Decision of the Complaints Committee 01102-18 Phelps v Edinburgh Evening News
Summary of complaint
1. Sam Phelps complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Edinburgh Evening News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Suspended cop stalked ex partner”, published on 5 February 2018.
2. The article was a report of the complainant’s conviction and sentencing. It reported that the complainant had been banned from going near his ex-girlfriend for two years after “stalking” her when she broke up with him. It said he “harassed” her by “turning up at her home and sending her unwanted emails, letters and social media messages”. It said that the woman said she was forced to “flee” a Noel Gallagher gig in Glasgow because she “’did not feel safe’”, and that the complainant had subsequently tried to contact her repeatedly, and turned up at a relative’s house to find her. It said he “also harassed her by turning up at her home late at night and shining a torch in to her bedroom as she and her children slept”. The article reported that, after this “stalking campaign”, the police installed an alarm at her home.
3. The article went on to report that the complainant was found guilty of causing fear and alarm by sending emails, messages, phone calls and texts, and by sending letters to his ex-girlfriend at her home address. It included the Sheriff’s comment that “I did not find evidence to satisfy me that you intentionally caused fear and alarm, but this case is still well beyond a trivial matter. I’m not completely convinced the pattern of getting back together following texts is mitigatory. But the accused clearly ought to have known his behaviour would have caused fear and alarm.” The article included a picture of the complainant in his police uniform.
4. The article appeared online under the headline “Midlothian cop stalked woman after Noel Gallagher gig”. This article included additional details of the woman’s account given in court, stating that she said the relationship lasted six years, and that it came to an end when they attended the concert “at the SSE Hydro”. It also said that the complainant harassed the woman by “turning up at shops”.
5. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1 because it gave a one-sided account of the information heard in court: it had not reported his evidence at all. He said that he had never been accused of shining a torch into a bedroom: he was accused of shining it into the living room, though he denied this had happened. He said, during the period of alleged harassment, his girlfriend had never told him the relationship was over; that they had continued to see each other for three days after the concert; and that this formed part of a pattern of behaviour throughout the relationship whereby the complainant and the woman separated and reconciled many times. Failing to report this made the article unbalanced. He said that the woman had never alleged that his behaviour had forced her to “flee” the concert, and that during the period of alleged harassment they had engaged in normal activities and communications; he was not aware that the relationship had ended at this point. He said it had, in fact, been a seven-year relationship, and that the concert had taken place at Bellahouston Park, not the SSE Hydro. He said that Noel Gallagher’s name had been included only to sensationalise the story.
6. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 2 because it included a photograph of him which was not available through social media or online; it was a personal photograph which he had not given consent to be used. He also said that including his full name and where he lived breached his privacy.
7. The publication denied that the article breached Clause 1. It said that, following a conviction, it was not obliged to carry details of the complainant’s defence. The article was based on the verdict of the Sheriff who heard both sides of the case and came to a guilty verdict; this was reflected in the weight given to the prosecution case in the article, which had included a detailed summary of the Sheriff’s comments, including that he was “not completely convinced” that the previous pattern of the relationship was mitigatory. It said that the court reporter’s notes showed that the woman had told the court that the relationship had lasted six years; that she had approached police because she “didn’t feel safe” at the concert, and asked them to take her home; and that she decided the relationship was over following this. It was not therefore inaccurate to say that she was “forced to flee” the concert. The publication accepted that it was inaccurate to say that the woman said the complainant had shone a torch into her bedroom, but did not consider that this represented a significant inaccuracy. It said it was willing to amend the incorrect information about the concert location. With regard to “turning up at shops”, the publication said that the woman had told the court that her mother had told the complainant that she was out shopping, and he had gone to find her.
8. The publication denied that the article breached Clause 2. There was a public interest in disclosing the complainant’s conviction and identity, including details of his home address and his photograph. The photograph, the source of which it could not reveal in line with its obligations towards confidential sources, did not reveal anything of a private nature about the complainant, and there was a public interest in disclosing the complainant’s identity as a perpetrator of crime. The publication had no reason to believe that the source had obtained it from the complainant in a non-consensual way.
Relevant Code provisions
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.
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.
Findings of the Committee
9. The article was a report of sentencing proceedings following the complainant’s conviction for causing fear and alarm. Where the court had handed down this conviction, and the judge had passed sentence, on the basis of the woman’s account, it was not misleading for the publication to report largely on the woman’s account, and to adopt aspects of this as fact. While the complainant disputed certain aspects of the woman’s account, publications are not responsible for the accuracy of information heard in court; their responsibility is to report accurately on what is heard. Omitting the complainant’s position, in a report of his sentencing, was not misleading, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
10. The article had inaccurately reported that the woman had said the complainant had shone a torch into her bedroom, when in fact she had mentioned the living room. However, the exact room into which it was claimed the torch was shone was not significant, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. Similarly, the location of the concert was not significant in the context of the article, and misreporting this did not raise a breach of Clause 1.
11. With respect to the complaint under Clause 2 (Privacy), the Committee noted that the publication’s obligations under Clause 14 (Confidential sources) meant that it could not divulge the source of the photograph. However, there was nothing to suggest that the photograph had been obtained in such circumstances as would raise a breach of Clause 2, and the complainant noted that he had willingly shared it with at least one other person. Where the photograph did not reveal any private information about the complainant, where it did not show him doing anything of a private nature, and where there is a public interest in the identification of offenders, there was no breach of Clause 2 on this point. Naming the complainant, and giving his partial address, where this information had been made public in court proceedings, did not raise a breach of Clause 2.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 07/02/2018
Date decision issued: 20/04/2018
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