· Decision of the Complaints Committee 00944-15 O’Connor v Romsey Advertiser
Summary of complaint
1. Matt O’Connor, the founder of campaign group Fathers4Justice, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Romsey Advertiser had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Harassment claims against MP and Tory activist thrown out”, published on 20 February 2015.
2. The article reported that a judge had dismissed harassment claims made by the complainant and his wife against a Conservative MP and a former Conservative lobbyist. It said the judge had thrown out the claims due to “a total absence of evidence”, and had ordered the couple to pay the defendants’ legal costs.
3. The complainant said the newspaper had not asked him to comment on the story or verified its accuracy with him before publication. Instead, it had published a statement that he had given to its sister publication, the Daily Echo, on 13 February 2015. He said the newspaper had since denied him a right to reply.
4. The complainant considered that the newspaper had inaccurately reported that “court documents” had stated that his application for an injunction against the lobbyist had been rejected in October 2014 due to “a total absence of evidence”. The complainant said the quotation had been taken from the defendant’s Skeleton Argument presented to the court in the subsequent hearing in February 2015; this was not a “court document”. He said the newspaper should not have attributed words to the judge based on the defendant’s recollection of what had been said. He said his notes taken on the day had indicated that the judge had said the evidence was “too generalised and lacking the requisite specificity to make an arguable harassment case”. He noted that the February court order had stated that the case had been struck out because there had been “no reasonable cause of action”. The document, provided by the complainant, indicated that the court had ordered that the claim be struck out as an “abuse of process”.
5. The complainant also expressed concern that the newspaper had reported that at the February 2015 hearing, Judge David Mitchell had described the harassment claims as “an abuse of the court process”, saying “there [was] not a shred of evidence”. He said these words were also not a direct quotation, but had been attributed to the judge by one of the defendants.
6. The complainant said the newspaper had inaccurately reported that the lobbyist had visited his home to issue defamation papers; in fact, he had delivered a “letter before action”.
7. The complainant said the omission of the reasons the civil action had been brought against the MP and the lobbyist had created a misleading impression. The complainant said the newspaper had failed to report his account of the incident that had occurred at his home, which he said had prompted the civil action. The article had also failed to state that he and his wife had not attended the hearing because they had not been told about it.
8. In addition, the complainant said that Fathers4Justice had not complained that the MP had failed to deliver her promises regarding the Shared Parenting Bill, as was reported; it had been the Children and Families Bill. He also noted that the newspaper had published his photograph without his permission, and had cropped the image to remove the MP.
9. The newspaper said it had quoted the statement attributed to the judge in the lobbyist’s Skeleton Argument. As the complainant had not attended the February hearing, it did not consider that he was in a position to dispute the defendant’s account. It also noted that the complainant’s description of the judge’s conclusion was not significantly different to that set out in the quotation. Furthermore, the newspaper did not consider that its report of the dispute that Fathers4Justice had with the MP had been significantly inaccurate: the key point was that the group had felt that the MP had not kept to her pre-election pledge to support its campaign. Nonetheless, the newspaper offered to publish a statement making the complainant’s position clear on both points.
10. The newspaper said it had not denied the complainant a right to reply. It had published the statement issued by the complainant to its sister newspaper. However, it said that it would be willing to publish a letter written by the complainant, subject to its usual editorial requirements. It noted that the published photograph had been purely illustrative; it was not misleading.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. 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. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply)
A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for.
Findings of the Committee
12. The Committee noted that the newspaper had relied on the defendant’s account of what had been said by the judge at the October 2014 hearing, which he had given in his Skeleton Argument to court in February 2015. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that a Skeleton Argument was not an official document produced by the court. The newspaper had been entitled to rely on material presented to the court in a formal submission, particularly as it related to the court’s own findings. Its reference to the material contained in the Skeleton Argument had not represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the information. Furthermore, the complainant’s application for an injunction had indeed been dismissed, and given the complainant’s account of what had been said by the judge about his evidence, the published quotation had not been misleading. This point did not raise a breach of Clause 1.
13. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had also attributed quotations to Judge David Mitchell that it had sourced from a statement issued by the MP. The article, however, had made the source of the quotations clear, and it had accurately quoted from the MP’s statement. The court order had also supported the information in the article; it stated that the claims against both defendants had been struck out as there was “no reasonable cause of action” and described the claims as “an abuse of the court’s process”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the information. This point did not raise a breach of Clause 1.
14. The complainant had expressed concern that the omission of background information to the case had rendered the article misleading. However, the selection of material for publication was at the discretion of the editor, provided that such editorial decisions did not engage the terms of the Editors’ Code. The article had made clear that the complainant had applied for an injunction against the lobbyist, and had claimed that he had been harassed. These points did not raise a breach of Clause 1.
15. The newspaper had accepted that Fathers4Justice had considered that the MP had failed to fulfil her pre-election promises in relation to the Shared Parenting Bill, and not the Children and Families Bill, as reported. While the Committee did not consider that this was a significant inaccuracy that required a correction under the terms of the Code, it welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification in response to the complaint. It also noted that the suggested wording addressed the complainant’s concerns regarding the quotations attributed to the judge. This point did not raise a breach of Clause 1.
16. The remaining concerns regarding the publication of a cropped image and whether the complainant had been issued with defamation papers were not significant points that would raise a breach of Clause 1. The complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld.
17. The complainant had also framed his concerns under Clause 2. The terms of Clause 2, however, do not require that newspapers seek comment before publication. Rather, they provide people with a fair opportunity to respond to published inaccuracies. The Committee had not established the existence of inaccuracies that would engage the terms of this Clause.
18. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 02/03/2015
Date decision issued: 22/05/2015Back to ruling listing