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Complainant Name:
George Williamson & Co

Clauses Noted: 1, 10

Publication: Daily Mirror


George Williamson & Co. Limited of Berkshire complained that an article headlined "Real price of your cuppa" published in the Sunday Mirror on 24 October 1999 was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) and that journalists had employed subterfuge in breach of Clause 11 (Misrepresentation) of the Code of Practice.

The complaint was not upheld.

The article reported the outcome of an investigation into the tea growing industry in the Assam region of NorthEast India. It made a number of allegations about the widespread employment of children below the age of 14 in contravention of Indian law, as well as low wages, inadequate sanitation and poor conditions endured by the workers. Three tea plantations specifically referred to in the article - the Namdang, Addabarie and Phulbari Tea Estates - were owned and operated by the complainant, George Williamson and Co. Limited.

The complainant strongly objected to the accuracy of the claims made following the newspaper's investigation. The assertion that children under the age of fourteen were employed on the complainant's plantations was categorically denied. The complainant stressed that the Indian laws forbidding the employment of children were rigorously adhered to. In addition to this general claim, specific details of the article were inaccurate. The Phulbari Tea Estate had no record of the girl named 'Balum Dina', described in the article as being twelve years of age, on its register of employees. Instead, the complainant contended that the reporter had most likely spoken to a registered temporary worker named 'Balandina' who was in fact sixteen years old. Additionally, contrary to the article's claim and attributed quotes, there was no foreman by the name of Chautham Moura employed on the estate. Following its own investigation, the complainant could find no record of further individuals quoted and named by the newspaper as being employed on the Namdang Tea Estate. The complainant stated that it appeared journalists had visited the tea estates masquerading as tea buyers whilst accepting the hospitality of the managers.

The complainant further objected to the claim that low levels of payment were imposed on workers as inaccurate and misleading. The complainant stressed that all wage settlements were freely negotiated in a tripartite forum involving the Indian Government, trade unions and employers. With regard to working and living conditions, the complainant stated that a customer had recently undertaken a social audit on the Phulbari, Addabarie and Namdang estates. This concluded that the standards of welfare provision were very high, exceeding the requirements of the Assam regional government.

In reply, the newspaper stood by the integrity of its article and the accuracy of the claims made following the investigation. The article at issue was one in a series of other investigations which had been undertaken by the newspaper in a long-running campaign to reveal and highlight child-labour in the developing world.

The newspaper had initially been alerted to the alleged poor conditions and illegal employment practices of tea estates in the Assam region after viewing a report by the National Campaign on Labour Rights entitled 'Brewed in the Sweat of Forced Labour'. This report included a critical assessment of the Monabari tea estate owned by the complainant. It detailed the large-scale employment of temporary workers, many of them unregistered minors for whom levels of pay were below the officially agreed figures. In order to establish the veracity of the claims made in the report, the newspaper launched its own investigation. Journalists, including a photographer, were despatched to the Assam region for this purpose. Posing as tea buyers, the journalists approached the management of the plantations that were to become the subject of the article. This misrepresentation had been necessary in order to gain access to the sites and carry out as full and accurate an investigation as possible. The newspaper considered that it had abided by the Code: a degree of subterfuge was legitimate because of the substantial public interest involved.

In response to the complainants' specific charges of inaccuracy, the newspaper set out the evidence on which it had based the statements.

At the Phulbari tea estate the reporters were introduced to a senior manager, Dinesh Prakash, who instructed a manager called Ajit to give them a tour of the plantation. Ajit stated that the estate preferred "junior pluckers". The accompanying photographer took pictures of young girls preparing for work who appeared clearly to be below the age of fourteen. A reporter additionally witnessed a girl working in the factory canteen who looked as young as ten. On touring the Phulbari tea estate a reporter had met the girl called Balum Dina who informed him that she was 12 years old. Four other workers at the plantation corroborated her age. With regard to the disputed existence of the foreman named Chautham Moura, the reporter stated he had been interviewed while working in the fields. The newspaper supplied a photograph of him. At the Namdang tea estate a reporter spoke to a girl aged ten named Lakhi Mani. Her father and other workers present corroborated her age. The newspaper provided further photographs taken to support their allegations.

