IPSO’s Whitewash of a Hatchet Job on Byline – and Andrew Gilligan’s Mysterious “Source”

Background
Explaining Byline
Funding Byline
The conspiracy website 4th Media
VIP abuse claims
The investor’s non-son and Gilligan’s mysterious “source”

It is disappointing, although not a great surprise, that the supposed press regulator IPSO has decreed that there was nothing amiss with the Telegraph‘s highly misleading attack article by Andrew Gilligan about the website Byline.com (discussed previously here). The ruling is so perverse that it even endorses the Telegraph‘s right to publish an inaccurate and misleading claim that the paper itself had withdrawn.

Background

To recap, Gilligan’s article, headlined “The truth about John Whittingdale, the prostitute and the ‘cover-up'”, was written shortly after Byline broke the story of the friendship between the then-Minister for Culture, John Whittingdale, and a sex worker. It was suggested that elements in the media had known the story, but had chosen not to publish it because they would rather keep it in reserve as leverage over a minister whose brief included press regulation.

Gilligan claimed that the site was funded by an Asian billionaire who wrote articles for an “anti-Western conspiracy” website, and that one of the site’s founders was the son of an investor. Gilligan also suggested that the site was misleading in claiming that stories on the site were crowdfunded, that funding was also provided by Hacked Off, particularly via Max Moseley, and that the site promotes “Westminster VIP paedophile” conspiracy theories.

An overview of IPSO’s failings can be seen here from Tim Fenton, although I’d like to draw attention to a few points in particular.

Explaining Byline

Byline is a platform that allows journalists to pitch their stories to the public, who may then choose to crowdfund investigations that they find interesting. Byline takes a percentage of the funds raised. A number of established journalists have either written for the site or been involved with the project in other ways. As with any other media outlet, it’s as good as its writers, and there will be particular individuals and projects that are not to the taste of all readers.

Gilligan’s animosity towards the site is bizarre given the possibilities it offers to journalists in the current media climate. Here’s the view of veteran journalist David Rose, who has no association with the site:

Perhaps Gilligan would have had second thoughts had he known that he was about to be made redundant (although he has since found a new position at The Sunday Times).

Naturally, initial tech investors were needed to establish the site as a credible presence, but they did not have any control over (or even interest in) the site’s editorial content and they are no longer actively associated with the site anyway. One of the founders of the site shares the same surname as one of the tech investors, but contrary to Gilligan’s reporting they are not related (more on this point below).

Funding Byline

According to IPSO:

The Committee did not accept the rigid distinction that the complainant sought to draw between funding for the site’s infrastructure and funding for the content. It did not therefore consider that it was misleading to characterise funding provided to individual journalists to provide specific content for Byline.com as funding for the site. It was not therefore misleading for the article to report that the notable donor had “funded” the site, nor that the complainant has claimed that the site was “crowdfunded”. The article had not suggested that details of the site’s funders were hidden, rather it sought to criticise the complainant for claiming the source of the funding was “crowdsourcing” where in fact the site also received money from wealthy donors.

Thus Max Mosley joining in the crowdfunding of a story makes him a millionaire donor. Presumably, if we discover that Max Mosley has ever bought a copy of the Daily Telegraph, then it would not be misleading to describe him as being one of the Telegraph‘s “funders”. It should be noted that the Daily Mail amended its own follow-up article on this particular point.

On the issue of whether details were “hidden”, I refer back to the headline. Any article which is headlined “The truth about…” obviously frames the information that follows as a revelation that is unwelcome to its subject.

The conspiracy website 4th Media

IPSO:

In circumstances where the founder’s work appeared regularly on the named site, the newspaper was entitled to report that he “wrote” for the site. In the absence of a direct complaint from the founder, the Committee was unable to establish whether or not he had consented to publication.

This refers to Eric Li, who was actually one of the investors rather than a founder. Li has written articles for mainstream publications such as Foreign Affairs, and several of his pieces have been pirated by a crank conspiracy website called 4th Media, which rips off content from a vast number of media sources – including the Daily Telegraph. The Committee could easily have asked the Telegraph whether they had themselves consented to publication on the site, and then drawn the obvious inference from the negative answer. That would have been a sufficient investigation.

