Following the publication of two stories in The Times newspaper accusing the League of ‘wanting to hack’ the Countryside Alliance, the League has since complained to the newspaper.

The Times have dismissed our complaint (which is not unexpected), so we will continue to challenge their stories by taking our complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

You can see the Times response to our complaint below. Their response reveals that the claims about hacking were made by ‘the former CEO and two former trustees of the League’. 

League Against Cruel Sports complaint

The stories are factually misleading and plain wrong. They fall well below the standard expected from a journalist and are clearly in breach of the Editor’s Code of Practice. That The Times has published stories it knows not to be correct is a breach of Clause 1 of the code: Accuracy. The “evidence” that is being relied on for these stories is nothing but hearsay from questionable sources. Furthermore, the Charity Commission themselves provided clarification that the story, as reported, could not be accurate.

Rather than attempt to engage with the generalised assertions of opinion of which the complaint  seems largely to consist, we have attempted to identify specific allegations of inaccuracy requiring a response:

1/ The League Against Cruel Sports is being investigated by the Charity Commission over claims that it sought to hack into the computer of the leader of the Countryside Alliance.”

The Times is allowing a factually inaccurate statement and the entire basis for the story to remain on its website. REFERENCE A categorically states that the Charity Commission does not investigate Hacking.

We said that “The League Against Cruel Sports is being investigated by the Charity Commission over claims that it sought to hack into the computer of the leader of the Countryside Alliance.” That the investigation of allegations of criminality is a matter for the police goes without saying.  Such allegations may, however -- like the claims about hacking made by the former CEO and two former trustees of the League -- raise serious questions about a charity’s governance and management.  Those are questions which rightly concern the Charity Commission. The statement to which you refer (Reference A) sets out the fact:

The Commission does not investigate allegations of criminality; these are matters for the police. Where criminal matters arise in the course of our work, our regulatory interest is in any governance concerns that this raises, such as issues around organisational culture or mismanagement

The commission’s position was made quite clear in our report:

The Charity Commission said: “Serious concerns have been brought to us about the League Against Cruel Sports. The public rightly hold charities to a high standard of conduct and expect charities to be driven by their charitable purpose and ethos in everything they do. We therefore take allegations of inappropriate behaviour, especially by senior leaders in charities, extremely seriously. We are assessing information provided and engaging with the charity to determine our next steps.”

There was no inaccuracy.

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2/ “Hackers tried to access Countryside Alliance’s emails” Tuesday 9th October: “The pro-hunting group [The Countryside Alliance] has reported to the Charity Commission a concerted attempt by an unknown hacker to get inside its systems.”

Despite being in possession of REFERENCE A from the Charity Commission, Mr Kennedy has again sought to undermine the working of the charity. The statement from the above is clearly misleading and designed to tie the League to these accusations.

Undermining (or indeed promoting) the work of a charity is not the business of a news report.   We reported that “Allegations had been made to the regulator that the League Against Cruel Sports asked an IT expert to hack into the email account of Tim Bonner, [Countryside] alliance’s chief executive.   And we said that the Countryside Alliance had subsequently reported an attempt to hack into its computer system.   These are accurate statements of fact.  

3/ “Hackers tried to access Countryside Alliance’s emails” Tuesday 9th October: “Mr Bonner said that hackers struck on May 23. There was nothing to suggest that the league was involved.”

The IT Consultant that is quoted as the source for these accusations of hacking in the original article did not join the Trustee Board, and therefore have any contact with the CEO, until July 2018. The foundation of this story and therefore both articles is completely flawed.  

The foundation of the story was set out clearly in its opening paragraph:

The Countryside Alliance has reported an attempt to hack into its computer system after The Times disclosed that a rival campaign organisation had sought to breach its security.

That is a matter of fact.  The article accurately records the claims about hacking that have been made to the Charity Commission.  The article does not interrogate the substance or chronology of those claims; that would be a matter for the police.  What it does do is set out clearly the position of the League Against Cruel Sports:

The second sentence whilst clarifying that there is no implication of the League is not good enough.

IPSO can no doubt form its own view on the merits of the sentence in question.  In fact, it states in the clearest possible terms – and in so many words -- that there was nothing in the hacking attack on the Countryside Alliance to suggest that the league was involved.  That unambiguous sentence comes immediately after an entire paragraph given over to the league’s position on the matter:

The league said: “These allegations are completely false. It is nonsense to say the league sought to hack the computer of the leader of the Countryside Alliance. The league is doing well financially and our team is stronger than ever. We didn’t hack anyone, we don’t need to — we represent the majority of people in this country who abhor cruel sports and we’ll stop the animal abusers fair and square.”

These stories are based on nothing more than a combination of supposition, guess work and unsubstantiated third or fourth-hand material. There is very little evidence of any critical thinking or basic fact checking in either of these articles. It seems that the threshold of evidence-based reporting demonstrated by Mr Kennedy in these articles is very poor and in places non-existent. Mr Kennedy has then decided to repeat these suppositions and accusations as fact in a second story when nothing could be further from the truth – as evidenced by the communication received directly from the Charity Commission at REFERENCE A.   Two trustees have recently had their memberships revoked for supporting activity that now involves the police. If Dominic Kennedy had conducted even the most rudimentary searches on one of those individuals, he would have found a series of incidents which should have called into question the veracity of the “evidence” that is attributed to them.

The articles are careful to separate comment and conjecture from fact, as the Editors’ Code requires.   Former officers and trustees of a charitable body such as the League are entitled to raise their concerns with the charities regulator and to have those concerned reported, as a matter of public interest, in the press.  Neither the press nor the press regulator is required to assist the League in its disputes with individual former officers.  Public interest concerns have been raised with the charities regulator.  These have been accurately reported, as has the position of the League. 

We do not believe that our articles breached the Editors’ Code.  If Ipso disagrees and chooses to investigate, we will of course cooperate fully with the regulator as required. 

To read: