Decision of the Complaints Committee 02851-19 Mulliss v The Sun
Summary of Complaint
1. Joanne Mulliss complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headline “Stabbed in heart in love triangle inferno” published on 27 March 2019, and that the conduct of a reporter acting on behalf of The Sun breached Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock).
2. The article reported on an inquest into the deaths of three people who had died in a house fire on 1 January 2019: Billy Hicks, and a named man and woman. The inquest heard that Billy Hicks had been stabbed in the heart before the fire started, and the article reported that the local Detective Chief Inspector had said that the other man who died would have been arrested on suspicion of murder if he had survived the blaze. This was also corroborated by a quote from a survivor of the blaze, who claimed in the immediate aftermath of the fire that this other man whom she described as the woman’s “psycho ex” started the fire, yelling “no one else will have you”. The article reported that this version of events had not been confirmed at the inquest. The article also briefly set out the relationship between the three people who died; it described Mr Hicks as the “knifed” “ex-boyfriend” and the woman as his “ex” and “ex-lover”. It described the other man who died as the “murderer”, “new love” and “new lover”. It reported that the incident occurred at a New Year’s Eve party, and that the house was owned by the woman’s parents, who rented it out to her and her “pals”. The article also reported that relatives of the three wept in court.
3. The complainant, the sister of Billy Hicks, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). She said that her brother was not the “ex” of the woman who died, and the other man who died was not her “new lover”. Furthermore, quoting the survivor who had blamed a “psycho ex” could have given the misleading impression that they were referring to her brother as he was described elsewhere in the article as the “ex”. She said that these descriptions of the three individuals were not heard at the inquest, and neither was the claim that the person who had allegedly started the fire had shouted “no one else will have you”. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to state that there was a party on the night of the fire, or that the house was rented out to the woman’s “pals” – she said that the woman had not known the people she lived with until they moved in. The complainant said that she was present at the inquest, and neither her nor any members of her family had cried during proceedings.
4. The complainant also said that the conduct of a journalist acting on behalf of the publication breached Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock). She said that a reporter acting on behalf of The Sun had visited the family home on 3 January, a day after her brother had died. She said that this reporter had asked to speak to her brother; she told him to leave and that she would be making no comment. She said that the reporter then asked the complainant whether her brother was dead; he then left.
5. She said that she believed that the same journalist returned on the morning of the 4 January, sometime before noon. She said that the person drove towards her house and when he got out of his car and approached the property, she told him that she had already told him to leave; he then left. She also said that any approach was deliberate as her house was remote and at the end of a long private road; furthermore, she knew that this was the same person as before as he had a similar appearance and car to the first reporter.
6. The publication expressed its sympathies to the complainant and her family, but did not accept that there was any breach of the Code. It did not accept that the article was inaccurate. It said that it had been widely reported that Billy was the former boyfriend of the woman who died; the article did not say that this had been heard at the inquest. It provided examples of where this claim had been published in other articles, and noted that one of them included a lengthy quote from a named friend of the complainant’s brother, which went into detail about Mr Hicks’ relationship with the woman who died. These articles also reported the allegations included in the article about the man who died who was described as the woman’s “new lover”; the article under complaint also attributed this claim to a survivor of the fire and did not report that this was heard or proved at the inquest. The other articles provided by the publication reported that the house was owned by the parents of the woman who died and rented out to her and her housemates. The publication also said that the reporter spoke to the deceased’s neighbours on the night of the fire who said that there had been an “after-party”; nevertheless, it said that any inaccuracy on this point was not significant in the context of the overall article. Finally, it noted that the article did not state that the complainant or her family cried at the inquest.
7. The publication did not accept that the reporter’s visit to the complainant’s house on the 3 January represented a breach of the Code. It said that the reporter was to trying to speak with Mr Hicks as a person known to have been involved in the incident, not with the complainant. The reporter was unaware that Mr Hicks may have died, and would not have made the approach if he had known this. It said that this was extremely regrettable and empathised at how distressing the approach would have been to the complainant. The publication said that the reporter asked to speak to Mr Hicks, the complainant told him “please leave, no comment” and the reporter responded with “Why? Is Billy not here?”. The publication did not accept that this represented a failure to respect a request to desist because a further question was reasonable where the reporter had been looking to speak with Mr Hicks rather than the complainant, and had been told to leave without any explanation as to why he was unavailable. When the complainant asked him to leave again, and the reporter realised from her expression that Mr Hicks may have died, he did so immediately. The publication said that the reporter did not ask the complainant any questions about the fire, and to the best of his recollection, did not ask her whether Mr Hicks had died. It said that the reporter did record the conversation, but unfortunately switched dictaphones shortly afterwards, so was not able to provide a recording to IPSO.
