Decision of the Complaints Committee 01103-18 Phelps v The Scottish Sun
Summary of complaint
1. Sam Phelps complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Scottish Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “NUT COP VICTIM’S NOEL GIG TORMENT”, published on 5 February 2018.
2. The article reported that the complainant had stalked and “threatened” his ex-girlfriend after “she dumped him at a Noel Gallagher gig”. It said he “bombarded the mum of two with messages and shone a torch into her home as her kids slept”, and that he was sentenced for “harassment”. It said that the court heard that their “six-year romance ended at the ex-Oasis star’s concert at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro”, and that, after coming to the woman’s family home, the complainant “continued to harass the woman by turning up at shops she was in and sending a barrage of texts and phone calls”. The article went on to say that “the crazed cop also shone a light through her bedroom window late at night, leaving her kids ‘scared’”. It reported the Sheriff’s comment that “This is well beyond a trivial matter”, and that the complainant was fined £500 and banned from going near the woman for two years. The article appeared in substantially the same format online, under the headline “CONCERT CREEP: Cop threatened ex in terrifying stalking campaign after she dumped him at Noel Gallagher gig”.
3. 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 the use of the words “concert creep”, “maniac”, “crazed” and “twisted” to describe him was inappropriate and inaccurate, and that he had not been accused of “threatening” the woman. He did not recall that the woman had said she felt scared during the concert. He said, during the period of alleged harassment, his girlfriend had never told him the relationship was over, including while at the concert, so it was inaccurate to say that she had “dumped him”. He also said 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 also said that the article was misleading because it omitted the Sheriff’s comment in summing up that he did not find evidence to satisfy him that the complainant had intentionally caused fear and alarm. 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.
4. 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.
5. The publication denied that the article breached Clause 1. It said that the article reported the woman’s accusations, on the basis of which the complainant was convicted; the Sheriff had not said that he disbelieved any aspect of her testimony in summing up, and any omission of information was not significantly inaccurate or misleading. It said there was no obligation to report both the prosecution and defence cases. Where the police had to install an alarm for the woman, it was not misleading to state that she was “threatened”, and the characterisation of the complainant as “twisted”, “crazed” and so on were based on the behaviour for which he was convicted; the publication was entitled to use its editorial discretion in making these characterisations. The court heard that, the day after the concert, the complainant went to the woman’s home and was told she was shopping; he then went to find her, and did so as she left a shop. In these circumstances, it was not misleading to say that he turned up at shops she was in.
6. The publication provided the journalist’s original court copy, which included detailed quotations from the woman as heard in court, including her statement that she decided to leave the concert because she “did not feel safe”, that she went to the police for help, and that in her view the relationship was over at that point. It said that, where she had begun the evening with the complainant, and ended it by being taken home by the police, it was not misleading to say that she “dumped” him at the concert. The publication acknowledged that the complainant was not alleged to have shone a torch into the woman’s bedroom, but her living room, but denied that this was a significant inaccuracy where either act would have caused alarm. Finally, it said that omitting the Sheriff’s comment that there was no intent to cause alarm was not misleading where the complainant’s actions were sufficiently serious to warrant a criminal conviction.
7. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy). It said that the photograph had been obtained from a source, whose identity the journalist had agreed not to disclose; the journalist had not been able to obtain a photo of the complainant in the public domain, and there was a public interest in picturing him as an individual convicted of crime. The photograph did not reveal any private information about him.
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
8. 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.
9. 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 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. Where the complainant had been convicted of causing fear and alarm, the publication was entitled to characterise his behaviour as “crazed”, “twisted” and so on; doing so, where the basis for the conviction was made clear in the article, did not raise a breach of Clause 1. Finally, where the article had accurately reported the woman’s view, expressed in court, that she decided the relationship had ended at the concert, it was not misleading to state that she “dumped him” at the concert; the fact that the woman had not communicated this to the complainant did not make the article an inaccurate account of the court proceedings.
10. 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 shared it willingly with one other person. Where the photograph did not reveal any private information about the complainant, 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.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 07/02/2018
Date decision issued: 20/04/2018Back to ruling listing