03320-18 Yorkshire MESMAC v The Sunday Times

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03320-18 Yorkshire MESMAC v The Sunday Times  

Summary of Complaint

1. Yorkshire MESMAC complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined ‘Abuse survivors charity hit by sex scandal’, published in print and online on 4 March 2018.

2. The article reported that the complainant “faces claims of sexual misconduct”, and was the first in the recent “charity scandal” where the alleged victims were in the UK. It described the complainant as a charity that deals with abuse survivors and promotes gay sexual health. It reported that Leeds City Council had referred two complaints about the complainant to the police. Later in the article, it was reported that the police had said that they had not proceeded with the complaints, because the “limited information provided” did not allow them to “identify any victims of suspects”.

3. The article reported that a Yorkshire based therapist who works with abused young men had spoken to three victims of child abuse, who claimed to have been sexually harassed, or asked for sex by the complainant’s staff, when they sought help from the complainant. It reported that the complainant had said it was unaware of the therapist, and had received no complaints of this nature. The article reported that an unnamed director of a local charity had said that when they visited the complainant’s office, sexually explicit artwork was on display and that they hung their coats on objects shaped like erect penises. It reported that the complainant did not deny the claim about penises, but said that images on display were “appropriate to sexual health work and sexual abuse”. The article later reported that a “prominent gay campaigner in Leeds”, who was unnamed, had said that the complainant’s staff “need to be better educated on how to act towards service users and I think advice on how to find a shag is completely inappropriate”.

4. The article reported that the complainant’s outreach workers had a widespread presence on a number of gay-sex websites. It reported that on one such site, which is for men seeking unprotected sex, “a smiling Mesmac staff member offers health advice and says users can “ask me” for anal intercourse”. It later reported that a staff member had said on Facebook that the complainant was “here to give you advice and support in finding a boyfriend (or even just a shag) as safely as possible”. It reported that a former staff member had described concerns about his work, saying he was expected to “chat up” men seeking sex in public lavatories and parks and offer them sexual health advice, saying “it could easily turn into sex, not for me but for other workers”. The article stated that “in its official policy the charity stated that ‘sexual relationships are acceptable with service users initially met during work time’, although it added that intercourse ‘would be inappropriate if the service user has entered into 1-2-1 or ongoing support relationship with the worker’, and that sex with children was not allowed”. 

5. The article reported that the complainant dropped the policy “after it was exposed”, but that the complainant had said that it had “never been made aware”, of any case where a staff member had had sex with a client. It then stated: “however, The Sunday Times has established that in 2009, Mesmac’s then chairman, its treasurer and another trustee”, named in the article, had “resigned in protest at the sex-with-clients policy and [the complainant’s] managers’ refusal to change it”. The article reported the comments of “one of the trustees”-- who was unnamed- who said that contrary to the complainant’s denials, a misconduct case involving a sexual relationship between a staff member and a client had come before the board during his tenure. It reported that he had said:

“We had misgivings about the organisation…we all worked in the education and sexual health fields, so we know…about conduct and young people and we could see that [the ‘sex-with clients  policy’] wasn’t acceptable. The management tried to play a lot of games with us, putting blocks and obstacles in the way, saying there was nothing wrong with these things. We were having fraught chats about that and some very antagonistic board meetings. Quite a few us resigned en bloc because the organisation just was not prepared to come where we, as professionals, saw where they needed to be.”

6. The article reported that “in contrast to its earlier denials”, the complainant “admitted yesterday” that there had been an isolated case where a staff member pursued a sexual relationship with an adult service user”, but that this worker was sacked in accordance with its workers’ conduct policy, because he had been in a support relationship with the service user. It reported that the complainant denied that the three trustees had resigned over the workers conduct policy.

7. The article reported that five weeks prior to publication, a former trustee had been convicted of multiple child sexual offences, which were committed while he was involved with the complainant, but that the complainant had said it was confident that none of its clients were victims of this individual, who it said had no direct role with clients.

