Decision of the Complaints Committee — 00233-20 Sharp v birminghammail.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Jill Sharp complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that birminghammail.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Depraved stalker flaunts early prison release with brazen champagne celebration snaps” published on 16 October 2019.
2. The article was published after a woman had been released from prison after she had 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 husband of the former friend was quoted in the article as saying that the woman was a laughing stock at Ibrox stadium; that “this obsession she has with champagne is sad but we won’t be intimidated by her”; that she was a “fantasist and a stalker”, and that “details emerged in court” about her behaviour. The article also included critical comments made on Twitter about the woman, including that she was not welcome in supporters’ pubs.
3. The article also reported that “In February 2017, it was reported that [ the woman] had stalked a man who was a complete stranger to her. She created a fake second life using photos [name] and his fiancée [name] had posted on social media. [The woman] copied their movements so she could be pictured in places they had visited, then posted loved-up snaps online. She set up a fake Twitter page 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 her drinking champagne in her pyjamas after having been released from prison, two different photographs of the woman drinking champagne in a hot tub, a photograph of the woman and a man which the newspaper said the woman had fabricated to make it appear as if they were in a relationship, and a copy of the original news article which had reported on the allegedly faked relationship. The photographs which showed the woman drinking champagne prominently displayed the bottles.
5. 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 article contained a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. She said that she was not being “brazen” as reported in the headline when she posted pictures of herself on social media. She said that it was not the case that she was a laughing stock at Ibrox stadium. 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. She also said that it was not the case that “details emerged in court” about her behaviour – she said that very little was said in court about her behaviour.
6. The complainant said that the 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.
7. The complainant also said that the 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 either appeared on publicly-accessible social media profiles at the time of publication, or had already been published in articles from 2017.
8. Finally, the complainant said that the publication of the article represented a continuation of persistent coverage by the newspaper, which she said was unjustified and excessive. Therefore, she said that the publication of the article constituted a breach of Clause 3.
9. Aside from the issue relating to the allegedly faked relationship, the newspaper did not accept that the article contained any significant inaccuracies requiring correction. With regards to the allegedly faked relationship, it said that at the time that the 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.”
10. The newspaper did not accept that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the photographs published in the article. It said that the images were freely available on publicly-accessible social media accounts at the time of publication. In relation to Clause 3, it said that the frequency at which articles were published about a subject did not engage the terms of Clause 3.
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. 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.
13. 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
14. In relation to the allegedly fabricated relationship, this was reported as fact and the article 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).
15. 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).
16. Where the complainant had been criticised for posting photographs on social media showing her drinking champagne after her release from prison, there was a basis to describe her as being “brazen” and this description was not significantly misleading as to the facts of her behaviour such as to require correction. The rest of the alleged inaccuracies were all attributed to the husband of her former friend via quotation marks. There was no failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact in reporting his comments. With regards to the claim that she was a “laughing stock” at Ibrox, although the complainant disputed this, she did not provide any basis to suggest that she had not been criticised or caused controversy following her conviction or release from prison. The Committee also considered that the complainant was not in a position to dispute this claim – she could not claim to have knowledge of all members of the Ibrox community or club fanbase, or their views of her behaviour. Furthermore, the article reported comments which were critical of the complainant and said that she was not welcome at supporters’ pubs – the complainant did not dispute that these comments had been accurately reported. For this reason, the Committee did not find that this claim raised any significant inaccuracies requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
17. 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 did not find that this comment – clearly presented as the former friend’s husband’s own characterisation – represented a significant inaccuracy requiring correction. 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 and a stalker”, and where her case had been heard in court, it was not inaccurate to report that “details emerged in court” about her behaviour. For all of these reasons, these points did not raise any breach of Clause 1 in the second article.
18. With regards to the photographs, the complainant accepted that they were publicly accessible on social media at the time of publication or had been published in previous articles. 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.
19. 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.
20. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.
Remedial Action Required
21. 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.
Date complaints received: 11/01/2020
Date complaints concluded by IPSO: 21/01/2021