Decision of the Complaints Committee 01928-17 McDonald v The Gazette
Summary of complaint
1. Raymond McDonald complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Gazette breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Dating conman who swindled string of vulnerable women branded 'a man without shame, gutless and a serial fraudster'”, published on 16 December 2016, and in an article headlined “’Gutless’ fraudster jailed after preying on vulnerable women to fund lavish lifestyle,” published on 10 January 2017. Both articles were published online and in print.
2. The articles reported that the complainant had been convicted of five counts of fraud by false representation, and reported on the evidence heard at the sentencing hearing. They claimed that he refused to leave his cell to face his victims in court.
3. The first article referred to the complainant as a “disgraced ex-serviceman” and stated that he had sold the wedding dress of a victim’s daughter and then “pocketed” the money. It also claimed that he showed £45,000 worth of cash to a victim at her home. The second article reported that the complainant had “initially denied the offence” and was later sentenced to ten years imprisonment. It also reported that his victims lived in Teesside, Durham, Newcastle and Northumberland.
4. The complainant said that the articles contained a number of inaccuracies. The complainant accepted that he was not present at the sentencing hearing, but said that this was due to an administrative error and he did not “refuse” to leave his cell. He said that the first article was inaccurate because he was not a “disgraced” ex-serviceman. The complainant also said that he did not sell the wedding dress of a victim’s daughter, neither did he show £45,000 to a victim. He said that the second article was inaccurate because he had never denied the offence, and because he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years imprisonment, not ten years. The complainant also said that his victims only lived in Newcastle, and not in Northumberland.
5. The newspaper said that the reported information was taken from the reporter’s notes taken in court. The notes showed that the court heard that the complainant had refused to leave his cell; sold the wedding dress of a victim’s daughter; shown a victim £45,000; that he initially denied the offence; and that he had been dismissed from the army.
6. The newspaper said that information regarding the complainant’s sentence and the areas in which his victims lived was taken from an official Facebook post made by the Northumbria police, under the reasonable belief that it was accurate. It did not accept that there had been a breach of the Code on these points. The newspaper contacted the police to confirm the length of the complainant’s sentence, and was informed that it had been reduced by twenty five percent. The newspaper accepted that the length of the complainant’s sentence was reported inaccurately in the second article, and it amended the article to reflect this.
Relevant Code Provisions
7. 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.
Findings of the Committee
8. The first article was based on court proceedings; newspapers are not responsible for the accuracy of information given in court, rather they have an obligation to accurately report proceedings. All of the points disputed by the complainant were corroborated by the reporter’s notes. The complainant had not been present in court, and was not therefore in a position to dispute the accuracy of the notes. There was no breach of Clause 1.
9. The second article was based on a Facebook post made by the Northumbria police force. This post claimed that the complainant was sentenced to ten years imprisonment, which was reported in the second article. The newspaper had contacted the police who later confirmed that the complainant’s sentence was reduced to seven-and-a-half years, and it corrected the online article on this point. The Committee was concerned that the newspaper did not respond to the complainant during IPSO’s referral period, which had a bearing on the promptness of the correction. Whilst the newspaper should have noted the inconsistency between the Facebook post and the court notes, the Committee did not consider that the discrepancy between seven-and-a-half years and ten years was significant in these circumstances. There was no breach of Clause 1.
10. The second article also reported that the complainant had “initially denied the offence”. The notes showed that when he was first interviewed by the police, the complainant denied the allegations made against him. In circumstances where the court heard that the complainant “initially denied” the offence, the Committee did not consider that the article was inaccurate on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.
11. The Facebook post also stated that some of the complainant’s victims lived in Northumberland, which was reported in the second article. Although the notes of the court proceedings made no reference to victims in Northumberland, the Committee did not consider that this point was significant. There was no breach of Clause 1.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 15/03/2017
Date decision issued: 26/07/2017