01720-19 Heppell v Pick Me Up

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01720-19 Heppell v Pick Me Up

Summary of Complaint 

1.    Andrew Heppell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Pick Me Up breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “For better, for WORSE”, published on 21 February 2019. 

2.    The article was a first-person account written from the perspective of a named woman, describing the course of her relationship with the complainant (who was pictured, and identified by his name and age). 

3.    In the article, the woman described meeting the complainant, and how they had moved in together, became engaged, and got married. She said that the complainant’s behaviour had subsequently changed: he would ignore her and “started to become aggressive”. She said that in December 2016 she “fled” to her parents’ house, and that the complainant had turned up “hammering on the door…nose dripping blood, his eyes beaten black and blue”; she said that he had accused her of causing these injuries, which she had denied, leading to a heated argument. The article reported the woman’s account that, on a later occasion, the complainant had accused her of “’spending all our money’”, despite her “barely spend[ing] a penny”, and had then “shoved me away, grabbed a broom and started smashing up the microwave”, causing her to call the police, and to leave the home. 

4.    The woman described in the article how the complainant subsequently contacted her multiple times, including via a message saying “’You can’t leave. No-one will want you’”, and wrote to her manager “claiming [she] was an alcoholic and a drug user”. She said that he also applied for a job at her organisation, and when rejected, sent her manager a picture of himself injured, claiming that she had inflicted the injuries on him. She said that he continued to send “twisted e-mails”, and was issued with a non-molestation order in November 2017. Nevertheless, she said that “several times”, she spotted the complainant tailing her on his motorbike, and later found her car “completely destroyed…and all four tyres slashed”. The article included an inset quotation stating “He was my stalker. And there was nothing anyone could do…” The woman said that the police arrested the complainant in February 2018 for breaching his non-molestation order; she said that he had pleaded guilty to harassment in March 2018, and received a suspended sentence of two months, and a five-year restraining order. She said that she had filed for divorce in August 2018. 

5.    The complainant said that the article was an inaccurate account of his relationship with the woman, and the basis for his subsequent conviction, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). He said that his conviction had related to two actions only: sending an email to the woman’s employer, and wearing a t-shirt depicting a pig eating a doughnut to a gym (which was observed by a friend of the woman). He denied that he had turned up at the woman’s parents’ house injured, and alleged that, in fact, the woman had assaulted him, for which she was arrested. He said that, contrary to her claim in the article, the woman had taken large amounts of money from their accounts, running up sizeable debts. The complainant denied having smashed a microwave with a broom, and denied writing to the woman’s manager; he also denied having messaged her saying “no one will want you”, and denied sending “twisted emails”. The complainant also disputed the article’s account of the reasons for the woman losing her job, and for the couple’s financial problems. He also denied having followed the woman on a motorbike, and said that this had been disproven in court. 

6.   The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate to suggest that he had been responsible for damage to the woman’s car: he had been arrested for criminal damage to a motor vehicle, but had been found not guilty. The complainant also said that the article mischaracterised the nature of his contacts with the woman’s workplace: he said that he had simply asked her employer why he had been passed over for a job application. He also said that the quotation referring to him as a “stalker” was inaccurate, as he had not been convicted of any such offence. 

7.    The complainant also expressed concerns under Clause 2 (Privacy) about the publication of the photograph in the article. He said that he had not consented to its inclusion in the article, and that the copyright to the photograph was owned by the photographer. He also expressed a concern that he had been identified in the article, by his name, age and job title. 

8.    The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said that it had conducted a lengthy interview with the woman, evaluated her credibility carefully, and assessed her as a credible source with no convictions. It said it had checked the facts of the story against a contemporaneous report of the complainant’s sentencing, and checked the details of his plea, conviction and sentencing with the Crown Court. It said that it had only included claims which were credible and supportable, but that given the complainant’s conviction it had not considered it necessary to contact him prior to publication. The publication accepted that in cases of domestic dispute, the two parties may offer conflicting accounts, but considered that its report accurately reflected the fact that the complainant had ignored a police warning and a non-molestation order, and had been convicted of harassment. It also noted that the article was clearly presented as the woman’s own account of her relationship, and that she had a right to freedom of expression with respect to this. The publication said that it was not in dispute that the complainant had been given a police warning and a non-molestation order in relation to his behaviour towards the woman, and that having heard the evidence, the judge had found his behaviour to be sufficiently serious as to require a lengthy restraining order and a suspended custodial sentence. 

