Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00232-20 Sharp v dailystar.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Jill Sharp complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that dailystar.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined “Stalker Jill Sharp flaunts early release with champagne and balloons pics” published on 16 October 2019 and “Rangers fan and stalker Jill Sharp flogs footie gear weeks after prison release” published on 22 October 2019 .
2. The first article was published after a woman had been released from prison having been convicted of stalking her former friend and her husband. It reported that she had caused controversy by posting photographs of herself drinking champagne and celebrating after her release. The article reported that she had been ridiculed and disowned by many fans of a football club she also supported, reporting that other fans had made clear on Twitter that she was not welcome at supporters’ pubs and that she had been described as a “maniac”. The article described her as being “notorious”, as an “internet faker”, and that she had carried out a “three year campaign” against her former friends. The husband of the former friend was quoted in the article as saying that “this obsession [the woman] has with champagne is sad but we won’t be intimidated by her” and that she was a “fantasist and a stalker”.
3. The article also said that “In February 2017, it was reported that [woman] had obsessively stalked a man online – who had never met her and didn’t know who she was – and even claimed they were engaged. She also set up a fake Twitter account for her ‘boyfriend’ and sent romantic messages between them, as well as explicit details of an imaginary sex life.”
4. The article also included several photographs of the woman, including a photograph of the woman drinking champagne in her pyjamas after having been released from prison and two different photographs of the woman drinking champagne in a hot tub. The photographs which showed the woman drinking champagne prominently displayed the bottles.
5. The second article reported that the woman had set up a business following her release from prison. It reported that she was aged 32 and that she had “infuriated her victims” by “flaunting her prison release” earlier that month by “posting pics of herself guzzling champagne in a hot tub”. It also described the complainant as a stalker and that she harassed her former friend and her husband over a three-year period.
6. The article included the same two photographs as the first article, showing the complainant drinking champagne in a hot tub.
7. The complainant was the woman who had been convicted of stalking her former friend and her husband, and who had been previously accused of fabricating a relationship. She said that the first article contained a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. She said that it was not the case that she had been ridiculed or disowned by football fans. She said that she was not “notorious” and that she did not stalk the couple for three years, although she did accept that the Sheriff had said that she carried out a campaign “for more than three years” and that her indictment covered from 1 January 2014 – 6 August 2017. She said that she did not have an obsession with champagne or that she was trying to intimidate anyone, nor that she was a fantasist or a stalker.
8. The complainant said that the first article was also inaccurate to report that she had fabricated a relationship. She said that she had not been convicted of any offence in relation to this allegation, and had always maintained that she was the victim of a hoax. She said that she had always strongly denied this allegation, which the article did not make clear. She said that her denial was in the public domain at the time of publication, via its inclusion in previous articles.
9. The complainant also said that the first article intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 2 by using photographs of her without her permission. However, she did accept that all the photographs had appeared on open social media profiles.
10. The complainant said that the second article also breached Clause 1. She said that she was aged 33 at the time of publication, not 32. She said that the article was insulting by reporting that she had “guzzled” champagne and she disputed that she had been “flaunting” by posting the pictures on social media. Where the article repeated the claim that she had harassed the couple over a three-year period, she disputed that for the same reasons as the first article.
11. Where the second article used the same photographs as the first article, she considered that it also intruded into her privacy.
12. Finally, the complainant said that the publication of the articles represented a continuation of persistent coverage by the newspaper, which she said was unjustified and excessive. Therefore, she said that the publication of these articles constituted a breach of Clause 3.
13. The newspaper said that it was not inaccurate to report that the complainant had harassed the couple for three years, as reported in both articles. It said that this reflected the facts of her conviction and what was heard in court. It also noted that the Sheriff had said:
“For more than three years you conducted a campaign against them in a calculated and deliberate attempt to ruin their lives. In this aim you succeeded.”
14. The newspaper said that with regard to the allegedly faked relationship which appeared in the first article, at the time that this article was published, the publication was confident that the article was accurate. It said that the complainant was originally charged with offences relating to this allegation, although they were not pursued by the Crown. In light of this development, the newspaper accepted that the article should be amended to reflect this. As such, on receipt of the complaint it amended the article to make clear that the points relating the allegedly faked relationship were claims, and added this wording as a footnote:
“This article has been amended to make clear that the information relating to [name] are claims.”
In the newspaper’s first response to IPSO’s investigation, it also offered to add this wording to the footnote:
“Prior to the trial of the defendant with charges of harassment relating to [former friend and former friend’s husband], we are happy to make clear that the Crown did not pursue the charges in relation to [name]”
A day after this offer, it then revised this wording to state:
“This article has been amended to make clear that the information relating to [name] are claims. Prior to the trial of the defendant with charges of harassment relating to [former friend and former friend’s husband], we are happy to make clear that the Crown did not pursue the charges in relation to [name] and that Jill Sharp disputes these claims.”