8. The article reported that “a senior figure closely involved in child protection in West Yorkshire” said that he was concerned that the complainant was not complying with a requirement to conduct Disclosure and Barring Service checks on volunteers that work with children and vulnerable young people.  It reported that the complainant denied that the issue of extended DBS checks had been raised. It reported that the complainant said that volunteers who supported staff members at a youth group, were an example of volunteers who did not require DBS checks.

9. The article reported that emails from the police, seen by the newspaper, showed that a member of the complainant’s staff had to be “warned” by the police for allegedly harassing another child sexual exploitation campaigner online. It reported that the complainant “ordered” the individual to apologise. The article referred to the complainant having received more than £5m from public authorities.  The first edition of the print article, and the online article, said that complainant’s full name was “Men who Enjoy Sex With Men – Action in the Community”. It concluded with a statement from the complainant saying that all its staff members were aware of how to work safely in a highly sexualised environment, that they are not expected to chat up men, but are expected to engage in positive conversations with people who may require public health information.

10. The complainant denied that it had been “hit by [a] sex scandal”, or that it was facing claims of sexual misconduct.  It said it was inaccurate to refer to it as an “abuse survivors charity”; it works with those at risk of sexual abuse, and those currently suffering from abuse. The complainant said that the complainant did not dispute that it had received £5m from public authorities but said that this was an arbitrary figure plucked from the air. The complainant said its name is “MESMAC”, but that the origins of this was that this was an acronym for “Men who have Sex with Men – Action in the Community”, and that the article’s insertion of the word “enjoy” was inaccurate.

11. The complainant said it had never had a “sex with workers” policy; it had a workers’ conduct policy which is clear that made clear that staff cannot enter into a relationship with service users that they have a one-to-one or therapeutic relationship with. The complainant denied that it had “dropped its policy” following earlier reporting by the newspaper; it said it had updated its policy for clarity.

12. The complainant said that the three board members referred to in the article did not resign over its workers’ conduct policy; they resigned over its DBS policy.  The complainant said it was inaccurate to quote one of these trustees as saying “we all worked in the education and sexual health fields”; it said that one had worked in finance at a school, another worked as a teacher, and the third was a civil servant. The complainant said that the Board of Trustees was the final decision making body, and that it could institute any policy it wished to; it denied that management “put up blocks and barriers”, but said that it advised Trustees on the potential implications of decisions which they made.

13. The complainant said that it maintained its denial that there was ever a misconduct case involving a sexual relationship between a staff member and a client. The complainant said that there was a case where a staff member had pursued a sexual relationship with an adult service user who he had entered into a support relationship with, but that he was sacked for a breach of the workers conduct policy. It said no sexual relationship was ever proved, but that the staff member was sacked.

14. The complainant said that the claims made by the “Yorkshire based therapist” quoted in the article were unsubstantiated; that it was unaware of the complaints he described; and questioned why he had not referred the complaint to the appropriate bodies. The complainant questioned who the “prominent gay campaigner” referred to in the article was, saying that he would not have knowledge of its training and policies, and that his comments represented comment on unsubstantiated allegations.

15. The complainant denied that a member of its staff had been looking for sex online. It said that the website in question allows users to say “ask me”, in relation to a variety of sexual practices. This is to allow a conversation to be started with the profile owner. In the case of this worker, this was to allow conversations about the different sexual practices and the sexual health risks they pose. For the staff member to have chosen any other option than “ask me”, would have disclosed that staff member’s sexual preference, actual or pretend, in an entirely inappropriate manner.

16. In relation to the claim about the office’s furniture and décor, the complainant said that the images were appropriate to sexual health work and abuse. It said that some of these contained sexual activity, but denied there were any full frontal nudes. It said that apart from condom demonstrators, there were no objects shaped like erect penises in its offices, and said the claim that visitors hung their coats on such objects was untrue.

17. The complainant said that it follows the rules set out by the DBS service with regard to who is, or isn’t DBS checked. In contrast to the newspaper’s source, the complainant’s position was that a DBS check was not necessary for a volunteer that was working with a staff member at all times, and is therefore deemed not to have individual access to young people, which might pose a risk of harm. The complainant said that its staff member was not warned by the police in relation to alleged online harassment, and that it did not “order” this person to apologise, but asked him to. The complainant expressed concern that the newspaper published the comments of one former staff member, when it was aware that the journalist had spoken to at least another five. In relation to this staff members claim that he was expected to “chat up” men in public lavatories and parks, it said that staff conduct outreach in these areas, and that “chatting up” is not allowed under its policies.

