Clauses Noted: 1
Publication: The Independent
Lord Ashcroft complained to the Press Complaints Commission through Davenport Lyons solicitors that an article headlined "Ashcroft drops High Court action after apology", published in The Independent on 5 December 2012, contained misleading information and failed to fulfil the newspaper's obligation to publish a fair and accurate report of the outcome of an action for defamation in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
The complaint was not upheld.
On 19 and 20 November 2009, the newspaper published articles (including a front-page report) about the complainant's business interests in the Turks and Caicos Islands. In response, he issued proceedings against the journalist under whose byline the pieces had appeared, the editor, and the owner of the newspaper at the time, Independent News and Media (INM).
The legal action ended with the reading of an agreed statement in open court on 26 November 2012, by which time the newspaper had a new editor and a new owner, Independent Print Limited (IPL), which was not a party to the legal action. As part of the settlement INM acknowledged that while the articles had not asserted that the complainant was involved in or linked to any of the corrupt activities described in the coverage, as a whole it tended to "link [the complainant's] name with allegations of scandalous corruption". It offered an unreserved apology for this and accepted that it had "found no evidence whatsoever that [the complainant] or his companies have in any way been involved with activities in the Turks and Caicos Islands concerning politicians, public officials or others which might be considered to represent bribery or indeed any other corrupt practice".
On 5 December 2012, the newspaper published a report on page 23 of its print edition and website noting that the complainant had dropped his High Court action against the former owners of the newspaper after the reading of a statement in open court. It summarised the allegations in the original articles; noted INM's acceptance that the coverage could link the complainant with corruption and its retraction of this suggestion; and briefly quoted the terms of INM's apology.
The complainant raised a number of concerns about the report. He said the headline reference to his having "dropped" his libel claim suggested, inaccurately, that he had "abandoned" it rather than agreeing not to pursue it as part of a settlement. He was also seriously concerned that the article had summarised INM's retraction rather than reproducing it in full (as quoted above). It was misleading to refer to INM as "Irish-based" as it was not registered or based in Ireland and potentially misleading to refer only to allegations having been published in "the paper" (rather than ‘The Independent'): both points were calculated to distance the present publishers of the newspaper from the retraction and apology.
The complainant also argued that the report had been excessively delayed (appearing 8 days after the end of the action) and had been given insufficient prominence. He believed that the requirement in Clause 1 (ii) of the Code of "due prominence" for corrections, clarifications and apologies should be read into the terms of Clause 1 (v). It was also unfair that the article had been accompanied online by a sidebar of "related stories" which included a link to another article that made serious allegations against the complainant.
The newspaper noted that neither it nor IPL had been party to the legal action; it had no control over the terms of the settlement. The complainant had not sought to make any agreement in advance with IPL, or its editor, as to how it should be reported. It had initially been uncertain as to whether the obligations of the Code still applied given the change of ownership but had ultimately decided to proceed.
It did not accept that the report was misleading or inaccurate. It had made clear the central issues: serious allegations had been made linking the complainant to corruption in the Caicos Islands; those allegations had been retracted; INM had apologised to him. The omission of other details was a matter of editorial discretion, not a Code issue. The headline reference to the complainant's "dropping" the action was accurate - particularly in the context of the story - and represented "commonplace" terminology. Nonetheless, it offered to amend the headline online to refer to a "settlement". It did not accept that the complainant had any locus to complain about the reference to INM as Irish-based but pointed out that the company provided an Irish postal address on its website. The article had referred only to one title, and readers would have understood that "the paper" referred to in the text was The Independent.
It noted that the Code carries no requirements as to the timeliness of such publications and the delay in this instance did not make the report "unfair" - the matter was not time-sensitive. The report had been published on a right-hand news page and online; it did not accept that this was "burying" it, but in any case it sought to draw a distinction between the report of a settled libel action, which was "effectively a news exercise", and a correction. It noted that the "related link" had been uploaded automatically but agreed to remove it.
Under Clause 1 (iv) of the Code, "a publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published".
In the view of the Commission, the newspaper was required to report the outcome of the legal action, for the benefit of its readers as well as the complainant: the obligation arose because it had published the material under complaint and the newspaper was not released from the obligation following the change of ownership. The delay of just over a week was regrettable, but it was not significant in the context of a three-year legal action. While the complainant argued that the article had been given inadequate prominence, the Code makes no specific provision for prominence in Clause 1(iv). In the view of the Commission, the item's presentation - as a news article bearing a headline referring to the complainant, on a right hand page of the newspaper and online - was fair, in line with the requirements of the clause. The appearance (due to an automated function) of a link to another report about the complainant adjacent to the item did not render the report misleading and did not raise a breach of Clause 1, although the Commission welcomed the newspaper's decision to remove it once it had been notified of the complainant's concern.
While the Commission noted the complainant's objection to the reference in the headline to the claim having been "dropped", the Commission did not consider that this terminology was significantly misleading in the context of the full report, which had made clear the nature and gravity of the allegations, and the fact that the claim was not being pursued after INM had retracted the allegations and apologised for them in a statement in open court. The remaining points raised by the complaint - regarding the nationality of INM and the reference to The Independent as "the paper" - were not matters of significance.
The Commission noted the complainant's concerns about the accuracy and the presentation of the report, but it was of the view that the newspaper had properly discharged its obligations. The complaint was not upheld.
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