On the broader front, the newspaper made clear it had sufficient documentary evidence, including videotaped interviews, transcripts and photographs to support the claims made in the article.

In response to the evidence supplied by the newspaper, the complainant produced two affidavits relating to the matter which had been signed at the Magistrates Court, Margherita, India. The first, signed by Mr Prashant Sahgal of the Namdang tea estate, stated that Lakhi Mani and her father Dahan Mani were not employed at the plantation. The second, signed by Mr Franchis Munda confirmed that his daughter Balandina, who the complainant believed had been wrongly referred to as 'Balum Dina' in the article, was in fact sixteen years old instead of twelve as stated in the article.

Not Upheld


The Commission recognised that the nature of the article and the complaint brought against it focussed on three central considerations that had to be addressed. Firstly, the article concerned an investigation that had been undertaken in a foreign country concerning information the accuracy of which was likely only to be established in that place. Secondly, the newspaper's article and the complainants' counter-argument revealed conflicting points of view and evidence on each side which the Commission was unlikely to resolve. Thirdly, the issue at the core of the article was undoubtedly one of great public interest in exposing the alleged illegal employment of children and the generally poor working conditions of tea estates.

These are considerations which the Commission has had to take into account in a number of previous investigations.

In the case of Kennedy v The Guardian, brought under Clause 1 of the Code, a significant part of the complaint concerned allegations about statements the complainant was said to have made in Serbia, through the press and broadcast media. The Commission declined to deal with these complaints as it became apparent that they might involve inquiries abroad which it was not in a position to undertake. (Report No. 38)

The case of Downes, President of Friends of Sinn Fein, v The Financial Times, also brought under Clause 1 of the Code, concerned international monetary transactions. The Commission decided that it did not have the resources and investigating powers to determine between the conflicting claims of the complainant and newspaper. This would have required a detailed examination of the transfer and disposal of large amounts of money raised in the United States. The Commission regarded these as exceptional circumstances, and therefore made no finding on the complaint. (Report No. 37)

The case of Fiore v The Sunday Times, again brought under Clause 1 of the Code, concerned an investigation into the complainant's alleged link to Italian neo-fascists. In its ruling, the Commission stressed that sometimes it is not in the position to conduct a large-scale investigation into the claims and counter-claims that arise from investigative journalism where the allegations are hotly disputed. The Commission, therefore, sought only to satisfy itself that the newspaper was in possession of material on which it could properly base the published allegations and that it had taken sufficient care to be accurate. The complaint was rejected on that basis. (Report No. 23)

This complaint raised similar issues. It concerned events abroad which the Commission was not in a position to investigate. Furthermore, it related to a matter of public interest. In such circumstances it was not for the Commission to seek to verify the accuracy of all the points covered in the article or to decide whether the allegations were true or not but to apply a broader test. That test was whether the newspaper had sufficient evidence on which to support its investigation and the allegations it had made. In this case, the Commission was satisfied that the newspaper had undertaken substantial research on a matter of public interest and had taken care to be accurate. That was its obligation under the Code.

The Commission further noted that the newspaper had not merely relied on its own investigation, but had sought and published further comment from experts in the field. The article contained statements regarding the situation from UNICEF's representative in India and the general secretary of the South Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude. The Commission was also pleased to note further that an opportunity to reply had been afforded to the complainant. The article concluded with a clear statement from a representative of George Williamson and Co. that defended the complainant's record on the welfare and social provision for its workers and clearly refuted the newspaper's allegations.

The Commission recognises that such investigative reporting is bound to provoke controversy. However, it is the role of newspapers in a free society to undertake research on matters of public interest - and the role of the Code is to ensure that they take as much care as possible to be accurate in doing so.

In this case, while there was a clear difference of interpretation the Commission, noting the strong arguments and affidavits relating to the age of the children put forward by the complainant, was satisfied that the newspaper had acted fully in accordance with the Code.


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