18. In relation to the claim that the complainant “explicitly allowed its staff to have sex with people they met through work, many of them young and vulnerable”, the newspaper said that the complainant ran a project called ‘Blast’, which was described itself as being about “supporting and working solely with boys and young men who have experienced, are experiencing or are at risk of experiencing child sexual exploitation”.

19. The newspaper provided a screenshot of the complainant’s outreach worker’s profile on the website for those seeking unprotected sex. The blurb on the complainant’s outreach worker’s website profile began “A local sexual health charity for men who have sex with men”. The rest of the blurb was written in the first person plural, and set out the sexual health services provided by the complainant. In that context the profile listed 13 preferences in a set format, such as “Take Loads Anal:”; “Take Loads Oral:”; “When:”; “Where:”; “Sexuality:”; and “Smoking:”. Following each preference, the words “Ask Me” appeared in a different font colour.

20. The newspaper said that the blurb about the complainant was evidence of the outreach worker offering advice on sexual practices, but the rest of the profile was not. Nevertheless, it offered to publish a clarification setting out the complainant’s position on this point.

21. The newspaper said that the reference to enjoy as a constituent of the acronym MESMAC was an error. It also offered to amend the online article on this point, and to publish a correction in print and online.  The combined clarification, offered by the newspaper, was:

Our article of 4 March “Abuse survivors charity hit by sex scandal” reported that a staff member of Mesmac who offered health advice via a profile on a website for people seeking for unprotected sex, also said on the profile that users could “ask me” for anal intercourse. MESMAC has contacted the newspaper to say that the intention of the outreach worker’s profile was to make clear that other users of the site could “ask me” for advice, and that he was not asking for sexual services We are happy to make this clear. In addition, Mesmac is an acronym for ‘Men who have Sex with Men – Action in the Community’ and not ‘Men who Enjoy Sex with Men …’ as was reported.”

22. The newspaper said that the journalist who wrote the article spoke at length to one of the trustees who had resigned, who was quite clear that the workers’ conduct policy (or “sex-with-clients policy” as it was called in the article) was one of the matters, along with the DBS policy, over which he and the other two trustees had resigned. The newspaper had asked the complainant about the claim, subsequently reported in the article, that three of its board members “had resigned in protest at the sex-with-clients policy and Mesmac managers’ refusal to change it”. It had sent the complainant a copy of quote attributed to the unnamed trustee in the article, in which they said they described “fraught” board meeting discussions. In response, the complainant denied the board members resignations related to its workers’ conduct policy, but beyond saying that “fraught conversations” are not unusual at board level, did not further engage with the board member’s comments.

23. The newspaper said that the senior figure quoted in the article who raised concerns about the complainant’s DBS practices was in a position of impeccable authority, with years of work in safeguarding in West Yorkshire, close knowledge of the complainant and of DBS requirements. It said that it was appropriate to record their concerns, and that the article had recorded the complainant’s response to these concerns. It said that it had taken appropriate care over this aspect of the article.

24. The newspaper said that it had separately received and resolved an IPSO complaint from the complainant’s staff member, who the article claimed had been warned by the police in relation to online harassment. It said that to resolve this complaint, it had published the following clarification, and amended the online article:

After this article was published, Staffordshire police wrote to [the staff member] saying that he had received “advice” from them and not a formal warning. [The staff member] was asked, not ordered, by Mesmac to apologise to [the person he had allegedly harassed].

Relevant Code Provisions

25. 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

26. The blurb on the complainant’s outreach worker’s profile on the website for those seeking unprotected sex, was written in the first person plural, from the point of view of the organisation. The Committee considered that the words “ask me”, in response to the preferences, were ambiguous. With the benefit of the complainant’s explanation, provided via the IPSO complaint, the Committee accepted the complainant’s account that the response “ask me” was selected, as any more substantive expression of a preference would not have been appropriate. The complainant was not asked about the appearance of this particular profile prior to publication, and the newspaper had not given the complainant the chance to provide this explanation, prior to publication. The Committee considered that it was a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, when they stated that the outreach worker had said other website “users can ‘ask me’ for anal intercourse”, because of the ambiguity in the profile, and the failure of the newspaper to seek the complainant’s comments on this. This aspect of the complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (i).

