Ruling

27885-20 Sutherland v Daily Record

    • Date complaint received

      4th February 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 27885-20 Sutherland v Daily Record

Summary of Complaint

1. Edward Sutherland complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Daily Record breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Top pro-Israel lawyer’s fake vandalism plot to frame Palestine group”, published on 7 September 2020.

2. The article reported on a preliminary ruling of the Law Society of Scotland (LSS) which found that a solicitor had been involved in a “fake vandalism plot to frame” a Palestinian pressure group.  It said that an associate of the solicitor had “created a fake Facebook identity” in order “to infiltrate the [the Palestinian group referred to in the headline] in January last year”. It said that the associate was “linked to [a named group relating to Israel], which aims to promote the interests of [Israel] in the UK”. The article reported that the solicitor’s associate had used the fake profile “Stevie Harrison” to post on social media “highlighting vandalism daubed on [the solicitor’s] home”. It then quoted the social media post in full: “A certain Jewish lawyer woke up this morning to find ‘Free Palestine’ spray-painted rather prominently – no idea who was responsible.” The article then reported that the lawyer “fuelled the story of the fantasy attack” by responding to the post on Facebook with “Idiocy. Typical [named group] behaviour. Criminal.” Screenshots of both posts were included in the article, and the one by Stevie Harrison contained multiple winking emojis. The article reported the LSS report in which the solicitor admitted “he knew the scenario to be faked”, but that he “went along with it” as his associate’s character was being used “’to monitor various disruptive activities of the [named group relating to Palestine]’”. A quote from the report was included in the article which stated that there was “no evidence to find that Harrison was recognised as a member of the [named Palestinian group]” and that the “emojis portraying a wink” after his status implied that he had committed the act of vandalism, and that the solicitor’s comment had tied this to the [named group relating to Palestine]. The article also reported that the solicitor’s associate, behind the fake profile, was facing “his own probe by the General Teaching Council for Scotland”. The article stated that “victims” were demanding that the solicitor “pay compensation to those smeared by the plot”. It then went on to quote the chair of the named group which related to Palestine, who was reported as saying that “those who have been defamed, including myself, should be awarded exemplary damages”.

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “Top pro-Israel lawyer faked vandalism attack at Scots home in plot to frame Palestine group”.

4. The complainant, the associate of the solicitor who created the fake Facebook profile, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He stated that he had not created the fake Facebook profile in order “to infiltrate the [named Palestinian group]”. He said that he predominantly used the profile to monitor groups for threats against him and his friends, and to infiltrate other Facebook groups, but not the group named in the article. He noted that the LSS report did not state that he had infiltrated the group, and had described him as creating the profile “to monitor various disruptive activities", which he considered to be an accurate characterisation.

5. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to state he was “linked” to a named group “which aims to promote the interests of [Israel] in the UK”. He said the charity’s name was longer than that reported by the article, and noted that the aims of the charity were available online and were described as “to advance education regarding Israel”; “to promote equality and diversity”; “to advance human rights, conflict resolution and reconciliation”; and “to promote religious and racial harmony”. The complainant noted that the LSS report described a group, that it did not name, as a “pro Israel advocacy group”, which he also thought was inaccurate.

6. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report that "The fake Palestinian supporting activist ‘Stevie Harrison’ wrote a social media post highlighting vandalism daubed on [named solicitor’s] home”. He accepted that he had used a fake Facebook account to post about graffiti that did not exist, but stated that the status did not say it was on the solicitor’s home. He said that the sentence gave the impression that the vandalism had actually taken place which was inaccurate.

7. The complainant also believed that the term “plot” was an inaccurate characterisation of the events. Similarly, he said it was inaccurate to describe “victims” as he believed no one had been harmed by his actions, and that no “victims” were described in the LSS report. He also said that the quote from the initial judgment of the LSS: "The reporter is satisfied that Mr Y impersonates an anti-Israeli activist and in order to convince other anti-Israeli activists, Mr Y targets Israeli supporters, including the solicitor" was untrue as he did not target anyone. The complainant also stated that the reference to his “probe by the General Teaching Council for Scotland” gave the misleading impression that the “probe” was connected to the points in the article.