Further, it’s not clear why biographical claims about a living individual apparently belong to a special category, so that there no way to assess a significant inaccuracy other than via “direct complaint” from the person named. Why should this be the case? The evidence that 4th Media is a pirate site is overwhelming. For instance, articles by Peter Hitchens appear on the same site, but it’s obvious that they have been lifted from elsewhere without needing his testimonial.

There is also an element of the ruling here that is particularly obtuse: Gilligan’s article was silently amended from “Mr Li wrote regularly for The 4th Media” to “Articles by Mr Li are published on 4th Media”. Not even the Telegraph now maintains that that Li “wrote” for the site, yet IPSO here approves the original wording! This is really going the extra mile.

It is also significant how IPSO shifts ground away from the complaint itself and onto a new issue: that of whether Li “consented to publication”. This is not a subject that is explored in Gilligan’s article, and “consent” is a hopelessly broad term in this context that could range from collusion through to reluctant acquiescence.

When it is said that “articles by Mr Li are published on 4th Media”, the plain meaning is that he writes for the site, not that he may or may not have consented to his work appearing on the site. IPSO says it cannot “establish whether or not he had consented to publication”, yet apparently there is no onus on Gilligan to even to acknowledge this very important qualifier in his article. How can this not be a significant distortion?

(A footnote: the false claim about the link to 4th Media was repeated and elaborated by the smear-site Guido Fawkes. Staines or one of his cronies highlighted articles on the site that refer to “Jewish bankers” and such, in order to characterize Li as a contributor to an “anti-Semitic conspiracy website”.)

VIP abuse claims

IPSO:

The newspaper had provided examples of articles published by Byline.com, supporting the theory that there was a “Westminster sex abuse” ring, and at least three journalists who had written for the site also had profiles at Exaro. It was not therefore misleading for the article to report that the site had “promoted and defended” the sex abuse theory, and that it shared a number of journalists with Exaro.

The fact that Exaro and Byline have “shared journalists” is not in dispute, although Gilligan gives it a misleadingly sinister air. It would be more accurate to say that Exaro and Byline have both published material by various journalists, who in some instances have been the same individuals. Exaro‘s Mark Watts apparently at one time contributed to the Sunday Telegraph, so we may equally say that Exaro and the Telegraph share journalists.

The articles said to support “the theory that there was a ‘Westminster sex abuse’ ring” presumably relate to contributions to Byline made by David Hencke. But these were merely commentary pieces about a live police investigation, and Hencke specifically stated that “nobody knows the full extent of the allegations and whether they are true”. I think that Hencke is in general hopelessly credulous on the subject of “Westminster VIP abuse” (a subject I have written critically about at some length), but this is similar to what Gilligan himself wrote on the subject in 2014.

If the purpose of Byline.com were to promote VIP abuse conspiracies, Peter Jukes would hardly have invited David Rose to contribute, given Rose’s well-known scepticism about conspiracy theories in general and this one in particular.

The investor’s non-son and Gilligan’s mysterious “source”

IPSO:

The majority of information in the article had come from sources in the public domain. The journalist had been told by a source close to Byline.com that Jae-woong Lee and Seung-yoon Lee were related. He trusted that the source was in a position to know this information, and so had not verified the claim with the site…

The claim that one of the site’s funders was the father of the site’s founder was inaccurate, and the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer of correction. However, this was a brief reference which was not central to the story, and did not affect the overall thrust of the piece. It was not therefore a significant inaccuracy in breach of Clause 1.

The error is “not significant”, even though the detail appears in the context of an article presented as an exposé, and despite the fact that any reader would infer this information to be highly relevant to the investor’s influence over the site.

This detail of “a source close to Byline.com” is worth pondering further. Gilligan’s article contains no mention of any sources, and any reader can see that it was cobbled together from internet searches. The claim about the two Lees being father and son is the only detail not cherrypicked from public information. I had assumed this was a simple error made by Gilligan, but apparently there was more to it.

No-one “close to Byline” would have made such an error. Gilligan was therefore dealing with someone who was not in fact “close to Byline”, and this person gave him false information. Perhaps they were simply mistaken, but clearly this was someone with a hostile agenda against Byline. When a malicious person spreads false information, it seems reasonable to assume that they are doing so deliberately; and either way, the upshot is that Gilligan was gulled into publishing false information that the source certainly hoped would be damaging. IPSO shrugs this off as insignificant.

The existence of this “source” also raises the issue of how much of the rest of the material in Gilligan’s article was simply handed to him on a plate by someone with an agenda – and very probably a grudge.

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