The Times prints apology; Times Newspapers agree final settlement in Trojan Horse libel litigation

Times Newspapers has apologised to Nasim Ashraf and Hafizan Zaman over an article that suggested that they were involved in an Islamist Trojan Horse plot to take over a primary school in Oldham. They are the sixth and final newspaper group to settle litigation by the couple over articles published by several newspapers in February 2017 naming them in articles about the alleged plot.

The couple instructed Rahman Lowe Solicitors and Mark Henderson of Doughty Street Chambers in 2017 to pursue defamation and data protection claims against most national newspaper groups. The settlement by Times Newspapers, closely following a settlement by Express Newspapers, means that the claims against all six newspaper groups have been finally resolved.

Four claims were resolved in the first quarter of 2018. News Group Newspapers, publishers of The Sun (which had published an article by then columnist Kelvin McKenzie as well as a news report) and Telegraph Media Group settled in January 2018. Mirror Group Newspapers settled in February 2018, and Associated Newspapers, publishers of MailOnline, settled in March 2018. All paid damages and costs and published statements apologising and accepting that suggestions of involvement by the couple in an alleged Trojan Horse plot were unfounded. See news reports herehere and here

In June 2018, Express Newspapers agreed to pay substantial damages and costs and published a statement including: “We accept that our article was wrong and we apologise to Mr Ashraf and Ms Zaman for any distress we may have caused.

Times Newspapers have now settled on undisclosed terms. They have published an apology in The Times for an article by Times columnist Melanie Phillips headlined “Soft-pedalling won't quash Islamist extremism”, which has been withdrawn from online publication. Their apology, published in the Times print edition and online, states that: 

We wish to make clear that an opinion column published on 28 February 2017 (Soft-pedalling won't quash Islamist extremism) was not intended to suggest that Nasim Ashraf and Hafizan Zaman, who were parents at Clarksfield School in Oldham until 2013, had any involvement in threats of violence or physical attacks against a headteacher, or had any involvement in concerns raised about the school after July 2013. We apologise for any contrary impression that may have been given, and for any distress caused.”

The Sunday Times print edition had also published a news report about the alleged plot as its front page lead headlined “Revealed: new Trojan Horse plot - Head teacher fears for her safety”, and a further full page report inside the newspaper headlined “Head teacher targeted by death threats – a campaign of intimidation is being run by parents pushing for conservative Muslim values”.

Although these articles pointed out that there was no suggestion that the couple were involved in the reported threats, and that the Council had concluded that they were not engaged in a Trojan Horse style plot, the couple were nevertheless the only parents named in the Sunday Times’ reports, and a prominent photograph was used of Mr Ashraf engaged with the opening of a brand new food bank, with a local MP (the only person whose photograph was used to illustrate the articles).

Times Newspapers have now amended the remaining online articles, including removing the headline indicating that a “new ‘Trojan Horse plot’” was “revealed”, and that “a campaign of intimidation is being run by parents pushing for conservative Muslim values”, and published a clarificatory statement alongside the amended articles. It has ceased publishing all photographs of Mr Ashraf online.

The Sunday Times has published a statement in its print edition, repeating, as had been stated in the articles, that the council had said rejected the suggestion they were involved in any Trojan Horse style plot, and now further confirming that “We also did not intend to suggest that Mr Ashraf and Ms Zaman were involved in any concerns raised about the school after July 2013”.

The Sunday Times front page article had reported that Mr Ashraf had said he was discussing matters with the new Chair of the Governor, whose appointment was alleged to have brought matters to a head. The Sunday Times’ printed statement confirms that “We inaccurately stated that Mr Ashraf discussed matters with [the new Chair] and accept that this was an error.

The Sunday Times statement also accepted that another front page claim about Mr Ashraf having “hosted Islamic teaching sessions” referenced “his addressing the school assembly about the Hajj pilgrimage at the request of the deputy head teacher.

Mr Ashraf said:

“Hafizan and I are really pleased to have reached this final settlement with Times Newspapers, which enables us to draw a line under a distressing and stressful period. All six newspaper groups who published stories about us have now published apologies. We appreciate the apology printed in The Times and the statement in the Sunday Times, accepting that we had actually had no involvement in any issues at the school since our children left in 2013.

I am particularly pleased that the only claim about involvement in the current allegations (that I was in discussion with the new Chair of the Governors) has been recognised to be untrue and based on something I never said to the newspaper.

As well as appearing to suggest that we were involved in this plot, and despite us not having been involved in the school at all since 2013, which the Council report confirms, we were really disappointed that they printed unsubstantiated and misleading allegations about issues we had with the headteacher relating to our children’s education up to 2013. These had mostly not even been notified to us prior to publication by any source including the newspapers that published them, and were irrelevant to the alleged plot. The first I knew about the allegation that I had hosted “hosted ‘Islamic teaching sessions’” at the school was when I read it in the Sunday Times, since it was not even mentioned when the paper contacted me for comment. I am pleased that it has been accepted that this actually involved me “addressing the school assembly about the Hajj pilgrimage at the request of the deputy head teacher” after Hafizan and I had taken our children on a pilgrimage to Makkah.

Our only concerns up to 2013, when our children attended the school, were with the unsatisfactory education they were receiving and the quality of the school’s leadership. Notwithstanding the impression given in the articles about Ofsted endorsement of teaching, Ofsted actually put the school into special measures in 2017 for the second time under the same leadership, based on an inspection within three months of the Sunday Times articles, concluding that the leadership was failing, and the school gave children a dismal start, which has led to the head’s dismissal.

I hope that other children may now receive a better education as a result of Ofsted’s intervention, as every single child deserves the very best education regardless of which school they attend, and our teachers and head teachers have a duty to offer that level of education to our children regardless of their background.

We would both like to say a special thanks to Zillur Rahman, Mark Henderson and their respective teams for the special care and attention that they have handled this with right from the very start, it has been a very difficult 18 months for us and we appreciate and extend our gratitude to all our friends, families and well-wishers who have supported us through this momentous endeavour, and pray to the Almighty that no one has to face such a test in today’s difficult times.”

The Times apology