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PCC rules that FT article about Sir Stelios was inaccurate but an apology is sufficient remedy

PCC rules that Financial Times article about Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou was inaccurate but an apology is sufficient remedy; a further complaint about discrimination not upheld

The Press Complaints Commission has ruled that a May 2011 article in the Financial Times about the EasyJet founder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, raised a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice. The Commission decided that the newspaper's offer to publish an apology represented a sufficient form of remedial action to address the complaint. The Commission also ruled that the article did not discriminate against Sir Stelios in breach of Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Code.

Sir Stelios's complaint under Clause 1 centred on comments in the Lombard column in response to his public criticism of EasyJet and its failure to pay a dividend. The article stated that "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". Sir Stelios said that this was incorrect as he had resigned as Chairman of EasyJet in 2002, rather than 2009. In addition, EasyJet had not made a dividend payment since its IPO in 2000: dividend payments could not, therefore, be "resumed".

The Financial Times accepted that there had been a regrettable error in regard to the date the complainant ceased to be Chairman, and that the reference to payments being "resumed" required clarification. As a result, 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 Commission ruled that 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 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. In the Commission's view, it was incumbent on the newspaper to correct the record and apologise, which it had sought to do. This represented a sufficient form of remedial action under the Code.

The complainant's additional concerns - surrounding the reference to him as "Greek" in the article - were not upheld by the Commission. The complainant had said that to refer to him as "Greek" was inaccurate: he was a British citizen by birth, and did not hold Greek citizenship. He had dual nationality, that of the UK and Cyprus. Sir Stelios also argued that the article had referred to his race prejudicially in breach of Clause 12. It was also irrelevant to the subject matter at hand. In his view, 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.

The Commission decided that the references to Sir Stelios in the piece - the headline had referred to a "Greek chorus" and the article had stated that he was a "Greek entrepreneur" - did not raise a breach of either Clause 1 or Clause 12. 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 as "Greek", and he had publicly referred to Greece as his birthplace. With regard to his further complaint under Clause 12 the Commission did not accept that the references were prejudicial or irrelevant. 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"). The newspaper had not made reference in the text at any point to the financial crisis in Greece and the word "Greek" was not pejorative per se. In terms of relevance, the complainant had been happy for previous references to his background to be public knowledge; the fact that he had been born in Greece was effectively part of his public persona. Such brief references to a public figure's background, in a descriptive article about him, were not irrelevant.

Commenting on the ruling, Stephen Abell, Director of the PCC said:

"The article was clearly inaccurate and needed to be corrected. The FT's offer of an apology was the right and proper course of action. Clause 12 of the Editors' Code is clear that newspapers must avoid pejorative reference to an individual's race and such details must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story. In this case use of the adjective "Greek" was not pejorative and was relevant given Sir Stelios' public profile and background."

Notes

1. To read the adjudication, please click here.

2. The apology has been published in today's FT on p18, in the same column as the original. The apology has also been published online.

3. For more information, please contact Jonathan Collett on 020 7438 1246 or 07740896805, or email jonathan.collett@pcc.org.uk



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