23 Kayani v liverpoolecho.co.uk

  • Complaint Summary

    Rais Kayani complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that liverpoolecho.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles headlined: “Fraudster got £35,000 from council by pretending to run a Greggs”, published on 4 July 2023; “Anger as man who stole £35k pretending to run Greggs walks free from court”, published on 5 July 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      15th February 2024

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee –  20116-23 Kayani v liverpoolecho.co.uk


Summary of Complaint

1. Rais Kayani complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that liverpoolecho.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles headlined:

· “Fraudster got £35,000 from council by pretending to run a Greggs”, published on 4 July 2023.

· “Anger as man who stole £35k pretending to run Greggs walks free from court”, published on 5 July 2023.

2. The first article – which appeared online only – reported on the sentencing of the complainant in a criminal court case. It said that: “Fraudsters stole £195,000 in government grants by pretending to run businesses, including a Greggs bakery” and that the complainant had “accepted money from false applicants for the Small Business Grant Fund at a number of councils” who were “defrauded out of £35,000, £85,000 and £75,000”. In addition it said: “When making the applications to St Helens council, the fraudsters had impersonated high street bakery chain Greggs. Investigators were unable to identify who submitted the fraudulent applications. But the requested payments were all transferred for the benefit of the bank account of [a named company].” The second article also appeared online and reported on the sentencing of the complainant. The subheading stated that he “accepted money from false applicants for the Small Business Grant Fund during the coronavirus pandemic”. The article went on to report “Echo readers have branded the judicial system a "joke" after a man who stole up to £195,000 walked free from court.” It also said that “Rais Kayani took £195,000 in government grants by pretending to run businesses including a Greggs bakery”. The article also stated when “making the applications to St Helens council, the fraudsters had impersonated high street bakery chain Greggs” and “Despite being unable to identify who submitted the applicants, an investigation found that payments were all transferred to the bank account of a company owned by 31-year-old Kayani”. The second article went on to report previous user generated comments which had appeared below the first article. It said:

“ECHO reported on the sentencing yesterday, and readers have slammed the judge's decision to not impose a custodial sentence. One user said: "Don’t know what’s worse, the lenient conviction or the fact that multiple councils don’t hesitate to give money to what they thought were a multimillion pound industry like Greggs while businesses up and down the high streets in those towns are closing." Another commented: "This country is a laughing stock no wonder everyone's fleecing it! Suspended sentence if that was a person from Liverpool would of got jail." A third said: "Suspended sentence! Has the judge lost his mind?" While another user replied: "Judiciary make me sick ...no wonder people do what they want ..because nine times out of ten they get away with it." Another person added: "Hopefully they manage to take away any property he own to get some money back. Suspended sentence is a joke [sic]”

3. The complainant said that both headlines were inaccurate, misleading and distorted in breach of Clause 1 as they had implied he was the sole perpetrator of the criminal arrangement and fraudulent applications, and had suggested he personally made the unlawful applications. He said the same was the case in the second article which claimed that: “Echo readers have branded the judicial system a ‘joke’ after a man who stole up to £195,000 walked free from court” and he “took £195,000 in government grants by pretending to run businesses including a Greggs bakery”. The complainant said he had not completed any, nor had he had any knowledge of, the applications. The complainant said this was significant as the article had overstated and exaggerated his involvement in the criminal activity and omitted the involvement of other individuals which may have led a reader to conclude he was the “ringleader” or “mastermind”.

4. The complainant said both headlines and articles had implied or expressly stated that he had personally received the funds or made a financial gain from this activity. The complainant disputed this, and said he had not personally received any of the transferred sums. The first article had stated he “accepted money from false applicants for the Small Business Grant Fund at a number of councils”. The second article’s subheading stated he “accepted money from false applicants for the Small Business Grant Fund during the coronavirus pandemic”. It also said that “Echo readers have branded the judicial system a ‘joke’ after a man who stole up to £195,000 walked free from court” and that he “took £195,000 in government grants by pretending to run businesses including a Greggs bakery”. He said that this was inaccurate as the money had been transferred to his company where he was the sole director, rather than to him personally. He said the company and its bank accounts had been set up by others in his name.

5. The complainant further said that the second article was misleading as it had quoted angry user generated comments which appeared below the first article. He said the comments were inaccurate in themselves as they were a result of the inaccurate claims within the first article.

