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Complainant Name:
Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou

Clauses Noted: 1, 12

Publication: Financial Times


Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined "Greek chorus from Stelios does EasyJet a disservice", published in the Financial Times on 11 May 2011, contained inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) and discriminated against him in breach of Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors' Code of Practice.

The newspaper had offered a sufficient form of remedial action under Clause 1. The complaint under Clause 12 was not upheld.

The article, which appeared in the Lombard column, commented on remarks made by the complainant about EasyJet, with particular reference to its failure to pay dividends. The article stated: "Stelios's disgruntlement with EasyJet's ‘absurd' failure to pay a dividend for 11 years is curious, given that he was the chairman until 2009. His enthusiasm for a return of cash beyond the resumed dividend payments scheduled for next year may meanwhile reflect the mixed fortunes of his other businesses".

The complainant said that this passage was inaccurate on two counts. Firstly, the complainant had resigned as Chairman of EasyJet in 2002, rather than 2009. While he had founded the company in 1995, and remained its largest shareholder, he had not held a majority position in the company since 2002. In addition, EasyJet had not made a dividend payment since its IPO in 2000: dividend payments could not, therefore, be "resumed". The complainant added that it was inaccurate for the article to refer to him as "Greek": he was a British citizen by birth, and did not hold Greek citizenship. He had dual nationality, that of the UK and Cyprus.

The complainant also argued that the article had referred to his race prejudicially in breach of Clause 12. He said that the article had attempted to portray him as an ‘untrustworthy foreigner' (whose views should not be given weight) in the context of the Greek financial crisis. While the complainant accepted that many people used the shorthand "Greek" when referring to Greek Cypriots, he considered that the reference to a "Greek chorus" in the headline, in the context of the copy, was deliberately prejudicial. The reference to the "mixed fortunes of his other businesses" added to the impression that he, like Greece, needed ‘bailing out'. Moreover, the article had compared him to an "elderly relative", despite the fact that he was on average one decade younger than the average board member. In his view, reference to his heritage was irrelevant and should not have featured in an article discussing the capital structure of EasyJet.

The newspaper accepted that there had been a regrettable error in regard to the date the complainant ceased to be Chairman, and apologised for the mistake. A contemporaneous piece in the same edition had contained the correct information. In addition, it accepted that the reference to payments being "resumed" required clarification. Following the complaint, the newspaper removed the relevant two sentences from its online version of the article, and offered to publish the following correction and apology in the same column:

On May 11, I wrongly stated that Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou had remained chairman of EasyJet until 2009. In fact, he stepped down in 2002. His criticism of the lack of dividends from the company should be seen in that context. EasyJet has never paid a dividend, so my reference to ‘resumed' payments scheduled for next year was, strictly, inaccurate. Apologies.

The newspaper did not accept that the reference to the complainant as "Greek" was inaccurate. The complainant had been born in Greece and appeared to be proud of his Greek heritage: the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation website made clear that the complainant "strives to further inspire entrepreneurship in Greece, his own birthplace" and stated that he was the "son of the late Loucas Haji-Ioannou, the Greek shipping magnate".

The newspaper entirely rejected the complainant's claim that the article had discriminated against him. It had been entitled to comment on the complainant's conduct, which amounted to a critical running commentary of EasyJet's board. The two analogies it had employed in the article - to an elderly relative and a Greek chorus - were literary conceits and had stemmed from this attitude. Their use was not prejudicial or pejorative in breach of Clause 12.

The newspaper said that the word "Greek" alone did not carry pejorative overtones, and there had been no accompanying epithet or description in the article. The newspaper said that it had not intended to, and did not, stigmatise the complainant as an ‘untrustworthy foreigner' and had made no reference to Greece's fiscal troubles, expressly or implied.

