Decision of the Complaints Committee 01310-19 Gharu v mirror.co.uk
Summary of complaint
1. Suraj Gharu complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that mirror.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Milly Dowler killer Levi Bellfield ‘was part of child sex gang that used raping room’” published on 31 December 2019.
2. The article reported on a report prepared by a senior social worker. The article said that, in the report, the author had claimed that Levi Bellfield was part of a group that targeted vulnerable girls, some of whom are still at large. The article included a comment from the author who said “There are six other men in my report who are not serving full-life tariffs in prison and in my opinion pose a serious threat to children” and “I am deeply concerned there remains a risk to children both in the community and online from Bellfield's associates”. The article identified the complainant as one of the men named in the report and stated that he was “jailed for five years for sleeping with [a] 14 year old children’s home resident”.
3. The complainant said the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) because he was not convicted for having sexual intercourse with a 14 year old child. In fact, he was convicted of inciting a 15 year old to engage in sexual activity. The complainant also said that it was misleading to describe him as an “associate” of Levi Bellfield – they were not friends, and the complainant said that he simply worked as a wheel-clamper for Mr Bellfield and he was not part of any “child sex gang” as claimed in the article’s headline.
4. The publication did not accept that there was any breach of Clause 1. It said that court documents showed that as well as the complainant being convicted of inciting a child to engage in sexual activity, he was also convicted of “taking a child without lawful authority so as to remove from lawful control” and that on one occasion the complainant was away overnight with the victim; this gave a basis to describe him as having being jailed for “sleeping” with the child, and noted that it was not in dispute that he had engaged in sexual activity with a child. In relation to the age of the child, the publication said that this was based on information included in articles published at the time of the complainant’s conviction. In any event, it said that the difference between the victim being 14 years old and 15 years old was not significant. Nevertheless, as a gesture of goodwill, the publication amended the online article on this point and offered to publish the following clarification as a footnote to the online article. Although the print version of the article fell outside of IPSO’s time limits, the publication also offered to print the clarification on page 2 of the print edition of the publication:
“Suraj Gharu has asked us to clarify that although he was convicted of taking a child overnight without lawful authority and for inciting a child to engage in a sexual act, in which the incitement amounted to Mr Gharu requesting sex with a child, which was refused by the victim, he was not convicted of having sexual intercourse with a child.”
Relevant Code Provisions
5. 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
6. It was not in dispute that the complainant had been convicted of having sexual activity with a 15 year old child, and that he had spent the night with her and had tried to incite the child into full sexual intercourse. The Committee considered that “sleeping with” can be used as shorthand for engaging in sexual intercourse. In describing the offence for which the complainant had been convicted, the publication had relied on articles published at the time of the complainant’s conviction which stated that he had had “sex” with the child; as these remained unchallenged in the public domain, there was no failure to take care and no breach of Clause 1(i). Following publication, the complainant had demonstrated that he had not been convicted for having had sexual intercourse with the child, and reporting that he had been jailed for “sleeping” with a child was significantly misleading and required correction to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). Following receipt of details of the offence for which the complainant had been convicted, the publication had promptly offered to publish a correction as a footnote to the online article to set out the correct position. This proposal satisfied the requirements of Clause 1(ii) and the correction should now be printed.
7. Reporting that the complainant’s victim was 14 years old, when in fact she was 15 years old, was not significantly misleading in circumstances where the complainant’s victim was under the age of the consent at the time of the offence. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to clarify this point. To the extent that the reference to Bellfield’s “associates” would be understood to be a reference to the complainant, in circumstances where the complainant accepted that he was a former employee of Mr Bellfield, the description was not inaccurate. The article focussed on the claim in the social worker’s report that Mr Bellfield was part of a group which targeted young girls for sex. The headline, which summarised the report’s claim that Levi Bellfield was part of a “child sex gang”, was not inaccurate and the text of the article had accurately explained the complainant’s connection to the story. There was no breach of Clause 1.
8. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 05/08/2019
Date decision issued: 18/10/2019Back to ruling listing