· Decision of the Complaints Committee 00115-14 Hutchins v Wiltshire Times
Summary of complaint
1. Benjamin Hutchins complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Wiltshire Times had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined “Melksham teacher banned after sending sexual messages to pupils” (online) and “Sex pest’s life ban” (in print), published on 5 September 2014.
2. The articles reported that the complainant, a former teacher, had received a lifetime ban from teaching after having been cautioned by police for sending sexual messages to a pupil via social media, and found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct for falsifying coursework.
3. The complainant said that the online headline had inaccurately suggested he had sent inappropriate messages to several pupils. In fact, he had only sent them to one student. The article’s assertion that he had “contacted others via Facebook” also contributed to this misleading impression; this contact consisted of public messages to pupils about their exam results.
4. The complainant was concerned that the article had not made clear that he had been dismissed from his post in 2013; he considered that it implied inaccurately that he had just left teaching. He also said that the article should have stated that his lifetime ban was issued as a result of both misdemeanours. He further considered the term “sex pest” to be defamatory, and an attempt to sensationalise his actions; the use of the term represented a failure to distinguish between comment and fact.
5. The complainant considered that the photograph used to illustrate the article was misleading, as it showed him with a moustache, which he had not worn for a number of years. He also believed that the newspaper had altered the photograph to enhance the colour of his lips, and complained that in the caption his surname was misspelt.
6. The newspaper agreed that the online headline was misleading. It had amended it to replace “pupil” with “pupils” and added the following footnote: The headline for this article has been amended to read ‘pupil’ from pupils at the request of Benjamin Hutchins. The newspaper had also added a link to the full report of the hearing of the complainant’s case.
7. It denied that the article was otherwise inaccurate or misleading; the date of the complainant’s dismissal was contained in the hearing report linked from the article, the story identified the reasons for the ban, and it was entitled to focus on the fact that the complainant had sent inappropriate messages to a pupil. The newspaper did not consider it misleading to refer to someone who had sent sexual messages to a pupil as a “sex pest”.
8. The newspaper denied that it had manipulated the photograph. It had corrected the spelling error in the complainant’s name.
Relevant Code Provisions
9. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
10. In stating that the complainant had sent sexual messages to “pupils”, rather than one pupil, the article had misrepresented his misconduct. The details of the hearing were available to the newspaper, and indeed the text of the article accurately reported that only one pupil had been involved. The headline therefore represented a failure by the newspaper to take care not to publish inaccurate information. This aspect of the complaint under Clause 1 (i) was upheld. While headlines are considered in context, this does not excuse significant inaccuracies. The nature of the complainant’s misconduct was one of the main focuses of the article, and the headline’s misrepresentation of his actions therefore merited correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
11. The newspaper had corrected the error, and published a footnote, noting that an amendment had been made to the article. The Committee welcome the prompt action taken by the newspaper. Nonetheless, this footnote attributed the change to a request by the complainant, rather than to an error on the part of the newspaper. As the correction had not made clear the initial error, it was not sufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1 (ii).
12. The Committee noted the complainant’s objection to the description of him as a “sex pest”, but did not consider that the newspaper’s characterisation of him in this way was significantly misleading, in the context of the misconduct he had admitted; this did not constitute a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact in breach of Clause 1 (iii).
13. The remaining points were not upheld. The reference to the complainant’s messages to other pupils was accurate, and the article was not misleading regarding the chronology of the incidents; it had made clear that the complainant had been suspended, and “later dismissed”. The article made clear that the ban related to other incidents beyond the messages, and the online article had included a link to further details of the hearing.
14. The complainant had speculated that the photograph of him had been manipulated to add colour to his lips. However, he had provided no grounds for this. He had not disputed that the photograph depicted him, and it was not misleading for the newspaper to use an image in which he wore a moustache. The newspaper had made an error in reporting the complainant’s name. However, this was corrected swiftly and did not raise a breach of the Code.
15. The complaint was upheld in part, in relation to the online article.
Remedial Action Required
16. Having partially upheld the complaint under Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.
17. The Committee considered that, given the nature of the breach of the Code and of the publication, the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction, the nature, extent and prominence of which would be determined by IPSO.
18. In the Committee’s view, the wording appended to the article by the newspaper was insufficient remedy to the breach of the Code in this instance; it did not include a clear acknowledgment of the inaccuracy.
19. In order to remedy the breach of Clause 1, the newspaper was required to publish a footnote to the online article, the wording of which should be agreed with IPSO in advance, making clear that the original headline’s reference to “pupils” had been inaccurate, and that the messages had been sent to one pupil. In addition, the correction should acknowledge that it had been published following a ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
Date complaint received: 11/09/2014Date decision issued: 23/12/2014 Back to ruling listing