First published on the Brett Wilson Media Law Blog on 3 February 2017
The company that runs Finsbury Park Mosque this week obtained libel damages from Reuters Ltd, the international news agency which publishes the controversial ‘World Check’ database.
Finsbury Park Mosque was led by Abu Hamza until 2003. Other controversial figures to have attended the Mosque in that period include Abu Qatada, and the ‘shoebomber’ Richard Reid. Following Hamza’s removal as Imam, he continued to preach outside the gates until he was arrested and convicted of offences including inciting violence and racial hatred. He was later extradited to the U.S. to face terrorism charges. The Mosque was ‘reclaimed’ by moderates and the non-profit company Finsbury Park Mosque (which is exempt from use of the ‘Limited’ marker) was established in 2010. Its purpose is to run the Mosque and promote knowledge of the religion of Islam for the public benefit.
World Check is a subscription database which provides a list of individuals and organisations which it considers to present a ‘heightened risk’ due to links to corruption, financial crime, or terrorism. It is used as a due diligence tool by banks and financial institutions, and as an information source by governments and law enforcement agencies.
In 2014, the Mosque received a letter from HSBC informing them that they fell outside the bank’s ‘risk appetite’ and that their account would therefore be closed. Numerous other banks then refused to accept them as a customer. Unbeknownst to them at the time, they had been listed on World Check in the terrorism category.
The Mosque sued for libel in March 2016 and the claim was eventually settled by means of a qualified offer of amends by Reuters, who agreed to pay damages and costs. A statement in open Court was read out before His Honour Judge Parkes QC this week.
It is said that there are over 2.5 million ‘profiles’ on World Check, with 25,000 new profiles added monthly. Many will not know that they are featured, as Reuters require its users to keep the list secret, but as they find out it seems inevitable that more libel claims will follow.
The case highlights the potentially devastating effect secret databases and blacklists can have on companies and individuals. Individuals have the benefit of being able to check what data is held about them under section 7 of the Data Protection Act 1998. Companies have no such remedy as the Act only relates to living individuals.
A full copy of the joint statement in court can be found below:-
Finsbury Park Mosque (a company limited by guarantee)
STATEMENT IN COURT
Counsel for the Claimant
My Lord, I represent the Claimant in this action and my learned friend Mr Oliver Murphy appears for the Defendant.
The claimant is a company which was incorporated in 2010. It is a registered charity which operates Finsbury Park Mosque and serves the local community in North London.
The Claimant’s object is to advance and promote the knowledge of the religion of Islam for the public benefit. It plays an important role in its local community and organises extensive interfaith events and dialogues.
The Defendant is the owner, operator and publisher of “World-Check”, a subscription-only global online database whose users include banks, financial institutions and other organisations involved in the provision of financial services. The World-Check service publishes profile reports of individuals and entities to its subscribers to enable them to comply with regulatory demands for various types of due diligence and offers auditable proof of due diligence. The subscribers include banks, financial institutions, regulatory bodies and law enforcement agencies and other similar bodies and organisations.
The Claimant was the subject of profile reports published by the Defendant on World-Check. In those reports World-Check placed the Claimant in the category “Terrorism”. This was wrong. The profile referred to press reports and allegations from many years ago, long before the Mosque was re-organised and the Claimant company was established.
The Claimant is not a subscriber to World-Check and was unaware that it was the subject of a profile report until this was drawn to its attention by the BBC on 20 June 2015. However, the profile was read by World Check subscribers. Following the publication of the profiles, the Claimant’s bank terminated its banking relationship and closed its account. Numerous Several other banks refused to accept the Claimant as a customer. The Claimant infers that these matters were consequences of the profile report.
In March 2016, the Claimant commenced proceedings for libel against the Defendant in relation to the World-Check profile reports. The Defendant made a qualified offer of amends which has been accepted by the Claimant.
By its offer of amends the Defendant has admitted that the profile report that it published made the false allegation that there were grounds to suspect that the Claimant had continued connections to terrorism. It did not intend to suggest that the Claimant had any current or suspected connections to terrorism and any such suggestions have now been withdrawn by the Defendant which has made clear its regret.
The Defendant has removed the defamatory allegations in question and has agreed to pay substantial damages to the Claimant and the Claimant’s legal costs.
In these circumstances, the Claimant has decided that it will accept the sum offered in damages and will no longer pursue its claim against the Defendant.
Counsel for the Defendant
My Lord, on behalf of the Defendant, I confirm everything my learned friend, Mr Tomlinson QC, has said.
The Defendant is here today through me to express its regret for publishing the allegations.
31 December 2016