Decision of the Complaints Committee 02299-18 Brown v The Scottish Sun
Summary of complaint
1. Zara Brown complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Scottish Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:
•“Cruel dog sanctuary boss ‘hate brag fury’” published on 7 January 2018.
• “Chilling and Callous: Harrowing images show frozen remains of dogs found at Ayrshire Ark as animal death toll reaches 16” published on 30 August 2017.
• “Pet’s horror fate: Tragic Ayrshire Ark pooch Percy sustained horrific injuries and died after he ‘was used in UK dog fighting ring’” published on 2 September 2017.
2. The first article reported that the complainant had “posted a Facebook brag about being ‘the best’ despite inflicting horrendous suffering on neglected pets.” It stated that after posting a still from a film with the motto “When people you don’t even know hate you, that’s when you know you’re the best,” the complainant’s profile had vanished. The article was also published online, headlined, “Cruel Ayrshire boss who kept dead dogs in a freezer sparks fury after gloating over being a hate figure.” The online article was substantively the same as the print article.
3. The second article was published online and reported that the complainant had been sentenced to 7 months in prison “for a campaign of animal cruelty” at an animal shelter. It included photographs of animals that the SSPCA had found in a freezer of the property and reported a number of comments from the charity’s welfare inspector. It stated that the confirmed death toll from the rehoming shelter was 16. It stated that the complainant had been jailed for seven months “for horrific acts of cruelty and neglect towards the animals in her care,” and had also been given a four month sentence “for keeping homeless dogs in squalor.” It also stated that she had been banned for life from owning or working with animals again.
4. The third article was published online, and reported that dogs that had come from the complainant’s animal shelter may have died as part of a dog fighting ring, according to experts. It stated that anti-bloodsport campaigners said they had intelligence to suggest that the animal shelter may have had links to dog fighting gangs. It reported that the campaign group believed an English bull terrier cross named Percy had spent time at the animal shelter and had been used in an organised fight before he died. It also reported that the campaigners believed another dog, who had also been at the shelter, was also a victim of the dog fighting ring.
5. The complainant said that the first article was inaccurate, as she did not have a Facebook account and said there was no proof that she had posted this online.
6. She said that the second article was misleading, as she did not receive any charges for the bodies of the animals that were found in the freezer. She said that the article had inaccurately reported her charges and had led to the public believing she had received charges for the animals in the freezer; she said she had a valid reason as to why they were there.
7. The complainant also said that the third article was inaccurate, as there was no evidence that the dog, Percy, had ever been at her animal shelter. She also said it was inaccurate for the article to suggest that she was connected to dog fighting rings in any way.
8. The complainant was also concerned that publishing these articles amounted to harassment, and was inciting public hatred.
9. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It provided screenshots of the complainant’s Facebook account, which showed the post referred to in the first article. The newspaper also provided screenshots of the complainant discussing the recent coverage of her case, which it said showed that this was her account. It said that it also checked her identity with a source, who had confirmed they had been contacted by the complainant through this profile to have discussions about the animals at the shelter.
10. It said that the pictures of the animals kept in the freezer at the shelter had been provided to the publication by the SSPCA. It said that it was justified in publishing these images as they were provided by an official body, who were keen to highlight what had been found at the scene. It said that the fact these animals had been found in the freezer had also been narrated in open court by the Procurator Fiscal. It said the article had not stated that the complainant had received any charges for these animals.
11. The newspaper said that the information contained in the third article had come from the anti-bloodsports campaigning group, and had been attributed as such in the article. It stated that Percy was known by many people to have been at the complainant’s animal shelter and provided a photograph, taken from the complainant’s social media, of her with the dog. It said that the campaign group had confirmed to the journalist that it had investigated allegations of a possible connection between the complainant and her animal shelter and dog fighting groups in the UK.
Relevant Code provisions
12. 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.
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 the. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
Findings of the Committee
13. The newspaper had provided screenshots of the complainant’s Facebook account, and the comment she had posted that was reported in the article. The newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of this information, and reporting it was not inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
14. The second article had not stated that the complainant had received charges for the animals kept in the freezer, but reported details of what the SSPCA had found when it arrived at the property. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of this information. The article had gone on to explain that the details of the complainant’s charges, and was not misleading in the way the complainant suggested. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
15. The third article had reported the claims made by the animal rights campaign group. The newspaper was entitled to report these claims, and where it was clear that the article was reporting claims made by the campaign group, the newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of this information. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i). The article had accurately reported the claims made by the organisation, therefore there was no breach of Clause 1 (ii). Also, the newspaper had provided evidence that Percy had been at the complainant’s shelter, including a photograph of the complainant with the dog. The complainant did not dispute that this dog had been at the shelter at one point, as reported in the article. Reporting this claim was not inaccurate, and the article did not state, as the complainant suggested, that this animal had been involved in dog fighting while at the shelter. Therefore there was no breach of Clause 1.
16. The articles reported on the complainant’s recent conviction for animal cruelty offences, and details of the animal shelter she had run. Publishing these articles did not represent harassment under the terms of the Editors’ Code, and there was no breach of Clause 3.
17. The complaint was not upheld
Remedial Action required
Date complaint received:15/03/2018
Date decision issued:18/05/2018