Ruling

20825-23 Revell v The Mail on Sunday

  • Complaint Summary

    Ben Revell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The courier, a missing phone ...and a flock of flying pigs”, published on 17 September 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      3rd April 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 20825-23 Revell v The Mail on Sunday


Summary of Complaint

1. Ben Revell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The courier, a missing phone ...and a flock of flying pigs”, published on 17 September 2023.

2. The article, which appeared on page 62 of the newspaper, appeared as part of a regular “readers’ champion” column. It reported the company Winebuyers, owned by the complainant, “[l]ike the third instalment in a substandard zombie franchise, is back from the dead”. The article then said that “it is only the website of that name that is really back. The two companies that collapsed, leaving suppliers and customers hugely out of pocket, are beyond resuscitation”. The article stated, in “June, [the writer] warned not to pay a penny to Winebuyers as it was about to collapse. There were court orders for debt against it, and people who had paid up front for cases of wine had received nothing”. The article also referenced a previous iteration of the company: “It had already collapsed in 2021, owing more than £1.5 million on top of more than half a million pounds raised from crowdfunding investors”.

3. The article reported that “first there was Winebuyers Limited, which flopped in 2021. Then the website of that name was taken over by Winebuyers Group Limited, which [the writer] warned against in June. It collapsed in July.” The article named the complainant as “[t]he man behind both companies”. The article stated that, “since then, administrators […] have put the company’s few assets up for sale, including the website and its name. They received an offer of £100,000, paid in instalments, from Ophidian Corporation, an offshore business based in the Seychelles”. The article reported that administrators “turned this down, as handing over customer records to a foreign firm would breach data protection rules. So, up popped Elysian Ventures Limited, a new British company, and it now owns the Winebuyers website and everything that goes with it”. The article continued by stating that Ophidian owned Elysian and the complainant owned Ophidian.

4. The article also appeared online, under the headline “I sent a phone with Evri that it said got damaged beyond repair... but it won't send proof: TONY HETHERINGTON investigates”.

5. The complainant said that the article was misleading in breach of Clause 1, because it reported that his company had “collapsed in 2021, owing £1.5 million”. He said that this was not the case, as the company was sold as a “going concern”, which meant it continued to trade and all debt was carried over except for £193,212.81. He also said the article had omitted to mention most of the £1.5 million debt was owed to him and his family. The complainant also said the article inaccurately stated the £1.5 million debt was “on top of more than half a million pounds raised from crowdfunding investors”; he said that the crowdfunding investors were equity investors, meaning they bought shares in the company. While they may have lost their investment, they were not “owed” money because that was not the expectation when they bought into the company. He said that all shareholders were carried over to the acquiring company and so none were disadvantaged.

6. The complainant said the article was also inaccurate to report that customers were left “hugely out of pocket” as all customers had either received their orders or had been refunded. To support his position, he provided a spreadsheet showing historic refunded orders and said this showed that 863 orders had been refunded.

7. He also said it was inaccurate to report he owned Ophidian Corporation; he said that another person operated the company, and provided their contact information. He said that a consortium of 319 new and existing investors had established Ophidian to purchase the assets of the Winebuyers organisation.

8. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. Regarding the amount of money owed after Winebuyers Ltd collapsed, the publication said this figure came from the company’s liquidators. To support its position on this point, it provided a copy of the Notice of statement of affairs, showing the company’s assets and liabilities at the point it had entered administration. This estimated the company’s total net debts at 1.54 million. It noted that the complainant had signed this notice, “confirming its accuracy”.

9. The publication also did not accept that it was inaccurate to report that the complainant “owned” Ophidian, as the complainant, according to the Administrators of Winebuyers Group, had confirmed that the complainant was the beneficial owner of Ophidian. It also referred to document filed by the Administrators, which said that the complainant was a “100% shareholder of Ophidian Corp”. It noted that Ophidian Corp, in turn, owned 70% of the shares of Winebuyers Group Ltd. It provided the document in question. The publication added that, due to Ophidian being established under a Seychelles law that guaranteed the secrecy of whoever owned the company, it was unclear, on day-to-day level, who had control over the operation. The publication said this meant it could only use what was available at the time of publication: the statements from the administrators that the complainant was in charge of Ophidian. After the publication had received the complaint, it said it checked Companies House again, which showed that the Complainant was the sole director of Elysian Ventures Ltd, and that Ophidian owned at least 75 per cent of shares in Elysian and so controlled the company.

10. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1 regarding the concerns about whether crowdfunding investors were owed £500,000. It said the article had not said these individuals were owed this money, but that it owed £1.5 million “on top of more than half a million pounds raised from crowdfunding investors”. It said that, regardless, these people were still left out of pocket as they had not seen a return on their investment and they could have seen a return of some of this investment if money was left after the refunding of creditors. It added that the Liquidator’s Report, filed at Companies House, stated that distributions to shareholders in the company totalled £0 and so there was no evidence that they had been compensated in any way. Notwithstanding the above, as a gesture of goodwill, the publication offered to publish a comment from the complainant. It said that this comment would make clear that, while shareholders had lost money, they were owed nothing.