9.    The publication said that the claim that the complainant had turned up at the woman’s parents’ house with injuries which he attributed to her was a minor point which was not material to the article, and was presented as the woman’s account of the situation. It said that the complainant had been found in court to be an unreliable witness, who had harassed the woman, and that the article had accurately reported the facts of the conviction, and mirrored the judge’s summary of the case. Similarly, it said that the claim that the complainant had smashed a microwave with a broom reflected the judge’s comment that he had caused the woman ongoing fear; the publication said that any discrepancy on this point was not material to the substance of the article. It said that the claim that the complainant had messaged the woman saying “’You can’t leave, no one will want you’”, and the description of him having sent “twisted emails” reflected the tone of the messages the woman would receive from the complainant; it said this also reflected comments made by the prosecutor in court that he “engaged in a series of communications and a course of conduct which harassed his ex-wife”. The publication noted that the judge had stated that the woman “says she was made to feel worthless”, and that he took this to be true because of what he admitted to court. 

10. With respect to the complainant’s claim that he did not write to the woman’s employer, and his denial that he was her “stalker”, the publication said that the judge had stated that the complainant had “pursued a course of conduct that amounted to stalking of her, namely by contacting her employer by email…posting comments on Facebook and wearing a t-shirt featuring content of a derogatory nature”. The judge had stated that the complainant had contacted the woman’s employer “saying that she was an alcoholic and she drove whilst under the influence” and that they should test her for drugs – but that “luckily”, she was able to persuade her employer that this was untrue. The judge said that this behaviour had led to the issuing of a non-molestation order. The judge stated that the complainant’s behaviour amounted to “persistent misconduct” and that “there must be some risk” to the woman, as part of his rationale for sentencing. 

11. The publication noted that in his summing-up of the case in court, the judge had referred to the claim that the complainant had followed the woman on his motorbike, but stated that he was disregarding this based on the complainant’s agreed basis of plea. However, it was accepted that the woman had alleged that this had occurred. The publication said that the judge had not stated that this incident did not occur – he had merely said that he was not considering it. With respect to the article’s report of the woman’s car being damaged, the publication noted that the article did not state that the complainant caused this damage, but rather that the woman had discovered damage to her car. It said that it, in any event, it was reasonable for the woman to presume that the complainant had been responsible for this damage, when she was subject to harassing behaviour from him at the time. The publication also noted that the judge had referred to the complainant having a previous conviction for criminal damage; in these circumstances, and where the article accurately reported the facts of the complainant’s conviction in relation to his conduct towards the woman, any discrepancy on this point was not significant. 

12. Nevertheless, the publication offered to publish the following statement, on the same page or further forward than the original article: 

On [date] Pick Me Up magazine published Elaina Binney’s account of her relationship with Mr Andy Heppell.  Whilst the magazine

have no reason to disbelieve Ms Binney, it is accepted that Mr Heppell disputes certain events that she has described and that Pick Me 

Up acknowledges that that there are ‘two sides to every story.' We are happy to make this clear.

 

13. The complainant declined the publication’s offer of resolution. 

Relevant Code Provisions

14. 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. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

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 

15. The article reported the woman’s first-person account of her relationship with the complainant, and was clearly presented in this manner. The woman had the right to share her experiences, and there was also a significant public interest in her doing so, in the light of the complainant’s conviction. Nevertheless, the publication was required to take care over the presentation of the claims made about the complainant’s conduct in the article. 

16. The complainant had been convicted of harassment and given a lengthy restraining order and suspended sentence in relation to his conduct towards the woman. In summing up the case, the judge had characterised the complainant’s behaviour as “persistent misconduct” and as amounting to “stalking”. The judge had also “found it to be true” that the complainant had made the woman feel “worthless”, and had noted that she had been caused ongoing fear by his conduct. The complainant had not disputed that he had previously been given a police warning and that a non-molestation order had been made against him in relation to his behaviour towards the woman. Having heard the evidence, the judge had found the complainant’s conduct to be sufficiently serious to warrant a lengthy restraining order and a suspended custodial sentence. The question for the Committee was whether the report of the complainant’s account of the relationship and of the complainant’s conduct gave rise to any significant inaccuracies that would require correction. 

