02925-21 A woman v Metro

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02925-21 A woman v Metro

Summary of Complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Metro breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock), Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published in 2021.

2. This decision is written in general terms, to avoid the inclusion of information which could identify an alleged victim of sexual assault. The complainant was the spouse who alleged to have been abused.

3. The article reported on a court case between two spouses. It included statements from lawyers and attributed various claims to the spouse making the complaint. It reported that this spouse alleged they had been subject to abuse, which the judge did not make findings on. It also reported information about the marriage as a statement of fact, twice. Information regarding the spouse’s profession was included. The article contained a quote from the other spouse’s barrister and an application this spouse made to the judge which was denied.

4. The complainant, one of the spouses referred to, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. They said one of the statements attributed to lawyers had not been heard in court, and was not accurate. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report that no findings had been made over the allegations of abuse, as this had not formed part of the case, was not the purpose of the hearing, and gave the impression that their allegations against their spouse were dismissed. The complainant also said they had not spoken in court, and therefore the article should have attributed claims to their barrister. They also stated the information about the marriage was contested, and whilst it had been the position of their spouse, was not a statement of fact. They also said that the quote from the spouses’ barrister was not adequately attributed, and that the claim was not true, though they accepted this had been part of the court hearing.

5. The complainant also said that the article represented an unjustified intrusion into their privacy in breach of Clause 2, as it identified their profession and that they considered themselves a victim of abuse.

6. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 4 and Clause 11 by identifying them as a victim of sexual assault. The article named the complainant and included their allegations that their spouse had abused them. The complainant said the application by the complainant’s spouse, which was refused by the judge, amounted to them being a victim of sexual assault and therefore they should not have been named. The complainant said that being named in the same article as their alleged abuser was highly distressing and inappropriate in further violation of Clause 4, and that they had suffered injuries to their mental health as a result of the publication of the article.

7. The complainant said that by identifying their profession and that they considered themselves a victim of abuse, the article had discriminated against them in breach of Clause 12.

8. The publication stated that the court report had come from a press agency, and that a reporter had been present at court. The publication said that it had taken care not to publish inaccurate information by relying on this report. It provided an email from the agency stating that the disputed sentence had not come from the court, but a phone call with the complainant’s barrister afterwards, which resulted in a misunderstanding. The agency amended its copy of the article. On receipt of the complaint, the newspaper offered to publish a correction on this point in its established corrections and clarifications column.

9. The publication’s initial position was that the judge had said the information about the marriage it reported, and provided a quote from the agency reporter from the judge. It said that whilst the complainant disputed the accuracy of this information, it was not inaccurate to report it where it had been said by the judge.

10. The publication said that the complainant accepted that the hearing was not about whether her husband was abusive, and therefore it was not inaccurate to report that the judge had not made findings on the allegations of abuse. The reporter had said he felt it was important to clarify that these issues were not being considered in the court proceedings he was reporting on. The publication also said that where it used reported speech, rather than direct quotes, it was reasonable for them to attribute the summary of the complainant’s case to the complainant, whether written or spoken in court, as lawyers speak on behalf of their clients.

11. The publication said that the complainant had no reasonable expectation of privacy and it did not need to seek permission to name their profession. It also said that as their allegation of domestic abuse was mentioned in court with no reporting restrictions, it was not a breach of Clause 2 to report this.

12. The publication said that there was no mention of sexual abuse in the court hearing or in its report and therefore neither Clause 4, Clause 11 or Clause 12 were engaged in these points.

13. The complainant denied that the judge had said the information about the marriage, The complainant noted that the quote provided by the publication to support its position was an extract from the case outline submitted by their spouse’s barrister, not a statement by the judge.  They also provided an email from their barrister which stated that the judge had not said the information about the marriage.

14. The publication accepted that it had mistakenly attributed the quote to the judge in correspondence with IPSO, and apologised for inadvertently misleading the investigation. While the agency reporter maintained that he recalled the judge referring to the information about the marriage, the publication said it was unable to provide any notes to support this assertion and accepted that the information was a matter for debate. It amended its offer of correction to include this further information.

Relevant Code Provisions

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 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.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

15. The Committee noted that the complainant’s spouse denied the allegations of abuse and made clear that its role was to consider whether the article complied with the Editors’ Code as a report on the proceedings, rather than to make findings on the veracity of claims heard as part of the proceedings.