The complainant said that the newspaper may have thought that the "Greek chorus" reference was no more than a clever, colourful metaphor, touching on his ethnic background (less than accurately) and indicating that he had been vocal in his views about the company. The complainant said that the reference had to be considered objectively: it was no defence to say that it was tongue-in-cheek as readers looked for meaning and would have recognised the negative and offensive connotations in the current international economic climate.

While the complainant welcomed the newspaper's apology, and the deletion of the references from the online article, he was not satisfied that his overarching concerns had been addressed.

Sufficient remedial action offered


The article had contained a significant error in regard to the date the complainant had resigned as Chairman of EasyJet. In the context of an account of the complainant's position in regard to payment of the company's dividends (which implied that he could have influenced this himself until 2009), this was clearly misleading and raised a breach of Clause 1 of the Editors' Code of Practice. The reference to "resumed" payments may also have misled readers.

As such, it was necessary for the newspaper - as stated under the terms of Clause 1 (ii) of the Code - to offer to publish a correction and apology. It had done so in line with the terms of the Code. In the Commission's view, this represented a sufficient form of remedial action. It considered that the apology should be published as soon as possible.

There was one final issue to consider under Clause 1: the reference to the complainant as "Greek". This, the Commission decided, did not raise a breach of the terms of Clause 1. The complainant had accepted that many commentators outside Greece and Cyprus, his own staff and sometimes he, for the purposes of convenience, had referred to himself in such a manner, even if he was technically a British citizen by birth and held dual citizenship. He publicly has referred to his birthplace as Greece. There was always need for care to be taken in referring to a person's nationality (which this case demonstrated), but the Commission did not consider that describing the complainant as Greek on this occasion raised a breach of Clause 1 of the Code.

Clause 12 (i) states that newspapers "must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability". It also states, under Clause 12 (ii), that "details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story".

There were two references to the complainant's background in the article: in the headline ("Greek chorus from Stelios"); and in the text itself ("Might the Greek entrepreneur be annoying but right, as elderly relatives often are?"). Part of the complainant's argument that the newspaper had referred to him prejudicially and pejoratively under Clause 12 rested on the implications of the term "Greek" for readers of a publication which focused on financial matters: in his view, simply referring to the country (which at the time had been the focus of global attention for financial problems) would resonate with readers and encourage distrust of him personally. The Commission noted this position. However, it did not agree that these references raised a breach of Clause 12 (i), for the following reasons.

First, the newspaper's reference in the headline had clearly sought to employ metaphor based on both the complainant's background, and the context of his dispute with EasyJet. The use of the term "Greek chorus" conveyed, in the Commission's view, the meaning of someone commenting on central action as an interested (and related) observer. This metaphorical phrase was in common use (not only in regard to those connected to Greece), and the Commission did not agree that this could be seen as especially prejudicial or pejorative towards the complainant.

Second, the newspaper had not made reference in the text at any point to the financial crisis in Greece. It could not be correct to say that a financial newspaper should not make references to Greek nationality in any article (even those which did not refer to financial difficulties in the country). The word "Greek" was not pejorative per se.

Third, the newspaper's comparison of the complainant to an "elderly relative" was explained in the piece and did not, in the Commission's view, relate in any way to the complainant's race. There was no breach of Clause 12 (i).

The judgement over the relevance of any reference to an individual's background can be difficult for the Commission to make. The complainant's argument was that the article had brought in his background for no good reason: it was irrelevant to the matter under discussion. The Commission acknowledged his view. However, the Commission had to have regard for the fact that the complainant had been happy for previous references to his background to be public knowledge; the fact that the complainant had been born in Greece was effectively part of his public persona (referred to on his own website). In the Commission's view, such brief references to the nationality of a public figure, in a descriptive article about him, were not irrelevant. As such, the Commission did not consider that the newspaper had breached Clause 12 (ii).

While the complainant may have considered the comment piece to be hostile to him personally, the Commission did not agree that the views expressed by the columnist discriminated against him in breach of Clause 12. This part of the complaint was not upheld.

Date Published:

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