Ruling

22422-23 openDemocracy v express.co.uk

  • Complaint Summary

    openDemocracy complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'Keep your nose out!' Brexit hating billionaire George Soros in Scottish independence plot”, published on 19 November 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      22nd May 2024

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 22422-23 openDemocracy v express.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1.      openDemocracy complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'Keep your nose out!' Brexit hating billionaire George Soros in Scottish independence plot”, published on 19 November 2023.

2.      The article, which appeared online only, reported on the involvement of openDemocracy in a “Break Up of Britain” conference. It reported that “American/Hungarian billionaire George Soros' leftwing anti-Brexit Open Democracy organisation was one of the main backers of a ‘Break Up of Britain’ conference in Edinburgh yesterday”.

3.      The article went on to report that, “most worryingly for critics, was the involvement of George Soros' Open Democracy whose [a named correspondent] chaired an event with the globalist organisation livestreaming the whole conference as one of its major sponsors”. It also added that: “But the involvement of Soros' organisation has set off alarm bells amid concerns he could back SNP First Minister Humza Yousaf's flagging attempts to get Scottish Independence”.

4.      On 20 November, one day after its original publication, the article was updated. The updated version of the article featured a sub-headline, which reported: “EXCLUSIVE: Controversial foreign billionaire George Soros’s campaign group Open Democracy supported a “Break Up Britian” conference in Scotland this week.

5.      The complainant said the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because it gave the impression that Mr Soros owned or controlled openDemocracy. It said this was the case as the article referred to the organisation as: “George Soros' leftwing anti-Brexit Open Democracy organisation”; “George Soros' Open Democracy”; and “Soros' organisation”. The complainant also said the article inaccurately referred to the organisation as a “campaign group” - the organisation was an independent media organisation, not a “campaign group”. It said that both of these alleged inaccuracies undermined its editorial independence and harmed its reputation.

6.      In support of its position, the complainant referred to its organisation’s funding transparency page. The transparency page reported that Open Society Foundations – an organisation which George Soros founded – made numerous donations to the complainant. The page listed these as:

$600,000 over 33 months for exposing threats to sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality.

$340,000 over 24 months to support our investigative reporting on money laundering and corruption in the UK.

$155,000 over 19.5 months to support democraciaAbierta.

$160,000 over 27 months to support reporting on human rights, labour, economic and social issues in the post-Soviet space.

7.      The complainant stated that these donations totalled around 13% of its income in 2022.

8.      The complainant also said the article reported in a misleading manner that openDemocracy “was one of the main backers” of the conference – it stated that this suggested it contributed financially to the event. Although it promoted and livestreamed the event on social media, it had made no financial contribution and devoted little staff time to the event; it said its involvement was solely as a media partner.

9.      The complainant also said that it had not been invited to respond to the article’s allegations, and that this also represented a breach of Clause 1.

10.    On 23 November, in response to the complaint and as a gesture of goodwill, the publication amended the headline of the article to read: “Keep your nose out!' Brexit hating billionaire George Soros linked to Scottish indy plot'”. The standfirst, which previously reported: “EXCLUSIVE: Controversial foreign billionaire George Soros’s campaign group Open Democracy supported a “Break Up Britian” conference in Scotland this week”, was updated to read: “EXCLUSIVE: Controversial foreign billionaire George Soros funded campaign group Open Democracy supported a "Break Up Britain?" conference in Scotland.”

11.    The text of the article was also updated. Where it previously referred to: “George Soros' leftwing anti-Brexit Open Democracy organisation”; “George Soros' Open Democracy”, and “Soros' organisation”, this was updated to report; “The leftwing anti-Brexit openDemocracy organisation funded by Hungarian/American billionaire George Soros”; “openDemocracy, which is funded by Soros”; and “the Soros funded organisation”.

12.    This version of the article also added: “OpenDemocracy describes itself as a media organisation but is seen by critics as a leftwing activist campaign group”.

13.    The complainant maintained, following the above changes, that the article continued to report that Mr Soros owned or controlled the organisation. It added that the article now suggested Mr Soros funded the organisation personally, which still undermined its independence; it again referred to the organisation’s funding transparency page. It said that this made clear that the Open Society Foundations – a grant making foundation founded by Mr Soros – provided a relatively small amount of its funding. It subsequently added, as of December 2022 and prior to the article’s publication, Mr Soros was no longer the chair of Open Society Foundations, and had no formal control over said organisation.

14.    It also said that the statement “OpenDemocracy describes itself as a media organisation but is seen by critics as a leftwing activist campaign group” was false. It said that this statement was another slur that damaged its reputation.

15.    The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. Firstly, it stated that the article did not report that Mr Soros owned or controlled openDemocracy. It said that, when the article used statements such as “George Soros' leftwing anti-Brexit Open Democracy organisation”, this was not a literal possessive statement, but rather a representative one.