16. The publication had relied on a court report from a press agency, which had been written by a journalist who was present at the court. In addition to the information heard in court, the journalist had contacted the complainant’s barrister to provide clarity on one aspect of the case. Newspapers are entitled to use reports provided by agencies, but in doing so they adopt responsibility for the care taken by the agency reporter to ensure that information contained in the published copy is not inaccurate, misleading or distorted.

17. The first point considered by the Committee was the disputed statement attributed to the complainant’s barrister. The publication said that this had not been said in court, but rather in a subsequent telephone conversation between the journalist and the complainant’s barrister. The complainant said that their barrister had denied this, and pointed out the statement was not, in any case, correct. There was clearly a conflict in the two accounts given; in such instances the Committee would generally expect the publication to support its account in order to demonstrate it had taken sufficient care over the disputed claim. The publication did not provide any record or contemporaneous notes of the conversation with the complainant’s barrister, but only the recollection of the journalist, obtained subsequent to the complaint. This was not sufficient to demonstrate that care had been taken not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and the Committee found a breach of Clause 1(i) of the Code.

18. The publication said that there had been a misunderstanding. It appeared to be accepted that there had been some discussion between the journalist and the barrister regarding the disputed statement, but that there had been a misunderstanding as to what this impact would be. This claim was significant and required correction under Clause 1(ii).

19. The article twice referred to the information about the marriage which the complainant said was not an established fact. The complainant said that the judge had made no finding in this hearing on this point. As the publication had accepted, it was unable to provide notes to support this claim. In circumstances where this was a dispute that would be addressed in the proceedings, the presentation of the complainant’s husband’s position as fact was a failure to take care in breach of Clause 1(i) of the Code, and resulted in a significantly misleading statement requiring correction to satisfy Clause 1(ii).

20. The publication offered a correction on the first point as soon as the complaint was referred to it, and specified the wording of this correction during IPSO’s investigation. After becoming aware of new information that contradicted its understanding about the second point, it amended the wording offered in order to clarify this point. This represented appropriate promptness on both points. The placement of the clarification in its established corrections and clarification column represented due prominence. The correction acknowledged the original inaccuracies, and put the correct position on record and there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

21. The complainant had accepted that the court had heard that they were a victim of abuse, but that the court case was not a fact-finding case on these points. It was therefore accurate for the article to report that the judge had not made findings on the allegations of abuse; this did not imply that the allegations had been discounted. The Committee noted that the complainant believed it was inaccurate to report that they had said anything during the trial, as their barrister had been the one to speak. The barrister had been representing the complainant in the proceedings; in this context, it was not inaccurate to refer in general terms to the claims made in support of the complaint’s case, on their instructions, as having been attributed to the complainant. It was not inaccurate to report what was written in the complaint’s spouses case outline, even in the complainant disputed the validity of the claim. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

22. With regards to Clause 11, the Committee made clear that it was not making a finding as to whether the complainant was a victim of sexual assault, but whether the article had identified them as such a victim. The complainant had been named in court without reporting restrictions. During the proceedings, there were allegations that they had been subjected to abuse. Neither of these allegations constituted an allegation of sexual abuse, and there was no mention of sexual assault in the article. In these circumstances, the complainant had not been identified as a victim of sexual assault and there was no breach of Clause 11.

23. The complainant’s profession and the allegations of abuse against their spouse were heard in public through the court proceedings and were not subject to reporting restrictions. It was, therefore, not a breach of their privacy under Clause 2 to repeat this information.

24. The complainant also said the publication of the article was intrusive in breach of Clause 4. The Committee noted that the article was a report of the court proceedings. Clause 4 makes clear that it does not restrict the right for publications to report on legal proceedings. The Committee understood that the publication of the article was upsetting for the complainant, but it was a report of contemporaneous proceedings that had been heard in court, and there was no breach of Clause 4.

25. Clause 12 bars irrelevant and pejorative references to certain characteristics of an individual. As stated, the Committee did not consider that the complainant had been identified as a victim of sexual assault, and job titles are not a protected characteristic. There was no breach of Clause 12.

Conclusions

26. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial Action Required

27. The correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.


Date complaint received: 01/03/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 17/09/2021

Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.

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