Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00236-20 Sharp v Take a Break
Summary of Complaint
1. Jill Sharp complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Take a Break breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The SNAKE and the FAKE” published on 21 November 2019.
2. The article was a woman’s first-person account of being harassed. The woman said that she had first met the person accused of harassing her because of their shared support for a particular football team. The woman recounted how once she began a new relationship, her friend’s behaviour changed. She described how her friend began sending her excessive messages, and would not listen to her requests to stop. She said that a year and half into her friendship, her friend told her that she had also begun a new relationship and had shared extensive details of the relationship on social media as well as with her directly. The article reported that ultimately, the friendship had ended, following which, the former friend had insulted her on social media. The account reported that a friend had discovered that the new partner did not exist and that he was a “figment of [the former friend’s] imagination”. The woman explained that her former friend “…had created a fake second life using photos of a complete stranger” and had “…taken them [the photographs] from his social media accounts and even gone so far as to edit his real fiancée out of the snaps and herself into them. And if that wasn’t weird enough, she’d followed the couple so she could be pictured in places they’d visited. She’d even set up a Twitter account for [the alleged boyfriend] and sent romantic messages between them.”
3. The woman explained that when this was exposed in an article published in 2017, the former friend blamed her and began a campaign against her and her husband by writing abusive messages online and leaving malicious voicemails. She also said that her and her husband “…started getting malicious messages from a woman called Gemma Stuart. I [the woman] felt sure it was [her former friend]”. The woman said that this woman had contacted her friends, family and workplace claiming that her and her husband were involved in criminal activity. Finally, the woman explained that her former friend pleaded guilty to causing fear and alarm to her and her husband, and that she was sentenced to a year in prison.
4. The article was also trailed on the front page of the magazine, with a picture of the woman and the headline “She hated me for being happy/Jealous friend FAKED a fiancée to STALK ME”
5. The complainant was the woman named in the article as the person who was convicted of causing her former friend and her husband fear and alarm. She said that it was not the case that she had fabricated a relationship with the man, as reported in the article. She said that she had always disputed this claim as reported in the article published in 2017 and considered that she had been the victim of a hoax. She also said that she had never been convicted of any crime in relation to this claim. Furthermore, she disputed that she contacted the family of the woman or the family of the woman’s husband during her campaign of harassment or used the pseudonym Gemma Stuart. In support of this position, she provided her indictment which showed that her conviction was based upon her contacting the woman and her husband directly, contacting their colleagues, and contacting “others connected with them”. Finally, she considered that she should have been contacted before the article was published and given a right to reply.
6. When the magazine initially received the complaint, it did not accept that the article was inaccurate. It said that the woman was entitled to publish her account of her experience as a victim of crime, and the article was presented as her account. Furthermore, it said that the articles from 2017 which originally revealed the allegedly fake relationship were now a matter of public record and could be relied upon to support the woman’s account. It noted that although the complainant denied these allegations, she had not been able to provide any conclusive proof that they were untrue; the article did not report that the complainant had been convicted for creating the online profile or faking a relationship, nor had it reported this as fact. It said that the article did not, definitively state that the complainant was Gemma Stuart, or that the court had found this to be the case, but that the woman had feared that it was the complainant – this was not unreasonable where she had pleaded guilty to using false identities to harass the victim and her husband. Nevertheless, approximately 2 and a half weeks into its direct correspondence with the complainant, the magazine offered to print the following clarification in its next edition, and made clear that it was open to taking further action if the complainant could set out what would resolve her concerns:
“Following our article in issue 47 of 2019, The Snake and the Fake, we are happy to clarify that Jill Sharp was convicted of causing fear and alarm. She was not convicted of fabricated a relationship with [named man] or of any offence in relation to [named man]”
7. This was declined by the complainant.
8. When IPSO began its investigation, the magazine said that the woman who wrote the article had provided social media coverage from the man who was allegedly stalked, his girlfriend, and a now deleted Twitter account which appeared at the time to belong to the complainant. It said that these provided a basis for the woman’s claims that the complainant had in fact fabricated a relationship with the man, in addition to the then uncorrected articles from 2017. It said that it did not contact the complainant prior to publication as it was not its usual practice to seek comment from individuals who had been convicted of a crime in relaiton to that crime, as it was not appropriate in a story which was the victim’s first-person account of their experience. It reiterated that it was willing to publish a clarification with the complainant’s input, but she had not engaged in setting out specific wording in direct correspondence.
9. By this time, following a separate complaint to IPSO, a correction had been published in relation to the articles published in 2017 which first reported on the allegedly fabricated relationship. Following the publication of this correction, on the 23rd of June approximately 3 weeks after IPSO began its investigation, the magazine offered to print the following clarification:
“Following our article in Issue 47 of 2019, the Snake and the Fake, we are happy to clarify that Jill Sharp was convicted of causing fear and alarm to [named victim] and her partner, not of fabricating a relationship with [named man], featured in our article, or of any offence in relation to him. Miss Sharp’s position is that she did not fabricate a relationship or use the pseudonym ‘Gemma Stuart’. Miss Sharp also advises she has been in a happy, loving relationship with her partner [name] for the past 9 years.”