16.    In addition, it said Mr Soros had a clear association and strong connection to openDemocracy, and that the article was therefore not misleading. It noted that Open Society Foundations funded openDemocracy - and did not dispute the 13% figure given by the complainant - and that openDemocracy dedicated a page to Mr Soros on its website, which referred to him as “as the 'chairman and founder of Soros Fund Management and of the Open Society Institute and Soros foundations network'”. It also stated that the updated version of the article was not inaccurate to refer to the organisation as funded by Mr Soros, for the same reasons. It added that, in any case, the article did not report that Mr Soros funded openDemocracy personally.

17.    Further to this, the publication said the article did not report that openDemocracy contributed financially to the conference; rather, it just used terms such as “supported” or “backed”. In support of its position, it added that a named correspondent from the organisation was listed on a web page for the conference, as part of the “Conference Steering Group”. It also referred to an article on the complainant’s website, and highlighted the following extract:

“On 18 November, partly to mark the life and death of [a named individual], but also because this is a moment that requires serious thinking, a group of us is organising a big get-together in Edinburgh. Called ‘The Break up of Britain?,’ we’ll be confronting the UK’s democratic crisis. […]. You can book your tickets here.”

18.    In addition, the publication said that it was not necessary to contact the complainant for comment; the article reported on their presence at an event, which was a matter of fact. It did not include any allegations or claims that it needed to seek comment on.

19.    Finally, the publication stated that, while the complainant said the article inaccurately reported that the organisation “describes itself as a media organisation but is seen by critics as a leftwing activist campaign group”, this did not amount to a breach of Clause 1. It stated that the organisation referred to itself in this manner on its website; it also provided Tweets/X posts of individual’s referring to the organisation as “left-wing”, and stated that two political commentators had been critical of the organisation.

20.    In response, the complainant stated that the publication’s argument that the phrase “George Soros' leftwing anti-Brexit Open Democracy organisation” was “representative” was “nonsense”. It said that the article suggested a stronger, and more direct, relationship between Mr Soros and the organisation.

21.    The complainant maintained that the article now reported that Mr Soros personally funded the organisation. Again, it reiterated that Mr Soros’ organisation Open Society Foundations funded a small proportion of its income. It also clarified that Mr Soros had an “author page” on its website as he had written three articles for the organisation, as had thousands of other individuals.

22.    Further, regarding the organisation’s involvement with the conference, the complainant said that the terms “supported” and “backed” are widely used as synonyms for “funded”, and that the page the publication referred to did not say that openDemocracy organised or directed or funded the conference. Rather, it just said: “a group of us is organising a big get-together in Edinburgh. Called ‘The Break up of Britain? […]”. It added that the fact an individual on the Conference Steering Group was linked to the organisation “was not evidence that it was [their] event”.

23.    Finally, the complainant stated that it was not complaining about the description of the organisation as “leftwing”; it was the use of the phrase “campaign group” it objected to.

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

24.    First, the Committee considered the complainant’s concerns that the article suggested in an inaccurate and misleading manner that George Soros owned or controlled openDemocracy. The Committee noted that the complainant and publication disagreed about the meaning of specific phrases in the article, such as “George Soros' leftwing anti-Brexit Open Democracy organisation”. However, the Committee was clear that articles should be read as a whole when assessing whether they contain inaccurate or misleading information. The Committee was not considering the meaning of isolated sentences out of context. Rather, it was for the Committee to consider whether the disputed portions in the article, when read in the context of the article as a whole, were inaccurate or misleading.

25.    The original headline of the article read: “Brexit hating Billionaire George Soros in Scottish Independence Plot”. This clearly framed the article as an examination of Mr Soros’ role in this “plot”, namely his alleged involvement in the conference which the article reported on, and the article would be read in light of the link between the two made in the headline. The article then went on, multiple times when discussing openDemocracy’s involvement in the conference, to refer to it as “George Soros' Open Democracy” and “Soros' organisation”. The article also referred to Mr Soros interchangeably with openDemocracy; for instance, reporting “[a] controversial foreign billionaire who was accused of ploughing money into Remainer groups appears to be backing Humza Yousaf’s latest plot to get Scottish Independence” [Emphasis IPSO]. The Committee also noted that, while the publication had set out the link between Mr Soros and the organisation during the investigation into the complaint, this information was not reported in the article – the article did not explain the basis for linking Mr Soros with openDemocracy, which was that he had founded a grant-making organisation which in turn had later given grants to openDemocracy.

