Sports Direct billionaire Mike Ashley wins IPSO complaint against Times over ‘gulag’ warehouse condition claims

Sports Direct and its billionaire founder Mike Ashley have won a complaint against the Times over a comment piece which said Parliament had found the company’s warehouses were “run like Victorian warehouses”.

However the Independent Press Standards Organisation did not uphold a second complaint by Ashley over the article’s comparison between him and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

The online article was headlined: “A self-serving tinpot regime is running rings round the stewards of our savings” and published on 5 September last year.

It is also subject to a separate legal complaint from Ashley, Sports Direct, and company chairman Keith Hellawell, for libel.

The opinion piece, by Times financial editor Patrick Hosking, was highly critical of Ashley in regards to his role as chief executive of Sports Direct, which has faced investigations into conditions for workers at its warehouses by Parliament and the media.

The article referred to “Parliament’s investigation into [Sports Direct’s] sweatshop employment practices” and claimed that “it found the key Shirebrook warehouse was run like a ‘Victorian warehouse’ with ‘gulag’ conditions”.

However these claims were in fact made by the assistant general secretary of trade union Unite, Steve Turner, as he gave evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee as part of its inquiry into working practices at Sports Direct.

In response, the newspaper told IPSO that because the Select Committee had chosen to quote the claims in its report on the inquiry this suggested the MPs had accepted the evidence and were adopting the claims.

However IPSO said it was a significant inaccuracy to attribute the highly critical claims to Parliament, in the context where they were used to support the article’s criticisms of Ashley.

IPSO upheld the complaint as a breach of Clause 1 (accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

As a remedial action, the Times amended the article to make the source of the “workhouse” and “gulag” claims clear and added a footnote to explain the changes.

Ashley also complained that there was “no legitimate basis” to make a comparison between him and Jong-un, and that it had been made on a false basis because of the other inaccuracies in the article.

The comment piece begins: “He’s the supreme leader. He’s in charge of what many regard as a rogue institution. His inner circle is packed with family members and toadies.

“He routinely flouts the norms of good behaviour and sticks two fingers up at his critics. He’s a relative lightweight, but has run circles around his much more powerful enemies.

“Apart from that, and a common rotundity, there is no similarity between Mike Ashley and Kim Jong-un. Mr Ashley has no nuclear missiles and doesn’t go around having people assassinated.”

The Times told IPSO the comparison had been made in “clearly limited terms” and that it was “a matter of comment, with an adequate factual basis”.

IPSO agreed, ruling: “The article did not suggest that the complainant and Kim Jong-un were directly equivalent, deserving of similar moral condemnation.

“Rather, the column advanced what was clearly a polemical comparison, in relation to a number of clearly identified features of their relationships to Sports Direct, and North Korea, respectively.

“The committee recognised that the complainant strongly disagreed with this comparison, but considered that it was a matter of comment and interpretation.”

This aspect of the complaint was not a breach of Clause 1 (accuracy), IPSO said.

IPSO also said the wrongful attribution of the union’s evidence to the Select Committee was only a small part of the article’s overall criticism of the complainant, meaning the inaccuracy “did not substantially undermine the arguments made in the column”.

According to IPSO, Sports Direct made a legal complaint to the newspaper on 2 October last year, alleging that the article was defamatory and asking for it to be removed and for a correction and apology to be published.

The Times responded, defending the article, and IPSO said no further correspondence had taken place between the parties before the regulator received Ashley’s complaint on 6 February.

Read the full IPSO ruling.

Picture: Reuters/Darren Staples/File Photo

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