27. The claim that an outreach worker had said that other website users could ask him for anal sex, in the context where he was acting in his capacity as a sexual health adviser supported the overall criticism of the complainant, that it conducted its sexual health work in a manner which was unprofessional. The Committee therefore considered that it was a significant inaccuracy, requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The wording offered by the newspaper set out what the article said, and the complainant’s explanation for the outreach worker’s profile, which it had failed to obtain prior to publication. The offer to publish this wording as a footnote to the online article, and in the newspaper’s established corrections and column represented due prominence. The Committee had regard for the number of inaccuracies alleged by the complainant, and considered that in responding to the complaint, the newspaper had not failed to offer the correction sufficiently promptly.  There was no failure to comply with Clause 1 (ii).

28. On the complainant’s own account, it worked with people at risk of abuse, or who were experiencing abuse. In addition, the Committee noted that the complainant ran a project which included supporting young men who have experienced abuse. The article made clear that the complainant also worked to promote sexual health. It was not inaccurate to also refer to it as an “abuse survivors’ charity”, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

29. The workers’ conduct policy had stated that “sexual relationships are acceptable with service users initially met during work time, but this would be inappropriate if the service user has entered into a 1-2-1 or ongoing support relationship with the worker”. The article reported this in full. Where the policy explicitly stated that it was acceptable for the complainant’s staff to enter sexual relationships with “service users”, it was not misleading to characterise this as a “sex-with-clients” policy, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. The complainant accepted that it had revised its policy, after the newspaper first reported on it in October 2017. In pre-publication correspondence with the newspaper, it referred to it as “the policy in force at the time of the [October article]”. It was not inaccurate to report that the complainant had “dropped the policy after it was exposed”.

30. The article described a number of sexual misconduct claims against the complainant. These included the claims investigated by the police, the claims described by the person described as a “Yorkshire based therapist”, and the member of staff who was dismissed for pursuing a sexual relationship with a service user with whom they were in a support relationship. In relation to these claims, the newspaper had taken care to give the complainant the opportunity to respond to each of them, prior to publication. The newspaper had then recorded the complainant’s response to each claim in the article. The Committee considered that the newspaper had taken sufficient care not to publish inaccurate information, in reporting these claims of misconduct. It was not inaccurate to report that the complainant was “fac[ing] claims of sexual misconduct”, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

31. The complainant was given the opportunity to respond to the source’s claims about the office décor, and furniture, prior to publication. Its response, which did not deny the claim that coats were hung on penis shaped objects, was accurately recorded in the article. There was no failure to take care in reporting the source’s claims.  The Committee acknowledged that in its complaint, the complainant denied the claim about the coat hooks, but the article made clear that this was what a source had claimed they had seen, and the article accurately recorded the complainant’s position at the time of publication. The article was not significantly misleading, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

32. The complainant did not dispute that it had received more than £5m of funding from public authorities, and its complaint that the figure of “more than £5m” was arbitrary, did not mean that it was inaccurate. There was not breach of Clause 1 on this point.

33. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that MESMAC was now its name, rather than an acronym for a longer name, as had originally been the case. Nevertheless, where its name ultimately derived from an acronym, and had previously been an acronym, it was not inaccurate to set out what that acronym stood for, and not significantly inaccurate to report that this was its name. The Committee considered that it was not a significant inaccuracy to report that the E stood for “enjoy”, rather than the second “e” in the word “Men”; this did not suggest that the complainant’s aim as an organisation was to sell the pleasure aspect of sex; it did not misrepresent the organisation’s aims.  The article made clear that the aim of the organisation was to promote good sexual health. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

34. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the article did not report other comments the newspaper had solicited from its former staff members. It was not clear that the complainant was aware of the tenor of any other former members’ responses to inquiries by the newspaper. In any event, by reporting the comments of one, the article did not imply that others would hold the same view. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