26.    In these circumstances, the Committee was of the view that the original version of the article gave the misleading impression that openDemocracy was operated, or had been founded by, George Soros – and that he therefore had some degree of control over it. The Committee did not consider that the fact Mr Soros founded Open Society Foundations, a grant awarding organisation which provided some of the complainant’s funding in 2022, was a sufficient factual basis for the impression given. The article therefore implied, in a misleading manner, that George Soros exercised some degree of control over the operations of openDemocracy. The publication had not been able to provide any further evidence that it had taken care not to publish misleading information on this point: Mr Soros’ author page on the complainant’s website, which the publication had provided, did not refer to him as being involved in the operations of openDemocracy, and the publication did not appear to have taken any further steps to verify this information, such as contacting the complainant for comment. In such circumstances, the publication had not taken care not to publish misleading information on this point, and there was a breach of Clause 1(i).

27.    Having determined that the article was misleading, the Committee turned to the question of whether the article was significantly misleading and therefore required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The Committee noted the primary thrust of the article - which reported on the involvement of the organisation in a “plot” to support Scottish independence – and the organisation’s self-described remit, as an “independent media organisation”. Taking these factors into account, the Committee was of the view that to suggest that a specific individual – whom it labelled “a controversial foreign billionaire” – exercised some degree of control over the organisation constituted significantly misleading information, given the implications it could have regarding the organisation’s editorial independence. Although the article had been amended, no correction had been published on this point. This was also a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

28.    The Committee next considered the complaint that the amended article inaccurately suggested the organisation was personally funded by Mr Soros. The amended article stated, in its headline, “Controversial foreign billionaire George Soros funded campaign group Open Democracy". The article went on to refer to the organisation as “[t]he leftwing anti-Brexit openDemocracy organisation funded by Hungarian/American billionaire George Soros”; “openDemocracy, which is funded by Soros”; and “the Soros funded organisation”.

29.    The Committee again noted that the article did not provide the basis for this claim – which was that a portion of openDemocracy’s funding in 2022 came from a grant awarding organisation Mr Soros had founded and chaired until 2022. In light of this omission, and where the article referred – multiple times – to the organisation as “Soros funded” and “funded by Soros”, the Committee was of the view that this gave the misleading impression that Mr Soros directly funded the organisation. In these circumstances, where the misleading information had not been corrected, and where the misleading information pertained to the complainant’s ownership and independence, the Committee was of the view that the publication had also not taken care over the accuracy of the amended version of the article, nor had it corrected significantly misleading information. There was a further breach of Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii) on this basis.

30.    The Committee then considered the complaint that the article inaccurately reported that openDemocracy was a “campaign group”. The Committee appreciated that the complainant disputed this characterisation, and referred to itself as an “independent media organisation”. However, the Committee noted that the article provided a basis for referring to the organisation in this manner: it reported that the organisation had been involved, to some degree, in a conference aimed at promoting Scottish independence. The Committee did not consider that the article was inaccurate, distorted, or misleading on this point, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

31.    Next, the Committee turned to the complainant’s position that the article reported that openDemocracy had contributed financially to the conference. In considering this point of complaint, the Committee had regard for the wording of the article: it reported that openDemocracy “was one of the main backers” of the conference. The Committee recognised, by the complainant’s own admission, that it had contributed as a “media partner”, had promoted the event on social media, and had livestreamed part of it. The publication had also provided an article taken from the complainant’s website which promoted the event and included a link to purchase tickets. Taking these factors into account, and where the Committee did not consider that ‘backing’ is purely restricted to financial contributions, the Committee was satisfied that there was sufficient basis for the article to report that openDemocracy had been a ‘backer’ of the event. There was no inaccuracy, and no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

32.    The Committee also noted the complainant’s concerns regarding the phrase “OpenDemocracy describes itself as a media organisation but is seen by critics as a leftwing activist campaign group”. The Committee appreciated that the complainant disputed the impression this gave of its credentials. However, where the statement was reported as a subjective criticism – and not as a statement of fact and where the publication had cited critics of the organisation, the Committee did not consider the article to be inaccurate or misleading on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

33.    The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii).

Remedial action required

34.    Having partly upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

35.    The Committee considered that the first version of the article had reported in a misleading manner that George Soros had a level of control over the operations of openDemocracy. It also considered that the amended version of the article misleadingly reported that Mr Soros directly funded the organisation. However, the Committee recognised that the publication had attempted to amend the original inaccuracy; although it had not published a correction, the publication had changed the headline and the text of the article to try to address the complainant’s concerns.

36.    Therefore, on balance, the Committee considered that a correction was the appropriate remedy. The correction should acknowledge that the article had misleadingly implied George Soros exercised a level of control over openDemocracy and that he directly funded the organisation. It should also put the correct position on record, namely that Mr Soros founded a grant-making organisation which subsequently a small portion of openDemocracy’s funding in 2022, and he was not involved in the operations of the organisation.

37.    The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, the correction on the article should be published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the correction should be published as a footnote.

38.    The wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Date complaint received: 20/11/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 25/04/2024