Businesswoman and campaigner Gina Miller was subjected to online abuse after a right-leaning news website wrongly claimed she tried again to stop the UK leaving the EU following the general election.
Alternative press regulator Impress ordered Unity News Network to publish an apology over the 14 December article, titled: “Gina Miller accused of new secret plot to HALT Brexit”.
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The article contained an allegation from an anonymous source claiming Miller travelled to Brussels with two barristers to meet chief negotiator Michel Barnier and European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen.
“They seem to be plotting legislation to stop us leaving the EU,” the article claimed.
Miller (pictured) won a judicial review against the UK Government in 2017 which granted MPs a final say on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and is seen by some as having attempted to frustrate Brexit.
UNN reported three “bombshell” emails from the source of the article, claiming Miller had a “large pile of paper with her” but said it was unclear “whether they were looking at existing legislation or something new that Miller was cooking up”.
The article ended with a sentence telling readers that the publisher was “currently attempting to check the truth behind these claims and when we hear anything we will let you know”.
Miller’s denial was added to the story on 16 December before it was deleted in its entirety at 2.45pm that day.
Miller told Impress the allegations were “categorically untrue” and the article wrongly implied that she did not respect the result of December’s election, which returned Boris Johnson to Number 10.
She said no attempts had been made to confirm the allegations with her, despite the fact her contact details can be found in a Google search.
The businesswoman also criticised the use of the word “exclusive” in an image used for the article, saying this implied it contained established facts.
Miller said she received “abusive and threatening” tweets as a direct result of the article, and that because she has a history of receiving death threats the publisher should have considered this threat before publishing an article without verifying the facts.
According to the Impress ruling, Miller said “no sensible media organisation would ever put up a highly damaging and incendiary story of this kind, saying it takes no view of its veracity and are doing so purely on the basis that it was ‘putting it out there’ to see if anyone believed it or not”.
UNN told Impress it had corresponded with the source in the past and had “no reason to believe that they were not reliable”.
It claimed it was unable to contact Miller ahead of publication due to the “difficulty of finding her contact details” and added that the story was in the public interest because of her previous political campaigning work.
It said it did “not consider that it was responsible” for any threats targeted at Miller.
Impress ruled that UNN had breached Clause 1 (accuracy) of its Standards Code because it did not take all reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of the story and it did not offer to publish a correction at the earliest opportunity.
The regulator said that at the heart of the article was a “serious allegation that could have exposed her to the risk of abuse or serious threats to her person”, adding that it had seen evidence that online threats and harassment were sent to Miller.
The Impress committee noted that no attempts were made to corroborate the story, including by contacting Miller herself or the press offices of Barnier or Von der Leyen.
It said online searches for Miller’s name came up with “various means” of contacting her or her representatives.
Impress added that the code breach was “perpetuated” by a Youtube video broadcast by UNN after the original story was deleted that discussed the allegations made in the article.
UNN has now published a correction and apology which Impress said should appear at the top of its website homepage and social media pages for 48 hours. It also ordered that the Youtube video be deleted.
Miller lost a separate discrimination complaint against the Sunday Times earlier this month after its columnist Rod Liddle referred to a group of people, including her, as “monkeys”.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation, which regulates the Times titles, said that while “monkey” could be a racial slur, “in this instance the term has been used by the columnist to describe a group of named and unnamed individuals of different races, of whom he was critical for their views on Brexit”.
Picture: Reuters/Toby Melville