Decision of the Complaints Committee 01976-14 Turner v Surrey Comet
Summary of complaint
Summary of complaint
1. Richard Turner complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Surrey Comet had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, in an article headlined “Serial killer Levi Bellfield befriended Sarah Payne’s dad in Walton pub, mother reveals”, published in print and online on 3 November 2014.
2. The complainant is the brother of Levi Bellfield, who has been convicted of the murders of three young women and the attempted murder of a fourth woman. The article was based on a report in a national newspaper, and stated that Mr Bellfield had befriended Michael Payne, the father of murdered school girl Sarah Payne, during “weekly drinking sessions” at a pub in Walton, before Mr Bellfield’s arrest for the murders. It quoted Mr Payne’s brother describing Mr Bellfield as “sick” and claimed that he had “boasted” about the alleged friendship. It also reported that when police searched Mr Bellfield’s home after his arrest in 2004, they found newspaper cuttings about Sarah Payne’s murder.
3. The complainant said that his brother had never been a neighbour of Michael Payne; he had not met or socialised with him. His brother had moved out of his flat in Walton in March 2002, and had never visited the pub in question; further, Michael Payne had not moved into the street until 2004. By that time, the complainant’s brother was living in West Drayton, over ten miles away.
4. The complainant also raised concerns about a number of other points. His brother had been convicted of three murders, not four. No newspaper cuttings had been found at the Walton flat, as the article suggested, and no cuttings had been found at either location relating to Sarah Payne. Two cuttings had been found in a search of the West Drayton home: a story about car clamping and a story about Amelie Delagrange, one of his victims. In support of his position, the complainant provided a copy of a list of material recovered from the West Drayton home, which recorded two newspaper cuttings, along with an account by a police officer who had been present at the search. The officer said that one of the cuttings had been seized because it included a small article regarding the murder of Ms Delagrange. Beyond that, the officer said, “no other papers to the best of my knowledge were seized from the address during the period of the search. That is not to say that there were no other newspapers there. I could not say either way in respect of that request.”
5. The newspaper said that the story had been reported as the accounts of Mr Payne’s family, as recounted in another newspaper. The pub had been Mr Payne’s local, and Levi Bellfield had been one of its well-known regular customers. It maintained that it was feasible that Mr Bellfield had continued to drink at his former local after leaving the immediate area, and that he had befriended Mr Payne at this time. The newspaper amended the online article to make clear that police had found the newspaper cuttings at the West Drayton property and offered to make clear that the cuttings related to Amelie Delagrange, rather than Sarah Payne.
6. The complainant said the newspaper had relied on pub gossip. An amendment to the online article was not sufficient; a correction should also be published in print.
Relevant Code Provisions
7. 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. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
8. Levi Bellfield and Michael Payne had evidently not lived in Walton at the same time, and the Committee noted the complainant’s position that this undermined the basis of the article. However, the article was clearly based on the detailed recollections of Mr Payne’s family, including regarding his reaction on learning of Mr Bellfield’s convictions. The publication had been entitled to report their account, and the re-publication of the family’s claims, in this context, did not constitute a breach of Clause 1.
9. The Committee noted that the article had not made a specific claim that the complainant’s brother and Mr Payne had been neighbours; it said that Mr Bellfield had “gravitated toward [Mr Payne] in the Ashley Park pub, during weekly drinking sessions”. While Mr Bellfield and Mr Payne had lived on the street at different times, the Committee had not been provided with grounds to establish that Mr Payne and Mr Bellfield had not met in this context, as was the clear account of the Payne family. No correction was required.
10. The witness statement by the police officer who attended the search acknowledged that he could not confirm that no other cuttings had been present in Mr Bellfield’s West Drayton home at the time of the search. The Committee did not consider that there were grounds to establish an inaccuracy on this point.
11. A murder represents an appalling loss of life, and as such the Committee expressed concern about the careless inaccuracy regarding the nature of Mr Bellfield’s convictions. Nonetheless, the Committee concluded that, under the terms of the Code, a correction was not required to inform readers that Mr Bellfield had been convicted of three murders and one attempted murder, rather than four murders; they would not be significantly misled as to the gravity of his crimes.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 26/11/2014
Date decision issued: 27/03/2015Back to ruling listing