Decision of the Complaints Committee 02021-19 A Woman & A Man v The Bolton News
Summary of Complaint
1. A woman and a man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Bolton News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) in the preparation and publication of an article which was published in March 2019.
2. The article reported on a father’s account of “facing the nightmare that his children will soon have a convicted paedophile as a step-father”. It said that a convicted child sex abuser, who it named as the male complainant, was soon to marry the man’s ex-wife, who lives with their three children. It reported that the male complainant “was convicted of abusing and grooming a 14-year-old girl in 2011” and said that he had used internet chatrooms to groom her before having sex with her on multiple occasions. It noted that he was sentenced to seven years in jail with an extended licence of eight years, and was placed on the sex offenders’ register for life, and quoted a police officer’s comment at the time that his “’propensity for young girls is clear’”. The article stated that he had been released on licence in 2014, and that “there is no suggestion he has committed any further offences since his release”.
3. The article described the father’s “horror” at discovering the male complainant’s past convictions. It said that the children “were subject to a child protection plan but were removed from the register by Bolton Children’s Services earlier this year”; it said that a spokesman for the Council “explained that they had reached a point where the plan was no longer necessary”, stating that “’the decision to remove a child protection plan…is only taken when it is agreed that a child is no longer at risk of serious harm’”.
4. The article stated that, under the terms of the male complainant’s release “it is believed [he] cannot spend a night at his girlfriend’s house when there are children present, according to the dad”. The article stated that “when he marries his bride, the pair will only be able to be in the presence of the children if there is another adult present, it is understood”. The article stated that “the mother” – the female complainant – had declined to comment.
5. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format.
6. The complainants said that the use of the term “paedophile” to describe the male complainant was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). They said that this term referred to a persistent and focused attraction to prepubescent children, which was not reflected by the facts of the male complainant’s conviction. They also said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that the children involved in the case were removed from the child protection register earlier in 2019, when they had been removed in 2017, as the female complainant had stated in a phone call to the editor. The complainants noted that social services’ involvement had continued after the children were removed from the register, until at least 2018. The complainants also said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that the male complainant had to have another adult – distinct from the female complainant - present when interacting with the children involved. The female complainant said that she had stated this on the telephone to the editor prior to publication, and that the Probation Service and Children’s Services had confirmed to her that they did not provide this information to the publication. The complainants accepted that the male complainant was not able to stay overnight at the children’s home.
7. The complainants also said that the article breached Clause 2 (Privacy) by reporting details of their domestic living arrangements, and repeating the claim that they had to have another adult present when in the presence of the children.
8. The complainants also said that the conduct of the publication’s employees in the preparation of the article breached Clause 3 (Harassment). They said that the editor’s behaviour during phone calls was antagonistic and intended to cause the female complainant distress and upset, for instance by repeatedly referring to the male complainant as a “paedophile” or “rapist”. They said that the editor shouted at the female complainant on the phone, despite it being clear that her baby was crying at the time.
9. The publication denied that the use of the term “paedophile” was inaccurate. It said that this term was in common usage in relation to any individual who had had unlawful sexual relations with a child; it said that the male complainant had been convicted of abusing and grooming a child, and engaging in sexual activity with a child, in 2011, and was still on licence for these offences, which had led to a seven-year jail term, and to the complainant being placed on the sex offenders register for life. The publication said that a police officer had stated publicly, in reference to the complainant’s conviction, that his “propensity for young girls is clear”.
10. The publication said that the information regarding the time the children had been removed from the register had been provided by the local council, and had been checked again prior to publication, following a conversation with the female complainant in which she had declined to comment on this point, but stated that it was incorrect. It noted that the female complainant had refused to comment on the record, and had not been willing to provide the correct position on this point. The publication also denied that the article gave an inaccurate account of the male complainant’s licence conditions, with respect to his contact with the children. It said that this was supported by a statement provided by the Probation Service, and by guidance given by a named official at the Ministry of Justice, who, when presented with the facts of the complainants’ case, had commented to the effect that the male complainant would be unable to be alone in the presence of the relevant children, and that he would not be able to be in their presence with only the female complainant present, without a chaperone. The publication said that it had attempted to put this point to the female complainant prior to publication, but while she had said it was untrue, she had declined to put the correct position on record. The publication said that its journalist had made shorthand notes of her conversations with the named Ministry of Justice official, which had been used in the publication’s initial responses to the complainant, but these had subsequently been misplaced. In its first response to the complaint, the publication offered to issue a clarification on these points, if the complainants would supply the correct position. When it became apparent during the course of IPSO’s investigation that the complainants would consider such an offer, and when they had provided the correct position in relation to these points, the publication offered the wording below. It said this would appear on its online homepage for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way, and on page 5 of its print edition:
CLARIFICATION: [NAMED PARTY]
In an article headlined “[headline]”, published in March, we described the case of a father whose children would “soon have a convicted paedophile as a step-father”. We said that the step-children in question had been removed from the child protection plan “earlier this year”, and that the step-father, [named party], “will only be able to be in the presence of the children if there is another adult present”, in addition to his wife. Since the article was published, the couple have contacted us to say that the step-children were in fact removed from the child protection register in early 2017. They also say that [named party] can spend time with the step-children supervised only by his wife, and that this contact does not need to be supervised by a third adult. We are happy to put their position on the record.
11. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy). It said that the details of the male complainant’s convictions were already in the public domain, and he had been extensively identified in relation to them. It therefore denied that the story added to the existing risk of identification of the family as being connected to him; any such risk arose from the publicly-conducted nature of the complainants’ relationship. The publication said that it had nevertheless taken steps to remove identifying details from the article, by avoiding using any photographs of the male complainant; by omitting to name the female complainant, her children, and the man whose account was reported; and by omitting to refer to the number of children involved. It noted that there was a strong public interest in the publication of the story, given that it contributed to debate about the accommodation of serious child sex offenders in society after their release from prison, and about the concerns of divorced ex-partners for the welfare of their children in such circumstances.
12. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 3 (Harassment). It said that there was a significant public interest in the story, and that its conduct was reasonable and proportionate. It said that its editor had contacted the female complainant by telephone on three occasions – firstly, to offer her a chance to participate in the story; secondly, to respond to concerns she had raised regarding its publication; and thirdly, to request a copy of a court order she had indicated would have bearing on the matter. It said that when it was asked to desist contacting the complainant by telephone, it had done so, despite further calls from her to its own newsroom.
13. The complainants declined the publication’s offer of clarification.
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.
Clause 3 (Harassment)*
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
The Public Interest
There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.
1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.
4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.
5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.
Findings of the Committee
15. In relation to the article’s claims regarding the children’s removal from the child protection register and the male complainant’s licence conditions, the publication said that it contacted the relevant official bodies, although it could not provide notes of the telephone conversations, which was regrettable. The publication had also taken steps to verify these claims with the complainants, by contacting them directly and at length multiple times prior to the publication of the article - but they had declined to make any on-the-record comment on these points in order to set out the correct position. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that there was any failure to take care over these claims, and there was no breach of Clause 1(i). The Committee then turned to consider whether it was significantly inaccurate or misleading to report these claims.
16. The Committee noted that the complainants accepted that the male complainant would not be permitted to be alone with the children who were referenced in the article and to stay in the same house as them overnight, but that they said that it was not a requirement that a third individual also be present, as the article had reported. The Committee noted that the article had not reported the situation as categorical fact, only that it was “understood” that the arrangements were as described. Where it was accepted that measures were in place which imposed restrictions on the male complainant’s contact with the children, the Committee did not consider that the presentation of the arrangements in the article was significantly misleading so as to require correction. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to clarify this point, which had been made promptly following receipt of the complaint.
17. Similarly, where it was not in dispute that the children in question had been subject to a child protection plan, where it was accepted that social services’ involvement had continued until relatively recently after the removal of the plan, and where the article made clear the reasons for this plan being removed, based on a statement from the Council, the Committee did not consider that the year in which they were removed from the plan was significant in the context of the article. The article did not give rise to any significantly misleading impression that required correction on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii) with respect to either point.
18. The Committee noted the complainants’ position that the male complainant was not a paedophile, because he did not have an attraction to prepubescent children, and the offence for which he was committed did not involve such children. However, the term “paedophile” is also in common usage to describe individuals who have been convicted of a sexual offence against an older child. The complainants did not dispute that, as the article reported, the male complainant had been convicted of “abusing and grooming a 14-year-old girl…before having sex with her on multiple occasions”. Where the article made clear the nature of the male complainant’s conviction, it was not misleading to describe him as a “paedophile”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
19. Turning to the complaint under Clause 2 (Privacy), the Committee noted that the publication had not named the female complainant and her children; however, where the male complainant was identified by name, there was a possibility that they too would be identified. The man whose views were reported in the article had a right to freedom of expression in relation to his position.
20. The Committee noted that the information regarding the male complainant’s conviction was in the public domain, and reporting on this matter did not intrude into his privacy. The publication said that the information regarding the arrangements concerning the complainants’ children had been released by the relevant authorities; however, it was not able to provide any evidence to support this position. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that reporting details of the arrangements which concerned the children was information in respect of which the female complainant and her children had a reasonable expectation of privacy, publication of which was intrusive. This information was not otherwise in the public domain and, therefore, the publication needed to demonstrate an exceptional public interest to avoid a breach of Clause 2.
21. The Committee accepted that there was a public interest in publishing the concerns of the father about the contact his children was having with an individual who had been convicted of child sex offences. The question for the Committee was whether the public interest was exceptional so as to justify the inclusion of the information concerning the arrangements relating to the children. The Committee considered that the report contributed to a debate on a subject which had an exceptional public interest given that it concerned the welfare of potentially vulnerable members of society. In all these circumstances, the Committee considered that the private information published in the article was justified in the public interest. There was no breach of Clause 2.
22. The female complainant had spoken with the editor by telephone on a number of occasions. The complainants had not suggested that the editor had ignored any request to desist in contacting them and therefore, with the benefit of the recordings, the Committee considered whether the conduct of the editor during these calls amounted to intimidation or harassment. At times, the conversations had touched on sensitive and difficult topics, and the tone of the conversations had been heated on both sides. However, it was clear that the purpose of the phone calls was to give the complainants the opportunity to respond to the matters which were to be published in the article. The female complainant had engaged fully in these discussions, continuing the conversations for long periods on each occasion, including after they had become heated. While the Committee accepted that the phone calls had caused the female complainant distress, the Committee did not consider that the editor had behaved in such a way which amounted to intimidation. There was no breach of Clause 3 (Harassment).
23. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 06/03/2019
Date decision issued: 03/01/2020