Mr Lutfur Rahman, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that two blog postings, headlined “Lutfur Rahman councillor charged with fraud” and “Lutfur Rahman: all his controversies in one place”, published on The Daily Telegraph’s website (telegraph.co.uk) on 13 April 2011 and 20 October 2011 respectively, were inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The complaint was upheld.
The April 2011 blog reported that a Tower Hamlets councillor had been charged with fraud. As part of the posting, the article made reference to the complainant having been “accused of failing to declare substantial donations” to his campaign, “a criminal offence under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act”.
The complainant said that, following a full investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police had confirmed in February 2011 that there was no case to answer: none of the allegations was found to have breached the Act. The newspaper had not contacted the complainant to establish the outcome of the police investigation prior to publication.
The newspaper stood by the statement that the complainant had been accused of failing to declare substantial donations. The allegations had been, and continued to be, levelled against him by individuals who considered that the police investigation had been inadequate. The allegations had been reported in detail on numerous occasions by the newspaper in various blogs in September and October 2010 without complaint. While the allegation had been presented as such, the newspaper nonetheless was willing to add a statement to the post making clear that the police investigation had been concluded, and its finding was that there was no case to answer.
The second blog post sought to summarise the complainant’s first year in office, presenting a timeline of what the newspaper considered to be his “controversies”. One of the entries read as follows: “September 18 : Lutfur is accused of failing to declare thousands of pounds in donations from Shiraj Haque – a criminal offence, if true”. The complainant said that, despite being in possession of evidence that the police investigation had been concluded (by virtue of the ongoing complaint), the newspaper had failed to make clear the outcome of the matter, which would have misled readers. The newspaper offered to add a similar statement to this article, and subsequently updated each blog post to include the outcome of the investigation.
It was not in dispute that allegations had been made over the complainant’s disclosure of donations and that the issue had been subject to considerable scrutiny, including a police investigation. In the blog posts – which fell under the remit of the PCC owing to the fact that they were subject to editorial control – the newspaper had been wholly entitled to refer to these allegations, which were serious and a matter of public interest.
However, under the Editors’ Code, the newspaper was also required to take care not to present the allegations in a manner which would be inaccurate or misleading to readers. This included reporting the outcome of the relevant police investigation, which had concluded in February 2011 that there was no case to answer. The Commission considered that, by failing to include this information, readers would have been misled into believing that the investigation was ongoing. This raised a breach of Clause 1.
The Commission considered that the newspaper’s offer to update the April blog with the outcome of the police investigation was a sufficient remedy to this breach, and represented a public acknowledgement of the full position.
The case should have rested there. However, the newspaper had then repeated the allegations in a timeline about the complainant, without reference to the conclusion of the investigation (despite having been provided with evidence of the outcome as part of the PCC complaint). This was regrettable, and preventable. The blog had made reference to the claim being “a criminal offence, if true” without any mention of the position in regard to the police investigation. This would have clearly misled readers in breach of Clause 1.
It was the publication of this second blog that has led to the Commission finding an outstanding breach of the Code, and the complaint has been upheld on that basis.
Lutfur Rahman also complained that the April 2011 blog contained additional inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code. The complaint was not upheld.
The complainant said that the headline gave the misleading impression either that he had been charged with fraud, or that he had been connected to the charges against the councillor, which was not the case. The councillor in question was independent and not part of any group. In addition, the article stated that the complainant had given a character reference for use in court to a convicted sex attacker. This was misleading as the article had failed to make clear that the complainant had subsequently withdrawn the character reference.
The complainant had raised a further concern over a description of him as “extremist-backed” and the claim that he had close links with an organisation called the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE). He considered that the article implied that he was an extremist. He had repeatedly denied links with the IFE. While it was not unusual in a borough such as Tower Hamlets to be supported by members of the IFE, this did not mean he had close links to the organisation. Allegations of these links had been made following his selection as Labour Party candidate for the Tower Hamlets’ directly-elected mayoralty, but had never been investigated or conclusively proven.
The newspaper said that the councillor who had been charged had been one of eight who had left the Labour Party in order to support the complainant. As such, it was not misleading to draw an association between them. The headline referred to a councillor – which the complainant was not – and the opening paragraphs stated that one of his “prominent supporters” had been charged with fraud. This was not misleading.
On the second point, the newspaper said that the complainant had withdrawn the character reference only after it had been used at the sentencing of the individual. He had pleaded guilty to sexual assault seven weeks earlier, and the complainant had had ample time to withdraw the reference, yet had failed to do so. Once more, the newspaper’s position was that this was not misleading.
Finally, the newspaper said that it had described the complainant in the blog as “extremist-backed” because he was “backed” by an organisation it considered to be extremist. The ideology of the IFE warranted, in its view, such a description. The newspaper had never claimed that the complainant himself was “extremist”. The newspaper said that the complainant was certainly linked to the IFE and pointed to specific examples of individuals connected to the politics of the area asserting that a relationship existed between the complainant and the IFE. Moreover, the complainant had been removed following his selection as Labour candidate for mayor owing, amongst other things, to his alleged links to the IFE. Nonetheless, the newspaper was prepared in any future blog posts on the subject to include the complainant’s denial of links to the organisation.
The Commission has ruled on many occasions that – owing to their brevity – headlines must be considered in the context of the article when read as a whole. Given the public support the councillor had given the complainant in the past, it was not misleading or inaccurate, in the Commission’s view, to link them in the headline. The article had made clear from the opening paragraphs that it had been the councillor and not the complainant who had been charged with fraud. The Commission did not agree that readers would be misled and did not find a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) on this point.
On the second point, there was no dispute that the complainant had withdrawn the character reference used in the court case of a man who had pleaded guilty to sexual assault. However, it was also not in doubt that it had been withdrawn after it had been used in court and the man sentenced. As the reference had been a feature of the active consideration of the case, the Commission did not consider that the omission of any mention of its later withdrawal would have significantly misled readers. This part of the complaint was not upheld.
There were some final issues to consider: the reference to the complainant being “extremist-backed”, and the claim of his links to the IFE (to which the newspaper had referred in several blog posts on the topic). The Commission was satisfied that the article at no point stated that the complainant himself was extremist, or that readers would have been misled into thinking that he was. The claim in the article was rather that the complainant was “extremist-backed”. It was not in dispute that members of the IFE supported the complainant.
In considering whether the group could reasonably be described as “extremist”, the Commission had to have regard for the context in which the claim had been made. The article was a blog post which clearly reflected the journalist’s position on the events he reported. Readers would have been aware, not least because of the nature of the claim itself, that this represented his opinion, which may have been disputed. The newspaper had, in addition, explained the grounds for using the term to describe the IFE. Ultimately, however, this was a matter of opinion and interpretation. The Commission – which has not received a complaint from the IFE about the article – did not consider that it could establish that the term “extremist” was misleading.
The newspaper and the complainant held incompatible positions as to whether the complainant had “close links” to the IFE. Reference to “links”, close or otherwise, might often be disputed, as the term could be interpreted in several ways. It was not in doubt that there had been prominent allegations of links between the complainant and the IFE at the time of his de-selection as the Labour candidate for the mayoral election. Nor was there dispute that the complainant had had contact with members of the IFE, or that members of the IFE supported him.
In these circumstances, the Commission did not consider that the term “close links” was misleading in breach of the Code. Nonetheless, given the complainant’s stance on the matter, the Commission welcomed the newspaper’s offer to include his denial of such a connection in future posts, for the benefit of its readers. This part of the complaint was not upheld.
Relevant posts are here and here.