Decision of the Complaints Committee 02600-21 A woman (A) v The Sunday Times
Summary of Complaint
1. A woman (A) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), 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 2021.
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; it referred to Mr Clifford’s offences as “pathetic crimes”. 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.“ The article also referred to the Mr Clifford’s biographer who, the article stated, “helped to produce” the documentary.
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 disguised in the documentary. She said that the article was insensitive in breach of Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), as she considered it to be so offensive in its portrayal of her as a victim of sexual assault.
5. The complainant also said that the review contained several inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. She said that it was inaccurate and offensive to refer to the show’s participants wearing “joke-shop wigs” and comparing their voices to “pre-op transwomen”; noting that the latter phrase was also offensive to transwomen. She then said that it was inaccurate to say that Max Clifford’s biographer had “helped to produce” the documentary, where she had acted as a consultant on the programme and not as a producer. She said that the inaccuracies served to sensationalise the victims of sexual crimes.
6. The complainant also said that she considered Clause 11 had been breached, where she said the article trivialised the experiences of survivors of sexual assault and made light of methods used to disguise their identity.
7. The publication said that it did not accept that the Code had been breached, though it extended its sympathies to the complainant and said that there was no intention either on the part of the publication or the article’s writer to exacerbate the pain she felt as a victim of sexual assault. However, it did not consider that the terms of Clause 4 applied, as the publication considered that the terms of the Clause applied only to approaches made by journalists and contemporaneous reporting of personal cases of grief and shock; it did not believe that the terms of the Clause applied 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 and which the complainant had willingly participated in.
8. Regarding the complainant’s Clause 1 concerns, the publication said that it accepted that Max Clifford’s biographer had acted as a consultant on the show. However, it did not accept that this represented a breach of Clause 1, where this was a passing reference in a television review and the phrase “helped to produce” could refer to an individual assisting in any capacity in the production of a television programmer; the phrase did not necessarily refer solely to producers.
9. The publication also said that the terms of Clause 11 were not engaged, where the Clause relates to the identification of victims of sexual assault and where the complainant did not say that the review under complaint identified her.
10. The complainant said in response to the publication that, regardless of whether she had willingly participated in the documentary, she was entitled to the protections afforded by the Editors’ Code of Practice; they did not cease to apply simply because she had agreed to appear in a documentary to share her experiences. She further said that referring to Max Clifford’s crimes as “pathetic” diminished their impact and was insensitive towards her as a victim of sexual assault, in breach of Clause 4. She then noted that, regardless of how much time had passed since the original assault, the impact and effect on her persisted throughout the years.
11. The complainant said that, while she accepted that the reference to a consultant having “helped to produce” the documentary was not a serious issue, she considered to be inaccurate nonetheless and queried why the publication had not taken care over the reference, given what she considered would be the relative ease of fact-checking the information.
Relevant Clause 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.
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 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
13. 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. The Committee noted that the complainant had also expressed concerns over the writer’s characterisation of Max Clifford’s crimes as “pathetic”. It considered, however, that this comment was clearly directed at Max Clifford and served to mock and belittle him, rather than the complainant. 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.
14. 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.
15. The Committee did not consider that the reference to a consultant having “helped produce” the programme was inaccurate or misleading in breach of Clause 1, where the article did not state that the consultant was in fact a producer, and where the ambiguity of the phrasing did not render the article significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted; it was not in dispute that the convicted man’s biographer worked on the production of the show and was credited as having done so.
16. Clause 11 relate to the identification of victims of sexual offences. 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.
17. The complaint was not upheld.
Date complaint received: 10/03/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 24/06/2021Back to ruling listing