Decision of the Complaints Committee 02510-21 A woman (B) v The Sunday Times
Summary of Complaint
1. A woman (B) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), Clause 7 (Children in sex cases), and Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Exit, chased by a supernatural bear”, published on 7 March 2020.
2. The article was a television column which included a brief review of a documentary, centring on Max Clifford, who had been convicted in 2014 of historic sex offences. The programme featured some of Mr Clifford’ victims, who contributed anonymously to the show. The columnist criticised the manner in which the women’s identities had been obscured in the documentary: “Yet instead of handling the women tastefully, they’d been given joke-shop wigs to wear and their voices had been lowered to disguise them, like pre-op transwomen on a day trip from Brighton. What started off as an attempt to make their stories heard only made them victims again.“
3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form under the headline “TV reviews: The Terror; Max Clifford: The Fall of a Tabloid King; Deutschland 89; Ben Fogle: Inside Chernobyl”.
4. The complainant was one of the women who had appeared in the documentary, and who 30 years prior had been a victim of a sexual offence perpetrated by Max Clifford. She said that the reference to her wearing a “joke shop wig” and having her voice distorted to sound like “pre-op transwomen on a day-trip from Brighton” intruded into her grief and shock as a victim of a serious sexual assault, and was insensitive in breach of Clause 4. She said that these hurtful comments sought to diminish the assault on her by making light of the situation and served to undermine her testimony. She was also concerned that the article could prevent other victims of sexual assault from coming forward to speak out about their experiences.
5. The complainant said that the article also breached Clause 1, as it was inaccurate to state that she and the other women who participated in the documentary were wearing “joke-shop wigs”. She also considered Clause 7 and Clause 11 had been breached, as the piece portrayed victims of sexual assault – including a victim who had been a child at time of the assault – in a deeply insensitive and sensational manner. She also said that the review had seriously hampered her own recovery from years of suffering resulting from the assault, the court case, and the ordeal of recounting her experience for the documentary.
6. The publication did not accept that the Code had been breached. It extended its sympathies to the complainant and said that there had been no intention to exacerbate her suffering as a victim of sexual assault. It did not, however, consider that Clause 4 was engaged by the complaint, as the Clause applies only to approaches made by journalists and contemporaneous reporting of personal cases of grief and shock; the terms of the Clause do not apply in perpetuity and therefore would not be engaged by a television review focusing on historic crimes. The publication noted that the title of the clause itself referred to “shock”, which it characterised as “a spontaneous reaction to a sudden event.” It further said that the comments under complaint were references to a television programme which was in the public domain with the complainant’s cooperation.
7. The publication said that the reference to “joke-shop wigs” was the writer’s comment on the appearance of the wigs; it was not a definitive statement of fact and nor was it presented as such. It noted that the Preamble to the Editors’ Code of Practice makes clear that newspapers have the “fundamental right to freedom of expression – such as to inform, to be partisan, to challenge, shock, be satirical and to entertain.”
8. While the publication acknowledged the concerns raised by the complainant under the terms of Clause 7 and Clause 11, it said that the terms of these Clauses related to the identification of victims of sexual offences and did not cover concerns about sensitivity and sensationalism when referring to the offences.
9. The complainant said that, regardless of the amount of time that had passed since she had been assaulted, the shock and grief of it persisted; she remained a victim of sexual assault and continued to suffer the emotional effects of its aftermath. She found the definition of the term “shock” advanced by the publication to be narrow, and said that shock could be long-lasting and chronic. She also said her decision to take part in the programme did not absolve the newspaper of its obligation to handle publication sensitively. She reiterated that she found the article offensive, not only towards herself and other victims of sexual offences, but also towards transgender people.
Relevant Clause Provisions
10. 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.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)
In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.
Clause 7 (Children in sex cases)
The press must not, even if legally free to do so, identify children under 16 who are victims or witnesses in cases involving sex offences.
In any press report of a case involving a sexual offence against a child -
i) The child must not be identified.
ii) The adult may be identified.
iii) The word "incest" must not be used where a child victim might be identified.
iv) Care must be taken that nothing in the report implies the relationship between the accused and the child.
Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault)
The press must not identify or publish material likely to lead to the identification of a victim of sexual assault unless there is adequate justification and they are legally free to do so. Journalists are entitled to make enquiries but must take care and exercise discretion to avoid the unjustified disclosure of the identity of a victim of sexual assault.
Findings of the Committee
11. The Committee understood that the complainant had found the reference to her wearing a “joke shop wig” and having her voice distorted to sound like “pre-op transwomen on a day-trip from Brighton” during the documentary distressing, and had interpreted the comments as an attack aimed at her and other victims of sexual assault. However, the Committee noted that the comments were not directed at the complainant, nor did they criticise or mock her and her experiences as a victim of a serious sexual offence. Rather, the comments, which formed part of a television review of the documentary, were aimed at the production of the documentary and the manner in which the complainant and her fellow contributors were presented by its makers. Specifically, it sought to criticise the methods employed to disguise the contributors, which the reviewer considered to be tasteless. Therefore, while the Committee acknowledged that the complainant found the comments distressing and offensive, it did not consider that the comments were insensitive towards the complainant and her experiences in breach of Clause 4.
12. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 in its reference to her and the other show participants wearing “joke-shop wigs.” The Committee noted that the complainant found the phrasing to be offensive, but as the terms of Clause 1 do not relate to matter of taste and offence it could not make a ruling on the grounds that it was offensive to the complainant. Instead, it was for the Committee to decide whether the phrase was inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. The Committee noted that Clause 1 (iv) makes clear that newspapers can editorialise and publish comment, and it considered that the article was clearly distinguished as comment: it was framed as a television review and focused on the writer’s subjective reaction to television programmes. The Committee considered that it was clear from the context and tone of the article – which was satirical – that the reference to “joke-shop wigs” was not a statement of fact; it expressed the reviewer’s view of the appearance of the wigs provided to the participants of the programme. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
13. Clause 7 and Clause 11 relate to the identification of victims of sexual offences and child witnesses in sex cases. The complainant did not say that the article identified her as a victim of sexual assault, and the terms of these Clauses were not engaged.
14. The complaint was not upheld.
Date complaint received: 08/03/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 24/06/2021Back to ruling listing