35. The newspaper had reported the former staff member’s claim that he was expected to “chat up” men, in the context of there being other, separate, claims about sexual misconduct. Prior to publication, the newspaper had given the complainant the opportunity to respond to the former staff member’s claim that he was expected to “chat up” men, and the complainant’s denial was recorded in the article. There was no failure to take care not to report inaccurate information in reporting the former staff member’s claims, and no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

36. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that there was a distinction between its staff member pursuing a sexual relationship, and entering into a sexual relationship with a client. However, when the newspaper had previously reported on the complainant’s workers’ conduct policy, it had asked the complainant if a member of staff had had a sexual relationship with a client, and the complainant had said “we’ve never been made aware of that”. The newspaper was entitled to contrast this response, with the fact that there had been a case where a member of staff was dismissed for pursuing a sexual relationship with a client. The article recorded the complainant’s position that this was a case where a member of staff had pursued a relationship, and the Committee considered that in the context of the article, it was not misleading to refer to this case as “a misconduct case involving a sexual relationship between a staff member and a client”, despite the complainant’s position that “no sexual relationship was ever proved”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

37. The newspaper had relied on the trustees’ accounts of their resignations, in reporting that it had “established that in 2009 Mesmac’s then chairman…treasurer…and another trustee…had resigned in protest at the sex-with-clients policy”, despite the complainant’s denial that this was the case. However, the complainant did not dispute that there had been “fraught discussions” at the board in relation to its workers conduct policy, prior to publication. In its complaint to IPSO, the complainant did not dispute that board members had raised concerns about the policy. The Complaints Committee considered that in these circumstances it was not a failure to take care to report that the newspaper “had established” why the trustees’ had resigned by relying on their account, and where the complainant’s denial was made clear in the article. The Committee did not establish an inaccuracy requiring correction, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

38. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that “blocks” were not placed on its board, in relation to its workers’ conduct policy. However, this was clearly presented as the former trustee’s account of events, and the complainant did not dispute that there were fraught discussions, or that management advised trustees “on the potential implications of decisions”. The complainant was given an opportunity to respond to this claim prior to publication, and did not deny it, but said “it is not unusual for there to be ‘fraught conversations’ at board level where people’s views differ on how to pursue an organisation’s objectives”. The Committee considered that there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in reporting the former trustee’s claim, and it did not establish an inaccuracy, requiring correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

39. The complainant was provided with a trustee’s description of themselves, and the other two trustees that had resigned, as all “work[ing] in the education and sexual health fields”. It did not comment on this prior to publication. The Committee considered that it was not a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in reporting this trustee’s description of their professional experience, in these circumstances. In addition, where two of the trustees worked in education, the Committee considered that the article was not significantly misleading on this point, such as to require a correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

40. It was not in dispute that the complainant did not DBS check all of its volunteers. The article set out a criticism of this policy, as made by an unnamed source. However, it also reported the complainant’s response to this criticism, and it explanation of why it did not conduct DBS checks on its volunteers. The Committee considered that the newspaper had taken adequate in care in reporting this source’s criticism, and there was no breach of the Clause 1 on this point.

41. It was not in dispute that the complainant had asked the staff member who had allegedly harassed someone online to apologise. The Committee considered that it was not significantly misleading to report this person had been “ordered” by the complainant, rather than “asked”, to apologise, because the complainant was this person’s employer. The newspaper had resolved a complaint with this individual, in relation to his dealings with the police, via amendment to the online article, and publication of a clarification as a footnote, which said that the police had “advised” him about his behaviour, but had not issued him with a formal warning. The Committee did not establish in response to this complaint that it was significantly misleading to report that the police had “warned” this individual about his behaviour, because they had provided him with advice about his behaviour, following the allegation of harassment. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

Conclusions

42. The complaint was upheld in part.

Remedial action required

43.Having upheld a breach of Clause 1 (i), the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee considered that the breach of Clause 1 had been appropriately remedied by the offer to publish a correction. In light of the Committee’s decision, this should now be published.

Date complaint received: 02/05/2018

Date decision issued: 16/08/2018

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