6. The complainant also said the first article’s URL contained the words: “fraudster-35000-council-pretending-run” which also implied he was the sole perpetrator of the applications. He said the second article’s URL contained the words: “anger-man-who-stole-35k”. He said this suggested that he was the sole perpetrator of the criminal activity, applications and had personally received the money.

7. The complainant provided a Crown Prosecutions Service (CPS) press release, which stated that “the frauds were perpetrated by unknown individuals impersonating genuine ratepayers”, rather than that he was the sole perpetrator of the criminal activity. He further said that the press release did not state he had any knowledge or involvement in the fraudulent applications but that “investigators were unable to identify who submitted” the applications. He also said that the press release did not say he had personally received any money as a result of the criminal activity, but rather explained that the funds were received by the bank account of a company, of which he was the sole director.

8. The complainant said that the articles had ignored the basis of his guilty plea. He explained that he was not convicted of any fraud or theft offences. He said the fraud was committed by others who were at large and his plea recorded that he was not involved in the act of defrauding the authorities and had no knowledge that they had been defrauded. He was, however, instructed to transfer money by those who had committed the fraud, and he was suspicious of the origins of the funds – hence he pleaded guilty to a money laundering offence. He said his conviction was for handling proceeds of fraud, not fraud itself. The complainant said that suggesting he defrauded the authorities was a euphemism for stating that he was the one who submitted the applications.

9. The complainant requested the publication remove the alleged inaccurate statements, as well as amending the articles to give a more accurate account of: his involvement in the unlawful arrangement; that he received no financial gain; and that a compensation order of £6000 was made despite him not having gained financially from the arrangement. The complainant requested an apology and that the second article be removed. He also produced a statement which he said the publication could publish for the purpose of setting the record straight.

10. The publication said that the articles were based on a CPS release which described the complainant as a “fraudster who sought to exploit the taxpayer through a COVID-19 support scheme”. It said that the publication was entitled to rely on this report and this demonstrated it had taken sufficient care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.

11. In regard to the applications, it said it accepted that it was inaccurate to report that the complainant pretended to be Greggs bakery, as the CPS report acknowledged that “investigators were unable to identify who submitted the fraudulent applications”. In its first substantive response regarding the complaint, the publication confirmed it had amended the first article’s headline and opening paragraph accordingly, and published a correction at the top of the article:

“A previous headline of this article incorrectly reported that Kayani 'stole £35k by pretending to run Greggs'. In fact, investigators were unable to identify the individuals who submitted the fraudulent applications, although all the requested payments were transferred to the bank account of a company of which Kayani was the sole director. We are happy to clarify this and the headline has been amended accordingly.”

On the same day, it amended the second article’s headline and opening paragraph, and published the following correction at the top of the article:

“A previous headline of this article incorrectly reported that Kayani 'got £35,000 by pretending to run a Greggs'. In fact, investigators were unable to identify the individuals who submitted the fraudulent applications, although all the requested payments were transferred to the bank account of a company of which Kayani was the sole director. We are happy to clarify this and the headline has been amended accordingly.”

12. The publication also offered the following standalone correction on the homepage for 24 hours in the interest of resolving the complaint:

“Rais Kayani - A correction Previous versions of our articles published on 4 and 5 July were headlined: 'Anger as man stole exploited £35k pretending to run Greggs walks free from court' and 'Fraudster got £35,000 from council by pretending to run a Greggs'. The headlines and articles incorrectly reported that Rais Kayani 'pretended to be the well known bakery Greggs' and that he 'made claims for small business grants'. In fact, although all of the requested payments were transferred to the bank account of a company of which Kayani was the sole director, investigators were unable to identify the individuals who submitted the fraudulent applications, therefore it was inaccurate to report that Kayani 'made the claims' by 'pretending to be Greggs'. We are happy to clarify this and the article has been amended accordingly.”

13. The publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate to suggest the complainant was the “sole perpetrator” of the money gained. It said that the CPS report clearly stated that he was “the cynical beneficiary of a series of false applications to local authorities in different parts of the country from where his business operated. Having dishonestly benefitted from the fraudulent applications for the Small Business Grant Fund, he transferred the proceeds overseas.” It said that, given it was accepted that the complainant was the beneficiary of the false applications; that he “dishonestly benefitted from the fraudulent applications”; and that he “transferred the proceeds overseas”, the articles were not inaccurate to report he accepted or stole the money, or defrauded the Covid scheme.