17. The complainant had denied that he had sent emails to the woman’s employer. However, the judge’s summing-up had found that the complainant had, on two occasions, sent emails to the woman’s employer containing allegations against her. There was no failure to take care over this claim, and no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

18. The complainant denied having turned up to the woman’s parents’ house injured. He said that the woman had caused him the injuries referred to. The article made clear that this was the complainant’s position on two occasions, stating that he had alleged this as part of a dispute, and in an email to the woman’s employer. It was therefore clear from the article that the cause of these injuries was in dispute, and in this context, whether or not the complainant visited the woman’s parents’ house in an injured condition was not significant. The article had also clearly been presented as the woman’s own account of the relationship. In circumstances where the claim was distinguished as the woman's view of the matter and where the judge had accepted the woman’s account in light of the evidence he had heard, the Committee did not consider that the presentation of the woman’s experiences in the article gave rise to any misleading impression that required correction on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

19. The complainant denied that he had smashed a microwave with a broom. However, it was accepted that the complainant had been issued with a police warning in connection with his behaviour on this occasion – irrespective of the precise details of the incident. The judge had accepted that the complainant’s actions had caused the woman to feel fear for her safety, and had found that the complainant posed “some risk” to the woman, in light of his past “persistent misconduct”; he had therefore felt moved to impose a lengthy restraining order on the complainant. The judge had also stated that, according to the woman, she had been caused ongoing fear by the complainant, and that he ‘took this as true’ on the basis of what the complainant had admitted. The article had accurately reported the facts of the complainant’s conviction, and had not suggested that the complainant had engaged in any behaviour resulting in physical injury to the woman, or suggested that this alleged behaviour had resulted in any formal criminal or legal outcome. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the inclusion of this claim, clearly presented as the woman’s own account of the event, gave rise to any significantly misleading impression that required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

20. The complainant also denied having caused damage to the woman’s car. However, the article did not state that he had done so; rather, it said that the woman had found her car in a damaged condition. The article did not directly attribute responsibility for this action to the complainant, and in circumstances where the article plainly presented the woman’s own account of her experiences, and accurately reported the nature of the complainant’s conviction, the Committee did not consider that the inclusion of this claim gave rise to any significantly misleading impression that would require correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point; however, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to publish a statement clarifying that the complainant disputed aspects of the woman’s account.  

21. The complainant also disputed that he had followed the woman on his motorbike, and denied that he had been the woman’s “stalker”. The first claim had been alleged in court, but had not been a matter upon which the judge had made a finding and was not included in the complainant’s agreed basis of plea. However, it was not in dispute that the complainant had subsequently been issued with a non-molestation order in relation to his behaviour towards the complainant, after they had already separated, and he did not dispute the  claim in the article that he would “call and text hundreds of times a day”. The judge had also described his course of conduct with respect to the woman as “amounting to stalking”. In these circumstances, and where the claim relating to the motorbike was clearly presented as the woman’s own account, the Committee did not consider that the inclusion of this claim gave rise to any misleading impression that required correction. Similarly, where the judge had described the complainant’s conduct as “amounting to stalking”, it was not misleading for the article to include the woman’s characterisation of him as a “stalker”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

22. The complainant had also disputed a number of minor points within the article: the content of a particular text message; the reasons for his applying for a job at the woman’s place of work; the “twisted” nature of his emails to the complainant; whether the woman had filed for divorce; and the woman’s description of her financial conduct in the relationship. On each of the points, the Committee did not consider that the article gave rise to any misleading impression that was sufficiently significant so as to require correction; none of these points was material to the story. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points. 

23. The photograph of the complainant showed only his appearance; it did not show him engaging in any private activity, or reveal anything private about him. There was also a public interest in showing the identity of an individual who had been convicted of crime, and identifying him by name and age; this was information that had previously been revealed in court in association with the crime for which the complainant was convicted. In these circumstances, there was no breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) in relation to the publication of the photograph, or the identification of the complainant.

Conclusions 

24. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial action required  

26. N/A

Date complaint received: 21/02/2019    

Date decision issued: 10/06/2019

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