Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00119-20 Moses v Mail Online
Summary of Complaint
1. Sian Moses complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Lesbian children's home official, 38, boasted 'I can turn any woman gay' and discussed her use of sex toys says colleague 'who she groped and tried to kiss'”, published on 26 November 2019.
2. The article reported on a hearing before the Fitness to Practice Committee of the Education Workforce Council into allegations made against a children’s home official that she had made sexual advances and comments towards another female, a married co-worker referred to as “Colleague A”, whilst on duty. The article reported that the official said “that the roles were reversed and that it was Colleague A who made the advances towards her.” It listed allegations against her such as her having allegedly told other staff members that “I can turn any woman gay”. The article also included photos of the children’s home official, which had been taken from her Facebook page, and one of her walking down the street. After this article was published, the Fitness to Practice Committee of the Education Workforce Council found the children’s home official’s behaviour did not amount to unacceptable professional conduct.
3. The complainant, the children’s home official who was subject to the hearing, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said it inaccurately reported that she had said that she could “turn any woman gay”. The complainant said that it was her colleagues who said this not her. She also said it was inaccurate to report that she had allegedly made sexual advances towards her colleague; in fact she was the one who had received the unwanted sexual advances. The complainant also said it was inaccurate not to report that the colleague she had been accused of making advances towards was married to a woman; the headline made it seem that the colleague was heterosexual and married to a man.
4. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 2 because it included photographs that had been taken from her Facebook profile and a photo of her on the street that was taken without her knowledge. The complainant said that her Facebook profile was set so it could only be seen by friends and friends of friends, and could not be seen by journalists and it therefore breached her privacy to publish these photos.
5. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 11 as it named her, when it was the other, unnamed, colleague who had made the sexual advances towards her.
6. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 12 as it discriminated against her as a lesbian.
7. The publication said it did not accept any breaches of the Code. It said that the reference to the complainant making comments of a sexual nature came from the findings of the hearing. It also said that it had included the complainant’s counter-allegation, that she had been the victim of the sexual advances, within the article. It was not necessary to include the marital status or sexual orientation of the colleague, as the article reported on the complainant’s hearing, and the colleague’s sexuality or marital status were not relevant. Additionally, it said that the headline referred only to the complainant and not to the colleague.
8. The publication said that the two photos did not intrude into the complainant’s privacy. The photos from Facebook were openly available, and it provided screenshots to support this. The photograph of the complainant outside was taken on a public street and did not depict her engaging in any sensitive, private or compromising acts – it was simply a picture of her walking. It also said that it was entitled to report on her official hearing.
9. The publication considered that it was unclear exactly what sexual misconduct the complainant was alleging to be the victim of; it appeared that she was claiming to be the victim of the conduct she had been accused of, meaning unacceptable professional conduct. It did not consider that its article had identified the complainant as a victim of sexual assault, nor did it consider that “advances” having been made towards her reached the threshold required for “sexual assault” under Clause 11. The publication said that it had merely reported the allegations, which had been the subject of an open hearing where the complainant had been named; the complainant’s claims were not the subject of the tribunal’s investigation. Furthermore, it noted that the police had seen and reviewed text messages between the complainant and her colleague and had concluded that their relationship was consensual, and this had been noted in the findings of the tribunal. It also noted that the police had not considered the complainant to be a victim of sexual abuse.
10. The publication said the article was not discriminatory towards the complainant. It had not used any discriminatory references, and whilst it had reported on her gender and sexual orientation, this was genuinely relevant to the story as it was heard in the context of the sexual advances she had allegedly made.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
12. Clause 2 (Privacy)*
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
13. Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault)
The press must not identify or publish material likely to lead to the identification of a victim of sexual assault unless there is adequate justification and they are legally free to do so. Journalists are entitled to make enquiries but must take care and exercise discretion to avoid the unjustified disclosure of the identity of a victim of sexual assault.
14. Clause 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Findings of the Committee
15. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that it was her colleagues who had said that she could “turn any woman gay”. It was the publication’s position that these were allegations that had been made during the hearing, and it had accurately reported them. The complainant had not demonstrated that these allegations were not made during the hearing and due care had been taken in reporting them as allegations. The Committee therefore found that the publication had taken care to avoid inaccuracy in reporting what was heard in the complainant’s hearing and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
16. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that she had been the victim of sexual advances made by Colleague A. The Committee found that the newspaper was entitled to report on the hearing before the Fitness to Practice Committee, which concerned the allegations which had been made against the complainant. The article made clear that these were allegations which the complainant denied and her position that the advances were made by Colleague A. The article also made clear that the hearing was ongoing and there was no suggestion that she had been found guilty. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.
17. The Committee found that it was not misleading to omit sexual orientation or marital status of Colleague A from the article, as these matters had no bearing on the report of the complainant’s hearing. It did not find that the headline implied that Colleague A was married to a man. There was no breach of Clause 1.
18. The Committee found that the Facebook pictures were openly available on the complainant’s profile. It also noted that the photograph, which had been taken without the complainant’s knowledge, had been taken on a public street and simply showed her likeness, and not any private activity about which she had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Neither of the images disclosed anything private about the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 2.
19. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that sexual advances had been made towards her. However, the publication had not identified the complainant as a victim of sexual assault; “sexual advances” do not meet this threshold. In light of this, the terms of Clause 11 had not been engaged.
20. The Committee noted that the article referred to the complainant’s sexual orientation and gender. It had not, however, used prejudicial or pejorative references to either her sexual orientation or gender, and, due to the allegations heard at the hearing, the complainant’s sexual orientation was genuinely relevant to the story. There was no breach of Clause 12.
21. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 02/01/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 05/06/2020
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