PCC says I can call Stephen Leather a conman and hustler

Press Complaints Commission’s decision in the case of
Leather v The Observer

Mr Stephen Leather complained that the article reporting on the use of Twitter “sockpuppets” by authors [Nick Cohen] contained a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, and that the newspaper had relied on material that had been obtained using a clandestine listening device in breach of Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Code.

The Commission considered the complaint under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code, which states that the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and that significant inaccuracies must be corrected.

The complainant said the article inaccurately alleged that he had engaged in a “cyber bullying campaign” against Mr Steve Roach, which caused Mr Roach to be “nervous”. The complainant provided a copy of a letter he had received from Mr Roach in which he said that his “spat” with the complainant was “no big deal”; that “at no point did Leather use the Amazon review system to blast my books”; that the columnist was “wrong to say that he [the complainant] attacked me under the cloak of anonymity”; and that he did not consider the complainant a “cyber-bully”. The newspaper in correspondence provided evidence from an Amazon thread which suggested that Mr Roach felt the complainant was bullying him at the time. Mr Roach said, “Actually, Mr Leather, … you changed your review from 1 star. You also deleted reviews of books that you figured out were unavailable, but left 1 star ratings of books that you yourself have said you would never read and I don’t believe you have read. You also called me a cockroach on your blog. You also ignored numerous attempts to end the blog”. The newspaper said Mr Roach even wrote a book about the complainant’s attempts to “wreck” his writing career, describing the book as a “last ditch attempt to get SL [the complainant] off my back”. With this in mind, the Commission did not consider that readers would have been significantly misled by the columnist’s assertion that the complainant had engaged in a “cyber bullying campaign”, or that he had caused Mr Roach to be “nervous”. It could not establish a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) in relation to this point.

With respect to the allegation that the complainant attacked “rivals” from “behind a cloak of anonymity”, the Commission noted that the complainant did not appear to dispute the quotation attributed to him in the article in which he said that he posted on forums “under my name and under various other names and various other characters”. The newspaper had provided screengrabs of Twitter accounts which the complainant subsequently revealed to belong to him in which he described the writers Steve Mosby and Luca Veste as being “two sad men with too much time on their hands”. In view of this evidence, the Commission considered that the columnist was entitled to report that he had made comments from behind a “cloak of anonymity”. There was no breach of Clause 1.

The complainant did not consider that anything in the newspaper’s email substantiated the claims made by the columnist that he was a “conman” and a “hustler”. The Commission noted that the complainant did not appear to dispute that he had gone on to “several forums… and post[ed] there under [his] name and various other characters”. In view of this, the Commission was satisfied that readers would be aware of the context in which the words were used, and would also recognise that these terms represented the columnist’s own views of the complainant’s conduct. It could not establish a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.

The complainant also expressed concern that the newspaper had relied on a taped discussion between the writer Jeremy Duns and Steve Roach, which he said had been recorded without Mr Roach’s consent. The complainant considered this to be a breach of Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Code, which states that the press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using clandestine listening devices. The article referred briefly to a “taped conversation” which Mr Duns had had with Mr Roach. There was no suggestion that the newspaper had itself sought to obtain this information or had engaged in subterfuge by an agent; rather, the newspaper had referred to this information as part of its account of what Mr Duns had discovered through his own independent investigations. The Commission had not received a complaint from Mr Roach about this aspect of the complaint. It could not establish a breach of the Clause 10 of the Code.

Reference no. 123611