Insurer Standard Life stands accused of smearing a rebel policy-holder, Michael Hogan. An e-mail sent to Standard Life executives and advisors, which has been disclosed under the data protection act, reveals an attempt to discredit him.
Hogan, 60, a former banker, had become a nuis-ance to the Standard Life board as a high-profile critic of the mutual insurer’s investment performance. He runs a policy-holder pressure group and stood, unsuccessfully, for election to become a non-executive director, with the board opposing his candidacy.
Standard Life is due to demutualise and float on the stock market later this year. Hogan backs flotation, but says members have been “kept in the dark” about preparations.
When he was standing for election to the board, a Scottish newspaper ran an article questioning his background. The following Sunday, another news-paper went further, attacking his business background in an article headlined, 'Shady loan links of Standard Life rebel.'
Hogan complained about the piece, and the press complaints commission ultimately urged him to accept a clarification, which ran later.
But he suspected that Standard Life had a role in the appearance of these attacks. He turned to the FOIA Centre in an effort to find out the truth.
Our advice was to make use of the data protect-ion act to compel Standard Life to disclose information and communications it held on him.
As a result, Standard Life disclosed an e-mail that the group’s head of media relations, Scott White, sent on February 23 last year to eight other executives at the insurer and to staff at two of its law firms, Clifford Chance and Slaughter & May. It also went to Gavin Grant, the public relations executive and deputy chairman of the PR agency, Burson-Marsteller.
Entitled, “Some interesting details re M Hogan,” the 500-word e-mail raised queries about Hogan’s record, including his work as a recovery expert rescuing companies in financial trouble.
“For a recovery expert, he doesn't appear to have been that successful,” it said, adding, “I think he overstates his position on the CV.”
The e-mail also indicates that Standard Life was continuing to search for dirt on Hogan. Of his previous employer, the merchant bank, Guinness Mahon, it said: “Guinness Mahon checks – still don't know why he left.”
Two days later, the Scottish newspaper article was published. The second story, in a Sunday newspaper, contained most of the points in the e-mail.
Challenged about the e-mail, White told the Mail on Sunday that its contents had been sent to him by somebody unconnected with Standard Life who was researching Hogan's background. He said that in forwarding it to colleagues and advisers, he was merely seeking their advice.
Although there is nothing to show this in the e-mail itself, White said that other e-mails that might bear out his claims had been lost.
“There is no way the company gave information about Mike Hogan to third parties,” he said, “or in any way helped with stories other than to provide Mike's contact details to journalists who asked for it and to direct them to his website.
“We were at all times under clear instructions to treat him, and all policyholders, completely respectfully. We were at all times absolutely fair and above board in our dealings.”
Another version of this article first appeared in the Mail on Sunday.
Standard Life trawled for information on the background of a high-profile critic, but that individual turned the tables by finding out what it was doing. People often consult the FOIA Centre asking how the freedom of information act (FOIA) can help them dig out information. However, FOIA is not the only “open-access” law. As this case demonstrates, the data protection act enables people to find out information held about themselves. While FOIA only applies to public bodies and entities carrying out functions on behalf of such authorities, the data protection act covers an even wider variety of organisations, including those such as Standard Life who become the subject of campaigns.
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