Decision of the Complaints Committee 03178- 18 Johnstone v The Scottish Sun
Summary of complaint
1. Stephen Johnstone complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Scottish Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:
· “Bum Rap Claims Glasgow Council boss slapped Cordia cleaner’s bum in front of colleagues as she walked through park – leaving her rear bruised”, published online on 23 November 2017
· “The bum’s rush”, published on 13 February 2018.
2. The first article reported that the complainant was suspended from work due to claims of “inappropriate conduct”. It reported that it was alleged he had smacked the bum of a cleaner in a park in front of colleagues. It went on to report that the complainant’s employer had confirmed they were aware of a complaint being made by a contract employee and reported that the complainant was facing a “cop probe” into the allegation. It included a statement from his employer that, “it would be inappropriate to comment on a police matter,” as well as a statement from a police spokeswoman, “we can confirm we have received an initial report of inappropriate conduct and enquiries are at a very early stage.” It also reported that the complainant had refused to comment on the allegations.
3. The second article was published a number of months later. It reported that the complainant “who allegedly slapped a cleaner’s bum in front of colleagues had been fired”. It included a statement from a source that “it’s not clear whether he’s lost his job purely because of this incident or whether more allegations have come to light,” as well as a statement from an unnamed relative of the complainant who claimed “he was sacked for shouting at another worker and…plans to appeal.” The article also reported that the complainant had been arrested but released without charge over these allegations of sexual assault and that the complainant’s employer had confirmed he was no longer an employee, but would not comment further.
4. This article also appeared online with the headline, “The bum’s rush Glasgow council worker sacked amid claims he smacked cleaner’s bum in front of colleagues in park.” The online article did not include the statement from an unnamed relative but was otherwise substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.
5. The complainant said that the specific allegation that he had “slapped the bum of a cleaner” did not form part of his employer’s investigation. He provided documentation relating to the investigation which showed that a number of alleged incidents of sexual assault had been complained of, however he said none of these related specifically to an allegation of “bum slapping”.
6. He also said that the second article was inaccurate, as he believed it suggested that his dismissal was due to the alleged “bum slapping” allegation. The documentation provided by the complainant showed that allegations of sexual assault had been made; however the complainant said that there had been no evidence to support the allegations, which he denied. He said that he had been dismissed for shouting at a colleague and for sexual harassment, not the physical incidents that reportedly had taken place.
7. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that both articles were based on information provided by a source, which it had verified with the relevant authorities. It said a source had initially contacted the newspaper and informed it that the complainant had allegedly slapped the bum of a worker in front of colleagues, and had been suspended. It said that it had contacted the complainant’s employer and a union representative about the matter, who did not deny the allegation. The employer had informed the newspaper that the matter was being handled by the police, and the police had confirmed this in its statement published in the first article. The newspaper also attempted to put the allegations to the complainant himself, but was informed by a family member that he would not be able to comment at this time. It said the article made clear that these were allegations and that both the police and the complainant’s employer were currently investigating the matter. It noted that the one aspect of complaint looked at by the investigation was allegations that the complainant had inappropriately touched the female’s bottom. It said that this confirmed that the information given to it by the source was accurate.
8. It said that several months later, a source had informed the newspaper that the complainant had now been dismissed following the conclusion of the disciplinary process. The newspaper then approached the complainant’s employer, who confirmed that he was no longer an employee, and the police, who confirmed he had been arrested but released without charge, as reported in the article. It said the employer would not comment further on the reasons for the dismissal, however said that the article made clear that it was not established that the dismissal was directly related to the allegations of bum slapping, that had previously been reported on and were referred to in the article. It said this was clear in the article, which had also included the claim by a family member that he had been dismissed for shouting at a colleague.
Relevant Code Provisions
9. 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.
Findings of the Committee
10. The newspaper was initially contacted by an anonymous source regarding the allegation that the complainant had slapped the bum of a worker. It had then contacted the complainant’s employer and subsequently the police, who did not dispute that the allegation had been made and confirmed that a police investigation into alleged “inappropriate conduct” was being undertaken. The newspaper had also attempted to speak to the complainant directly. In these circumstances, it had taken care over the accuracy of the claim that the complainant had allegedly slapped the bum of a colleague, and had also taken care to accurately present this allegation as a claim. There was no breach of Clause 1(i) on this point.
11. The complainant said that no specific allegation of “bum slapping” was made as part of the complaint brought against him and investigated by his employer. However it was not in dispute that allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which he denied, had formed part of the investigation, including an allegation that he had inappropriately touched the bottom of a female worker. The article was not a comprehensive report of the disciplinary process, and in all the circumstances, reporting that an allegation of “bum slapping” had been made was not inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii) on this point.
12. The Committee then considered whether it was misleading for the second article to make reference to the “bum slapping” allegation. It noted that, at the time of publication, the employer’s investigation was complete, and that it had not upheld a complaint of sexual assault, but one of sexual harassment. However, it remained the position that allegations of sexual assault had previously been made, to both the police and to his employer. Both the print and online article had made clear that the complainant had been released without charge by the police in relation to the allegation. The print article also included a family member’s position that his dismissal was because he had shouted at a colleague and the online article included a comment from a source that the reason for the complainant’s dismissal was unclear. Therefore, on balance, the Committee considered that the newspaper had taken care over the presentation of the allegation and its relationship to the complainant’s disciplinary proceedings. There was no breach of Clause 1(i). #
13. In circumstances where a complaint of sexual harassment had been upheld and had led to the complainant’s dismissal, it was not significantly misleading for the second article also to reference the “bum slapping” allegation. The reference did not give a misleading impression as to the nature of the investigation and the reasons for the complainant's dismissal. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii) on this point.
14. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 23/04/2018
Date decision issued: 24/09/2018