8. The complainant also said that the publication of the LSS report, and his identity in connection with it, which was not revealed in the LSS report, was a breach of his privacy. The complainant said the report was not publicly available. He also said that referring to the “probe by the General Teaching Council for Scotland” was a breach of his privacy as this was confidential at the time of publication.

9. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It initially said that the complainant had accepted that the fake account had been used to infiltrate the group by entering it on Facebook. The publication also noted that the article did not refer to the account being created in January, but stated that this was when the “infiltration” took place.

10. The publication did not accept that it was significantly inaccurate to misname the charity the complainant was linked to by publishing a shorter version, but offered to amend the online version of the article to reflect its full name.

11. The publication said that the graffiti being alleged to have been daubed on the solicitor’s home was supported by the findings of the LSS report which stated that: “The reporter is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the purpose of the post was to give the impression that the solicitor’s home had been vandalised”. The report also stated that “Stevie Harrison had discussed a fictitious plan with Mr X to paint graffiti on the solicitor’s home and had asked Mr X for his assistance. It was said that Mr X believing this to be a real plan assisted by providing Stevie Harrison with a description of the solicitor’s property and the registration details of his wife’s car.”

12. The publication stated that it was not inaccurate to characterise the complainant’s actions as a “plot”. The publication acknowledged that the complainant himself had stated that he “pretended to have a grudge” against the solicitor. It also provided an extract from the LSS report it believed supported this: “The reporter is satisfied that at the time of commenting, the solicitor knew Mr Y and knew that Mr Y impersonated an anti-Israeli activist through the online alias of Stevie Harrison. The reporter is also satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the discussions with Mr X concerning the proposed vandalism of the solicitor’s home would have been disclosed to the solicitor by Mr Y. Taking this together, the reporter is satisfied that when commenting on the post, the solicitor would have known that the post was false and no vandalism had taken place. The reporter is satisfied that the purpose of the comment was to associate the ostensibly criminal act with members of the [named group relating to Palestine] despite the solicitor being aware at the material time that no criminal act had taken place. The reporter is satisfied that it is reasonable to draw the inference that the purpose of the association was to discredit the [named group relating to Palestine].” It noted that the LSS report described the events as a “plan” and therefore the publication did not consider that it was misleading to characterise the event as a “plot”.

13. The publication said that the reported quote: "The reporter is satisfied that Mr Y impersonates an antiIsraeli activist and in order to convince other anti-Israeli activists, Mr Y targets Israeli supporters, including the solicitor" was taken directly from the LSS report and was attributed to the report, and therefore could not be misleading.

14. The publication said that the “probe” by the General Teaching for Scotland was described as the complainant’s “own probe” and therefore readers would not be misled into believing that the two were connected in the way described by the complainant.

15. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 2. It said that the report had been sent to it, and that was not marked as private or confidential. It also noted that both the complainant’s connection to the Facebook post, and his probe from the Teaching Council was already in the public domain and several other publications had published articles on the subject.

16. The complainant said that the publication’s position was inaccurate. He said that his account had nothing to do with the named group relating to Palestine and that he had not “infiltrated”, joined or posted anything in this group. He noted that the LSS report made no reference to him being accused of gaining access to the named group’s Facebook page. He accepted that he had joined one Facebook group with the fake profile, and that he had monitored other groups, but not that he had joined, or monitored the group named in the article.

