Decision of the Complaints Committee – 04369-21 Brundrett & Bailey v Mail Online
Summary of Complaint
1. Angela Brundrett and Susan Bailey complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Greedy grandmother, 66, who stole £175,000 from her bosses to fund luxury lifestyle including splashing out on a hot tub and VIP hospitality to watch Stoke City is jailed for more than three years”, published on 20th April 2021.
2. The article reported that a “Derbyshire woman” had been jailed after stealing “£175,000 from her bosses to fund [a] luxury lifestyle”. The headline and the text of the article described the 66-year-old woman as a “greedy grandmother”. The article described various ways in which the woman had spent the money, including “fork[ing] out £60,000 on her niece's dream wedding” and paying for a “new extension, a landscaped garden, new driveway, exotic holidays and a hot-tub”.
3. The complainants said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) as it described the woman as a “grandmother”, whereas the woman had no children or grandchildren.
4. The complainants also said that the article breached Clause 1 as it incorrectly described the individual as a “Derbyshire woman”, stating that the 66-year-old was “from Derbyshire”. The complainants confirmed that the woman had never lived in Derbyshire, and that she had lived in Stoke-on-Trent for over twenty years. In support of their position, the complainants provided the charge sheet, which listed the woman’s address as being in Werrington, Stoke-on-Trent.
5. The complainants further said that the article was inaccurate as it stated that the woman had “forked out £60,000 on her niece's dream wedding”, whereas the wedding cost approximately £25,000. The complainants provided the opening note from sentencing which stated that the niece’s wedding had cost “over £25k”. They also said that the claims that the woman had spent the fraudulently obtained money on a “new extension… and a hot-tub” were inaccurate. The complainants variously claimed that the woman’s sister owned a hot tub and that a previous partner of the woman purchased the hot tub in question, but that the woman had never purchased one. Furthermore, the complainants said that it was inaccurate to state that the woman had paid for a new extension as she never had an extension built. They added that as the property was rented, the woman would not have been able to get an extension.
6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. In relation to the description of the woman as a “grandmother”, the publication said they were provided with this information by an agency who believed it to be true after viewing an online post about the woman’s birthday celebrations. The publication accepted that the agency was mistaken in this fact and it amended the article accordingly once they were made aware of the complainant’s concerns. The publication also offered to publish the following footnote correction and apology, should it resolve the complaint:
A previous version of this article referred to Susan Bailey as a grandmother. We have since been contacted by Ms Bailey's sister, who has advised that this is incorrect. We apologise for any distress which may have been caused.
7. The publication had said that save for the description of the woman as a “grandmother”, the disputed points had been sourced from a Staffordshire Police press release, and that it was entitled to rely on the accuracy of any information contained in such a release by the police in this matter. It said that it did not consider the details under dispute regarding the specific items the money had been spent on were significant in the context of the article, which reported on the serious frauds of the woman and her subsequent prosecution and given the fact that the total sum of money obtained fraudulently was accurately reported in the article. Notwithstanding this, the publication removed the reference to “Derbyshire” from the online article but made clear that this was with no admission of liability. The publication noted that each count of fraud was not broken down in the prosecution’s note for sentencing, and that the note only gave examples of the nature of the woman’s spending during the course of her crimes, but not an exhaustive list. They maintained their position that care was taken to be accurate prior to publication, in view of the fact that the information had come from an official police publication.
8. The publication further said that they had been in contact with Staffordshire Police regarding the press release, and made clear that should the police advise the newspaper of any changes to the release, it would be willing to amend the article to reflect such changes. The police later informed the publication that they had received their own complaint from one of the complainants regarding the reporting of the ‘Derbyshire address’, but at that current time they had no intentions of making any changes to the press release. The publication said that in the absence of such changes and a substantive response from the police, it was not possible to verify the accuracy of the details under dispute.
9. Towards the end of IPSO’s investigation, the publication said that if it would address the complainants’ concerns, they would be willing to amend the figure of the wedding to £25,000; remove the references to a hot tub and an extension; and append a footnote to the article with the following wording:
This article has been amended since publication to clarify the nature of the spending carried out by Susan Bailey while she perpetuated the fraud for which she was convicted.
10. The complainants did not accept the wording of either of the proposed clarifications as a resolution to their complaint, nor did they accept the amendments above.
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.
Findings of the Committee
11. The complainants were concerned that the article had inaccurately described the woman as “grandmother”, when she had no children or grandchildren. The claim originated from an incorrect assumption made by the press agency based on photographs from social media, which had not been checked. In these circumstances, the publication had failed to take sufficient care not to publish inaccurate information, and the Committee found that there had been a breach of Clause 1(i). It was the Committee’s view that, as the phrase “[g]reedy grandmother” was a prominent descriptor in the headline and repeated in the opening paragraph of the article, this was a significant inaccuracy, and therefore the newspaper was obliged, in accordance with the terms of Clause 1(ii) to correct this promptly and with due prominence.
12. The Committee noted that once the publication had been made aware of the complainants’ concerns, it had amended the article to remove the references to the woman being a “grandmother”, and also offered to publish a footnote correction. The wording of this correction identified the error and made the correct position clear, in addition to apologising to the woman. This was offered promptly and with sufficient prominence to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii).
13. The Committee next considered the complainants’ concerns regarding the article’s claim that the woman was “from Derbyshire” and the description of her as a “Derbyshire woman”. The publication had provided the police press release upon which it had relied; it stated that the woman was “living in Derbyshire”. The Committee acknowledged that on some occasions reliance on a press release might not be sufficient to demonstrate that a publication had taken care over the accuracy of the information it published. It considers each complaint on a case-by-case basis, taking full consideration of the source of the release, its content, and any relevant external factors relating to the distribution of the release. The Committee noted that at the time of publication neither the rest of the information contained in the statement, nor any other information of which the publication could reasonably have been aware, indicated that the original press release issued by the police contained inaccuracies on this point. In this instance, the Committee was satisfied that the publication was entitled to rely on the information contained in the press release issued by the police. This demonstrated due care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information with regard to the location of where the woman now resided. There was no breach of Clause 1(i) on this point.
14. In circumstances where the police had not removed the reference to Derbyshire in the press release, and where they had made no comment on the accuracy of the information contained within the press release, the Committee were not in a position to determine whether this point was inaccurate. The Committee noted however, that the publication had updated the article to remove the reference to Derbyshire. The Committee also noted that the police had confirmed that they had been contacted by one of the complainants regarding the information in the press release, and given the evolving situation, the publication should be alert to any further changes to the press release. In any event, the Committee considered that where the woman was residing was not significant to the context of the whole article, and therefore, there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).
15. The complainants also said that it was inaccurate for the article to claim that the woman had purchased a hot tub, paid for a new extension and that she had “forked out £60,000 on her niece's dream wedding”. The publication had provided the police press release which stated that the woman had bought a hot tub, paid for an extension, and paid for her niece’s £60,000 wedding. The Committee noted that these points remained in the press release and had not been amended. The Committee considered that due care had been taken not to publish inaccurate or misleading information regarding these points. There was no breach of Clause 1(i).
16. Where the disputed information remained online and where the police had made no comment on whether the information included in the press release was inaccurate, the Committee was not in a position to determine whether it was inaccurate to state that the woman had purchased a hot tub, paid for a new extension, or had paid £60,000 for her niece’s wedding. In any event, the Committee considered that these points were not significant to the context of the whole article, particularly where the article correctly reported the total sum of money the woman obtained fraudulently. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1 (ii).
17. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 23/04/21
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 08/12/21Back to ruling listing