The magazine said that this clarification would appear on its letters page. It said that although it was the last editorial page in the magazine, it was sufficiently prominent to the original article because it was popular with readers and contained lot of stories – this was where clarifications and corrections generally appeared. For context, it provided a mock-up of this offer, in which the clarification appeared at the top of the page in a pink box and large bold font. In relation to the statement which appeared on the front page, it said that this clarification was sufficient to put the complainant’s position on the record, and in any event, the front page was clearly presented as the woman’s own view.
Relevant Code Provisions
10. 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.
Findings of the Committee
11. The Committee emphasised first that it was not making a finding on the accuracy of the allegations made against the complainant. Its role was to decide whether there had been a breach of the Editors’ Code.
12. The publication was entitled to report the woman’s account of her experience being harassed by the complainant and the article was presented as a first-person account, in her own words. This extended to the front page of the magazine, where the headline was clearly presented as the woman’s own claim. Furthermore, the article was not a court report – it was the woman’s own experience of her friendship and the subsequent harassment – and it was clear that the account focused primarily on the background to the offences, as perceived by the victim. The article did not state that the allegations regarding the fabricated relationship formed part of the complainant’s conviction – the article set out that she was convicted of causing the woman and her husband fear and alarm. However, whilst the article had presented the account in the woman’s own words, it was not clear from the presentation of her comments that the points relating to the allegedly faked relationship were claims disputed by the complainant. This was despite there being articles from 2017 reporting the complainant’s denial. Furthermore, the magazine had not contacted the complainant for comment in relation to the woman’s account – although there is not a standalone requirement for publications to contact subjects of article for comment, in this case by neither including the complainant’s denial as reported in the 2017 articles or her comment in relation to this article, the status of the claim, as a disputed allegation, was not sufficiently clear. As such, there was a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, in breach of Clause 1(iv). Furthermore, presenting these claims as fact constituted a failure to take care not to publish misleading information; by omitting the complainant’s denial, the article was significantly misleading as to the status of these serious allegations. A clarification putting on the record that the complainant disputed the allegation was therefore required under Clause 1(ii).
13. The magazine had offered to print a clarification when it initially received the complaint, which made clear that the complainant had not been for allegedly faking a relationship. When the magazine became aware that the 2017 article had been corrected following a separate complaint to IPSO, it continued to try and resolve the complaint by offering to print a clarification or to take other action. When it became clear that the complainant would not accept an offer the magazine was willing to make, the magazine had regard to its obligations under Clause 1(ii), and offered to print a clarification which put the complainant’s position on the record regarding the allegedly faked relationship. Although this offer was made approximately 3 weeks after IPSO began its investigation, the Committee had regard for the fact that the magazine had tried repeatedly to resolve the complaint with the complainant’s input since it first received the complaint, and expressed willingness to put her position on the record. As such, this offer was sufficiently prompt to satisfy the terms of Clause 1(ii). The magazine offered to print this clarification on its letters page, which is the last editorial page in the magazine. In determining whether this offer was sufficiently prominent to satisfy the terms of Clause 1(ii), the Committee had regard to the fact that the letters page was where any clarifications or corrections would normally appear in the magazine – readers would be familiar with it as the place to find updates on articles or points of correction. The Committee also noted that the magazine offered to publish the clarification at the top of the page, and in a prominent box. With regards to the front page reference, the Committee considered that requiring the clarification to appear there would be disproportionate to the requirements under Clause 1(ii) – the Committee was mindful that requiring remedial action to appear on a publication’s front page is amongst its most serious sanctions. The Committee recognised that it was the article itself that was significantly misleading, rather than the front page reference, as the article had not made clear that this claim was disputed. In this instance, the requirement under Clause 1(ii) was to make clear that the claim that the complainant had fabricated a relationship was disputed by the complainant and to put her position on record in order to rectify the misleading information published in the article. In these circumstances, the magazine’s offer was sufficiently prominent to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii). The clarification made clear that the allegation did not form any part of the complainant’s conviction and which specific claims she disputed. For all of these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).
14. The article reported the woman’s worry that a person who contacted her called Gemma Stuart was in fact the complainant using a pseudonym. This was clearly attributed to the woman, who did not assert as fact that the complainant was Gemma Stuart, or that this had been proven by the court. There was no breach of Clause 1(i), and no significant inaccuracy requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the magazine’s offer to put the complainant’s denial on the record on this point. With regards to the woman’s claim that the complainant had contacted her and her husband’s family, the Committee noted that the indictment provided by the complainant recorded that part of her conviction relating to contacted people “connected” to the woman and her husband; it did not specify whether this was their friends, family or both. As such, the Committee did not have grounds to find that reporting that the complainant contacted the woman’ and her husband’s families as part of her campaign of harassment was significantly misleading as to the nature of her conviction, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
15. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(iv).
Remedial Action Required
16. The clarification offered by the magazine was sufficiently prompt, prominent, and clearly set out the complainant’s position on the claims in order to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii). This should now be published to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
Date complaint received: 09/01/20
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 27/10/20