15. The newspaper did not accept that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the photographs published in the articles. In relation to Clause 3, it said that the frequency of articles did not engage the terms of Clause 3.
Relevant Code Provisions
16. 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.
17. 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. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
18. Clause 3* (Harassment)
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
Findings of the Committee
19. In relation to the claim which appeared in both articles, where it was accepted that the complainant’s indictment covered a period of more than three and a half years, it was not inaccurate to report that she had carried out a three year campaign or stalked her former friends over three years. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
20. With regards to the claim in the first article that she was had been ridiculed and disowned by many football fans, the basis for this claim was set out in the article by reporting critical comments which had been made by other fans on Twitter, including that she was not welcome at supporters’ pubs. Although the complainant disputed this, she did not provide any basis to suggest that the comments had not been accurately reported from Twitter. For this reason, the Committee did not find that there was any failure to take care over the accuracy of the article by reporting this claim, and no significant inaccuracy requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). Similarly, where the complainant had been discussed on social media and in the press with regards to her conviction and subsequent behaviour, it was not inaccurate to describe her as “notorious”. It was the former friend’s husband’s own claim – attributed to him via quotation marks – that the complainant had an “obsession with champagne” and that “we won’t be intimidated by her”. There was no failure to take care to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact in reporting this comment.
21. Although the complainant disputed she had an “obsession with champagne”, the basis for this was set out in the article – she had celebrated her release from prison by posting pictures on social media of her drinking champagne. Furthermore, as reported in the article, the complainant had previously posted photographs of her drinking champagne, each with the champagne a focus of the photograph. The Committee could not find that this comment – clearly presented as the former friend’s husband’s own characterisation –represented a significant inaccuracy requiring correction. Furthermore, the former friend was entitled to his view that the complainant had been trying to intimidate him and his wife – this claim did not distort the facts of the complainant’s behaviour, which had been accurately reported. Reporting this claim did not give rise to any significant inaccuracy requiring correction. Where the complainant had been convicted of stalking offences and was found to have created fake online profiles in order to do this, it was not significantly misleading to describe her as a fantasist, a stalker, or an “internet faker”. For all of these reasons, these points did not raise any breach of Clause 1 in the second article.
22. In relation to the allegedly fabricated relationship which was referenced in the first article, this was reported as fact and the articles did not report that the complainant denied the allegation. Presenting this allegation as fact, despite the existence of the complainant’s denial which was in the public domain at the time of publication, constituted a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, and there was a breach of Clause 1(iv). Where the article was significantly misleading as to the status of these serious allegations, a clarification putting on the record that these claims were allegations disputed by the complainant was required under Clause 1(ii).
23. On receipt of the complaint, the newspaper had amended the article to make clear that the points relating to the allegedly faked relationship were claims, rather than points of fact. It also added a footnote to the articles to record that this change had been made. In the first response to IPSO’s investigation, it offered to add to the footnote that the charges relating to this allegation were not pursued by the Crown – a day after this response, it added that the complainant disputed the claims. This offer was sufficiently prompt and as a footnote to the online article, was sufficiently prominent. The wording of the footnote made clear the complainant’s position and the status of the claims, as required under Clause 1(ii). For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).
24. In relation to the second article, the difference between 32 and 33 did not amount to a significant inaccuracy in the context of the overall article – it did not affect the reporting of the complainant’s conviction or the nature of the claims made against her. Furthermore, the Committee considered that where it was not in dispute that the complainant had posted pictures on social media of herself drinking champagne following her release from prison and had previously posted pictures of herself drinking champagne in a hot tub, both of which had caused controversy and prompted criticism. It was therefore not misleading to report that she had been “guzzling” champagne in the photographs or had been “flaunting her release”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
25. With regards to the photographs which appeared in both articles, the complainant accepted that they were publicly available on social media at the time of publication. For these reasons, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over these photographs and their publication did not represent an intrusion into her privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2.
26. The terms of Clause 3 are generally interpreted to apply to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. The concern that the newspaper had printed an article which was unnecessary did not engage the terms of Clause 3.
27. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1 in relation to the first article.
Remedial Action Required
28. The action which the newspaper had offered was sufficiently prompt and prominent, and made clear the status of the claims. This was sufficient to comply with the terms of Clause 1(ii), and should now be printed. The second article did not breach the Code, and so no further action was required in relation to it.
Date received: 11/01/2020
Date concluded by IPSO: 21/01/2021