Decision of the Complaints Committee 01278-14 Allen v The Times
Summary of complaint
Summary of complaint
1. Penny Allen complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, on her own behalf and on behalf of Steve Tremain, that The Times had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Fact crueller than fiction for author”, published on 4 October 2014.
2. The newspaper had reported that the complainant and Mr Tremain had “heckled” Ian McEwan, Ms Allen’s former husband, at a public event.
3. The complainant regarded her concerns about this coverage as “inseparable” from her concerns about “seventeen years of deliberately mendacious misreporting” on her case by the newspaper. She denied “heckling” or “accosting” Mr McEwan, or being “emotional”. She said she and Mr Tremain had sat through the event, and when the chair had asked for questions, she had stood up and had asked hers, as she had prepared to do in advance. She had not interrupted the event, and had shouted only because she was at the back of the hall and had no microphone.
4. The complainant denied that she had asked, “Why don’t you tell people about the injunctions and superinjunctions you have taken out on me?” Rather, she had asked “When are you going to lift your silencing litigation on me and my partner? When are you going to lift your silencing litigation on the entire British press?” Mr Tremain had not shouted about the author’s marriage; he had held up a book and said, “Mr McEwan, your book, The Children Act – a much better book is my book, Hiding behind the Children Act.” This distinction was significant because of the prevailing legal circumstances. She and Mr Tremain had not been “escorted” from the auditorium; an usher had been “sent to throw [her] out” and told her she was “spoiling the evening”, but she and Mr Tremain left of their own accord.
5. The complainant raised a number of concerns about the accuracy of the article’s claims regarding the background to the incident, and the history of litigation which had followed the end of her marriage to Mr McEwan. In particular, she denied that she had “repeatedly taken Mr McEwan to court”; the only proceedings she had instigated were divorce and custody proceedings, whereas Mr McEwan had taken her to court on countless occasions. She disputed the article’s account of the current legal position regarding her children with Mr McEwan and injunctions obtained by the parties; it was inaccurate to say she “no longer has access” to their two children, as they are adults.
6. The newspaper said that the article had been a first-hand report of a public, Times-sponsored event, at which the reporter had been present. The chair of the event had confirmed the general accuracy of its account of the complaint and Mr Tremain’s comments, and it did not appear to be in dispute that they had been asked to leave. In light of the fact that the complainant had attended the event for the express purpose of directing a hostile question at the principal guest, it had not been significantly misleading to characterise the intervention as “heckling”.
7. The newspaper accepted that the Ms Allen’s children are now adults, and that the custody battle had therefore ended. It amended the online version to reflect this. It was disingenuous, however, for the complainant to suggest that that the legal action had been instigated by Mr McEwan; it had been instigated in response to the complainant’s conduct. In support of its position, the newspaper quoted comments by a County Court judge who had presided over the proceedings; it said he described the complainant’s actions as a “vitriolic campaign” and stated that the significant legal costs were “mostly attributable to the way that [the complainant] has put her case. When thwarted … she has not hesitated to make trouble.”
8. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code, but it offered to publish the following statement acknowledging the dispute over what was said at the event: We reported that the author Ian McEwan had been heckled at the Cheltenham Literary Festival by his ex-wife Penelope Allen and her partner Steve Tremain. Ms Allen and Mr Tremain dispute our account of the even. Ms Allen states that her “carefully planned” question to Mr McEwan, was “When are you going to lift the silencing litigation on me and my partner? When are you going to lift the silencing litigation on the entire British press?” Mr Tremain, for his part, states that he “held up a book entitled Hiding Behind the Children Act” and said “Mr McEwan, your book, The Children Act – a much better read is my book, Hiding behind the Children Act.” We are happy to put this on record.
Relevant Code Provisions
9. 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.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
10. The journalist had been present at the event and had reported the incident as he had witnessed it, while acknowledging that the noise of the crowd had made it difficult for him to hear exactly what had been said. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. Further, the Committee did not consider that the distinction between the complainant and Mr Tremain’s account and that given by the newspaper was significant. The article had made clear that the complainant had raised concerns that her freedom of expression had been unjustifiably curtailed, and had quoted her previous comments on the matter. The article contained no suggestion that either the complainant or Mr Tremain had disclosed private information about Mr McEwan at the event. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to place their position about the precise wording of their comments on the record.
11. The report that the complainant had been emotional and had “heckled” Mr McEwan represented the newspaper’s characterisation of her demeanour and conduct. In circumstances where the complainant accepted that she and Mr Tremain had sought to challenge Mr McEwan publicly about a long-running personal dispute, the description had not been significantly misleading. The complainant accepted that an usher had told her that they were spoiling the evening and that she had been asked to leave; as such, it had not been significantly misleading to report that the complainants had been “escorted” from the event.
12. The article made clear that Ms Allen had been engaged in long-running legal disputes with Mr McEwan, and the complainant accepted that she had instigated proceedings against him on two occasions. The Committee also noted the comments by the judge who had presided over some of the relevant proceedings, cited by the newspaper. There was no inaccuracy on this point.
13. The newspaper acknowledged that the article had inaccurately stated that Ms Allen did not have access to her children. The article, which had focused on the conduct of the complainants at the event, had explained that there had been a bitter and acrimonious custody battle between Ms Allen and Mr McEwan over their two children, which was not in dispute. In this context, the fact that the complainant has access to her children now they are adults was not a significant detail such as to require correction under the term of the Code. The Committee welcomed, however, the action taken by the newspaper to amend this point in the online edition of the article.
14. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 13/10/2014
Date decision issued: 19/03/2015Back to ruling listing