14. In response, the complainant said that it was not sufficient for the publication to rely on the information contained in the CPS report. The complainant said that the CPS report had quoted the prosecutor and had not provided any additional facts to substantiate their characterisation that he was the “cynical beneficiary” and “dishonestly benefited”. He said, therefore, it was not accurate to conclude that he was the individual who defrauded the local authorities, or that he was enriched in any way. The complainant further said the publication had not amended all the references under complaint.

15. The complainant did not accept the publication’s correction wording on either articles and reiterated that the second article should be removed – he offered alternative correction wording for the top of the first article and alternative wording for the standalone correction.

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

16. The Committee emphasised the importance of accurate court reporting in the public interest. The Committee considered the complainant’s concerns that the articles had stated or implied he had personally made the fraudulent applications. It had regard for the CPS press release which stated that “investigators were unable to identify who submitted the fraudulent applications” and the complainant’s position that he had not submitted or had any knowledge of the applications. The Committee noted that both articles had made clear investigators were unable to identify who submitted the fraudulent applications, however, the articles’ headlines had claimed the complainant pretended to ”run [a] Greggs” and the second article stated he took £195,000 in government grants “by pretending to run businesses including a Greggs bakery”. In this instance, the publication had not taken sufficient care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information with these claims, and there was a breach of Clause 1(i) on this point.

17. The Committee next considered whether this was significantly inaccurate and in need of correction in line with the terms of Clause 1 (ii). Where the complainant claimed he had no knowledge of the applications and the CPS were unable to identify who was responsible, claiming the complainant had pretended to be Greggs and therefore implying he had made the fraudulent applications was significantly inaccurate, particularly where this had appeared in the headlines of both articles. A correction was therefore required in accordance with Clause 1 (ii).

18. The Committee noted that the publication had confirmed it had amended the articles, published a correction under the headline, and offered a standalone correction at the beginning of the investigation. The Committee were content that the inaccuracies were addressed in its first substantive response to the complainant and therefore this was sufficiently prompt. Further, where the original inaccuracy had appeared in the headlines as well as the text of the second article, the Committee considered the offer of a standalone correction and a correction which would appear below the headlines of both articles to be sufficiently prominent. The Committee had regard for the wording of the corrections and noted that they identified the original inaccuracy that the complainant has pretended to be the bakery Greggs, and that in fact investigators were unable to identify the individuals who submitted the fraudulent applications. The Committee was satisfied the corrections had corrected the record. Therefore there was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

19. The Committee next turned to whether the articles had inaccurately reported the degree in which the complainant was involved in the criminal activity and suggested he was the “sole perpetrator”. The Committee noted that both articles made clear that “fraudsters” had made the applications and acknowledged the text of the articles made clear investigators could not identify who made the applications. It was also not in dispute that the complainant’s company had received the money as a result of the fraudulent applications. The Committee did not consider it to be misleading for the articles to focus on the complainant – particularly in the circumstances where he had pleaded guilty to money laundering and the articles were a report on his sentencing. The Committee did not consider the articles to be inaccurate or misleading on this point.

20. The Committee next considered whether the articles had inaccurately claimed or suggested that the complainant had personally received the funds. The Committee noted that it was accepted that the complainant’s company, of which he was the sole director, received the funds. While the complainant claimed not to have known that these applications had been made, and asserted that he did not receive the funds into his personal account, his company had received the funds, and he transferred the money onwards. The Committee therefore considered it was not inaccurate to state that the complainant had accepted the money. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. The complainant also believed that the second article was misleading because it included quotations of user generated comments which appeared below the first article on the basis of inaccurate information contained in the first. The Committee reviewed the quotations in the second article and did not consider any of them to contain inaccurate or misleading information. It was not in dispute that the fraudsters had pretended to be Greggs and that the complainant’s company had received money from the Covid government schemes. The Committee also noted that these comments were distinguished as comments from readers in line with the publication’s obligation under Clause 1(iv) to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

22. Turning to the URLs which the complainant said were inaccurate. It noted that these URLs did not form any coherent claim and acted as a summary of the articles. In the view of the Committee these were not significantly inaccurate and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

23. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

24. The published corrections put the correct position on record and were offered promptly and with due prominence. The standalone 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: 17/07/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 05/12/2023


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.