11. The publication also did not accept a breach of the Code in relation to customers having allegedly been left “hugely out of pocket”. It referred to an article it had published earlier that year, in June, which had reported on a customer who claimed to have been financially disadvantaged by the complainant’s company; it said this showed that customers had been owed money by the complainant, and noted the complainant had not raised concerns about the accuracy of this earlier article. It said it had been contacted by customers who had lost money who wanted a renewed warning against the company to be published. It also said there were numerous examples of customers complaining on review sites about not receiving orders or a refund; it provided several examples of these complaints. The publication added that there were also multiple court issued debt orders for amounts (£135, £268, £234, £233) which suggested that these had been filed by ordinary customers rather than commercial suppliers. The publication said it had also asked the complainant, prior to publication of an earlier article, about customers being financially disadvantaged, but that the complainant had declined to comment.

12. The complainant did not accept the publication’s offer as a resolution to his complaint. He said he had questioned the administrators as to whether they had spoken to the publication and provided its response. This said one team had confirmed they had not spoken to the publication and they asked if there was a name for the individual allegedly approached. Regarding the earlier article about an apparent customer who’d had a bad experience with the complainant’s company, the complainant said he had not submitted a complaint because he was not aware at the time that this was something he could do. He said, therefore, it was unfair to continue to report inaccurate information simply because he did not complain the first time this information was published.

13. The complainant also stated that customer reviews left on e-commerce sites were not confirmation of them being left “out of pocket” permanently, or that disputes remained unresolved. The complainant said these reviews could not be used if they had not been separately verified by the publication. He said he had explained to the publication at the time that he had been unable to comment on individual cases due to GDPR legislation that required the third party to provide written consent. He also said it was inaccurate to state that suppliers had lost money because the majority of suppliers continued to list on the platform and offered to provide supporting documentation showing suppliers had been reimbursed in full.

14. Regarding the ownership and operation of Ophidian, the complainant said he was the sole shareholder “at the point of conception” but, at the point of acquisition, this had changed.

15. The publication said while the complainant questioned what the negative customer reviews actually showed, he did not appear to dispute their contents. Regarding the court orders, it said there was no evidence they had been settled out of court and, if he had now paid them, this was him simply following the law. In addition, it said that every court order it had previously listed was recorded as “Unsatisfied”. In relation to whether suppliers had lost money, the publication stated it had been approached by a supplier who said they had never received payment for wine it had provided and that it had been trying to retrieve their product since 2021.

16. In relation to the ownership and operation of Ophidian, the complainant said that documents submitted to Companies House in September (after the acquisition of Winebuyers) by the administrators stated, under the “Statutory Information” section, that the complainant was the “100% shareholder of Ophidian Corp”.

17. The complainant said that, while the documentation had been submitted in September, it was dated in July.

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

11. The Committee first considered the complaint regarding the reported sum owed by the complainant’s first company, Winebuyers Limited. The Statement of Affairs prepared by the company’s liquidators estimated that the deficiency as regards creditors at the point of liquidation amounted to £1.54 million. It was not, therefore, inaccurate to report that at the time the company collapsed in 2021, it had owed more than £1.5 million. Omitting to include details about the identity of the creditors or that some of this debt was transferred to the purchaser of the company, did not render the article inaccurate or misleading. The article was not inaccurate, distorted, or misleading on this point, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

12. In relation to the reference concerning the crowdfunding investors, the Committee considered the article had distinguished between the debt owed by the company and the position of the investors, by referring separately to the £1.5 million sum which the company owed and the investment received from crowdfunding, making clear that the sum owed was : “…on top of more than half a million pounds raised from crowdfunding investors”. The reference did not claim that the investors were owed money, but reported the sum they had invested in the company which the complainant did not dispute. Whilst the Committee acknowledged that the complainant said that the investors had become shareholders in the purchasing company, it was not inaccurate or misleading for the article to refer to the money which had been raised from crowdfunding investors when reporting on the liquidation of the company, where this was distinguished from the sum owed to the company’s creditors. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. The Committee then considered whether it was inaccurate for the article to report that customers of the two companies that collapsed had been left “hugely out of pocket”. The publication had referred to reviews left by customers who complained of not receiving a refund and the complainant did not dispute that the reviews had been left by the companies’ customers. The publication also relied on judgments obtained against the companies which were recorded as being “unsatisfied” and which the publication said it was reasonable to infer related to proceedings which had been brought by customers given the size of the judgment debts. While the complainant had submitted a spreadsheet which he said showed that hundreds of customers had been reimbursed, he accepted that judgments against the companies had been made, although he said that the records did not mean that they had not ultimately been satisfied. Where there were a significant number of reviews which suggested that customers had not been refunded at the time the reviews were posted and where judgments against the companies had been recorded as being “unsatisfied”, the Committee did not consider that it was able to establish that it was inaccurate to report that customers of the two companies had been left out of pocket. There was no breach of Clause 1.

14. Regarding whether the companies’ suppliers had been left “out of pocket”, the publication provided a complaint from a supplier which stated it had not received payment, nor the return of the product it had supplied. Whilst the complainant asserted that many suppliers had been reimbursed, he did not confirm that all suppliers had been repaid. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that an inaccuracy could not be established on this point and there was no breach of Clause 1.

15. The Committee then considered the article’s reporting of Ophidian’s ownership. While the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that he did not continue to own or operate the company, the Committee noted that the Notice of administrator’s proposals had recorded that the complainant had been “100% shareholder of Ophidian Corp”. In an article that reported on the acquisition of Winebuyers Group Limited, it was not inaccurate to identify the complainant as being the owner of Ophidian at the point of the acquisition and there was therefore no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

17. N/A


Date complaint received: 17/09/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 15/03/2024