8. The publication said that the complainant became distressed following this approach and shouted at the reporter as he was leaving, making him feel intimidated. This, coupled with the remote location of the house and the Code obligations, meant that he was simply too frightened to return a second time. It said that the reporter called another reporter from a separate agency and advised him to be careful if approaching the house, and not to contact the family on behalf of The Sun.
9. The publication did not accept that a reporter acting on behalf of the publication visited the complainant again on 4 January. The publication said that it was simply not possible for the same reporter to have approached the complainant at this time; he was sending emails from his laptop throughout the morning of the 4 January, and the longest gap between these emails would not have given the reporter enough time to drive to the complainant’s house as alleged. Furthermore, it said that as the story was relatively low profile, he had commissioned a freelancer to work on the day the complainant alleged a second approach took place and that the freelancer had not approached the complainant on behalf of The Sun.
10. The publication acknowledged that the complainant had been distressed by the approach, and offered to write her a private letter of apology. This was declined.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. 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 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.
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.
Findings of the Committee
12. The publication had provided examples of other articles where it had been reported that Mr Hicks had previously been in a relationship with the woman who died, and noted that this had also appeared on Mr Hicks’ Facebook profile. The publication was entitled to rely on these sources of information; there was no suggestion that they had been subject to a complaint or correction from the complainant. The complainant disputed that the other man was the “new lover” of the woman who died, however, she did not provide any basis to support this position. There were no grounds to find any breach of Clause 1 on this point.
13. The Committee recognised that describing the other man who died, who was alleged to have stabbed Mr Hicks and started the fire, as both the woman’s “psycho ex” and “new lover” had the potential to cause confusion; however where the article explicitly described the other man as the “murderer” and Mr Hicks as being “knifed”, the Committee considered that this made clear the alleged course of events. There was no misleading impression as suggested by the complainant, and no breach of Clause 1.
14. The article did not report that the claim that the other man had started the fire or shouted “no one else will have you” was heard at the inquest, and indeed made clear that this did not form part of inquest proceedings. There was no inaccuracy on this point, and no breach of Clause 1.
15. The Committee considered that whether there was a party on the night of the fire, or whether the house was rented to the woman’s “pals” was not significant to the overall story or alleged course of events. There was no significant inaccuracy on this point as to require correction, and no breach of Clause 1.
16. Finally, the article did not report that the complainant’s family specifically had cried during inquest proceedings and the complainant did not dispute that families of the two other people who died may have been present during proceedings. The article did not give the impression as suggested by the complainant and there was no inaccuracy, and no breach of Clause 1.
17. The Committee recognised that reporters often approach family or friends for comments following a traumatic incident or sudden death, as people may want to pay tribute to a person who has died or tell of their own experiences. In this case, the reporter had approached the complainant’s home with the intention of speaking to Mr Hicks because he had been in a relationship with the woman who died.
18. The reporter had spoken with the complainant, asking to speak with Mr Hicks. Although it was accepted that he had asked a question regarding Mr Hicks after the complainant had told him to leave, the Committee considered that this one further question to clarify the situation did not represent a failure to respect a request to desist. This question was simply an inquiry as to Mr Hicks’ whereabouts, as the person the reporter wished to speak with, and was natural and reasonable in circumstances where this was unclear. The conversation then concluded immediately, and the reporter left. The Committee was satisfied that the reporter had respected the complainant’s request to desist, and there was no suggestion that he had been intimidating or aggressive during this approach. There was therefore no breach of Clause 3(i) or Clause 3 (ii) on this point. Furthermore, while it was unfortunate that the reporter had asked to speak to the complainant’s brother without knowing that he was, in fact, one of those who had died, he had handled the approach with appropriate sympathy and discretion in accordance with the requirement of Clause 4.
19. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the same reporter had returned to her home on a different day following his first approach. However, the reporter had denied returning to her property and had provided a full account of his activities on the morning she alleged he had returned to her home. The Committee was unable to establish that it was the same reporter who had approached the complainant’s home on the second occasion. There was therefore no breach of Clause 3 or Clause 4 on this point.
20. The complaint was not upheld
Date complaint received: 28/03/2019
Date decision issued: 28/11/2019
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