17. The publication apologised for the confusion over its position. It stated that its position was that the complainant had used subterfuge in order to gain trust and knowledge he would not have been able to if he had used his own name. It also said that he had posted a Facebook status about vandalising the solicitor’s house with graffiti, and the solicitor replied that this was “typical [named group] behaviour”. The publication said that this response would not have made sense unless the complainant’s fake profile was an established supporter of the named group. It said that this demonstrated that the complainant had infiltrated the named group. However, after IPSO’s investigation had concluded, the publication offered to publish the following correction if the Complaints Committee found that the reference to infiltration misleading:

Our article 'Top pro-Israel lawyer's fake vandalism plot to frame Palestine group'; 7 September, reported that Ed Sutherland had 'created a fake Facebook identity under the name Stevie Harrison to infiltrate the SPSC'. We are happy to make clear Mr Sutherland did not physically infiltrate the SPSC Facebook group, but used the fake identity to observe the activities of the SPSC'.

Relevant Code 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.

Clause 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Findings of the Committee

18. The publication’s position as to why it had described the complainant as having “infiltrated” the named group had changed during IPSO’s investigation. It concluded by saying that as the solicitor, who the complainant had made the plan with, had commented on his status saying it was the named group, this demonstrated that the complainant had infiltrated the group. The Committee noted that the publication had provided no evidence of any infiltration to the group, or that the complainant had engaged with the named group at all. This allegation was not included within the LSS report, and therefore the publication had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information under Clause 1(i). The article gave the impression that the complainant had engaged in a higher level of subterfuge than was the case, and was therefore a significant inaccuracy requiring a correction under Clause 1(ii).

19. The publication had offered a correction, however where the complainant had said he had not been monitoring the named group and the publication had provided no evidence to suggest that he had, the offered correction did not put the correct position on the record. In addition, this was only offered after IPSO’s investigation had concluded, which was not sufficiently prompt. There was a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

20. Publishing a shorter version of the name of the group relating to Israel, which the complainant was linked to, was not significantly inaccurate in the context of the article, where this was mentioned in passing. Whilst the complainant disputed that the group aimed “to promote the interests of [Israel] in the UK”, where this was described by the LSS report as a “pro Israel advocacy group” and where the listed purposes of the group was to advance education regarding Israel, this was not a significant inaccuracy.

21. The LSS report stated that it was satisfied that the fake graffiti had been alleged to be on the solicitor’s house. The article had accurately represented the report, and also made clear that there was not actually any graffiti. The publication had not failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information under Clause 1.

22. Where the complainant had accepted that he had “pretended to have a grudge” against the solicitor, which had been agreed with the solicitor in advance, it was not misleading to characterise this as a “plot”. In addition, whilst the complainant did not believe there were any “victims” of his actions, the article contained a quote from the chair of the named group relating to Palestine which set out that he felt the group had been defamed. Where the article made clear what had happened, who felt themselves to be a victim of the complainant’s actions and why, this was not misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

23. The article had also contained a direct quote from the LSS report that the complainant believed was inaccurate. As the publication had accurately reported what was said in the report, and clearly ascribed it to the report, there was no breach of Clause 1. In addition, where the article was about the actions of the complainant and the solicitor, where the article clearly stated the complainant faced his “own probe” from the General Teaching for Scotland this did not misleadingly imply that the two were connected and there was no breach of Clause 1.

24. The complainant had said that both the LSS report and the probe by the Teaching Council were confidential and was a breach of his privacy to publish. The Committee noted that the complainant’s connection to both of these aspects was already in the public domain. It also noted that neither related to the complainant’s private life, but to the complainants public political activity. There was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusions

25. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

26. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1(i) and Clause 1(ii), 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 terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

27. The Committee considered that the publication did not take the necessary care when reporting the complainant’s actions. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record. A correction was considered to be sufficient, as the role the complainant played when creating the profile and posting the Facebook status were set out within the article.

28. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. It should appear as a footnote to the article online, and in the print version of the paper in the established corrections and clarifications column. The correction needed to record that the article had claimed that the complainant had “infiltrated” an organisation, when in fact the publication had not taken care not to publish inaccurate information and did not have the evidence to support this claim. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

 

Date complaint received: 08/09/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 14/01/2021