Decision of the Complaints Committee – 04631-21 Brewis v Mail Online
Summary of Complaint
1. Maxine Brewis complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'Stay off roads, grab yourself a steak bake. I don't like riff-raff': Daughter of ex-Darlington FC owner threatened to give his female friend a 'good hiding' in stalking campaign after accusing her of taking advantage of her millionaire father”, published on 6th May 2021.
2. The online article reported that the daughter of the former Chair of Darlington FC and entrepreneur George Reynolds, had been found guilty of stalking the complainant between November 2019 and June 2020. The bullet-points beneath the headline stated that the convicted woman had “threatened” the complainant and told her to cut contact with Mr Reynolds over fears that she had “ulterior motives”. The article included separate photographs of the two women, positioned next to each other and above a photograph of Mr Reynolds, under the caption: “[The convicted woman] (left) threatened Maxine Brewis (right) with a 'good hiding' if she went to her father's home again”. The article also included a panel, titled “From safecracker to multi-millionaire business mogul: Who was Ex-Darlington FC owner George Reynolds”.
3. The complainant said that the article was misleading, in breach of Clause 1. She said that the article gave the impression that she was a “gold-digger” – an impression, she argued, that was created by the inclusion of “millionaire” in the headline and the positioning of the photographs of herself and the woman which suggested a “battle” between the pair for Mr Reynolds’ money. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate to describe Mr Reynolds as a “millionaire”; he had not been described as such during proceedings against his daughter, nor been one since 2004.
4. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code, nor did it accept that the article gave the impression that the complainant was a “gold-digger”. It maintained that the article provided a fair and accurate account of the complainant’s case, the ordeal she had endured from the daughter of Mr Reynolds and the verdict of the court. It said that it was entitled to report the claims made by Ms Reynolds regarding the relationship between the complainant and her father – a position made clear in the bullet-points beneath the headline and within the text of the article. Notwithstanding this, the newspaper noted that the article had included a statement made by Mr Reynolds which made clear that the complainant had “never taken any money from him or taken advantage of him” and that his daughter acted “maliciously” towards the complainant rather than out of concern for him. The newspaper maintained that photographs showed only the likeness of those involved in the case and did not accept that their positioning implied a “battle for money” between the complainant and Ms Reynolds.
5. The newspaper accepted that Mr Reynolds was not described as a “millionaire” during proceedings and maintained that the article made no claim that it was. Rather the inclusion of this term in the headline was used as a general description of the individual who was “well-known locally and internationally as a millionaire business tycoon”, with his “rags-to-riches” story widely recorded and publicised, noting that it would have been “obtuse” to ignore the fact that this had been the case. The newspaper provided a number of examples which it said supported this characterisation of Mr Reynolds, including the comments made by his legal representative in 2005 who noted that he had previously been named in the Sunday Times Rich List of the top 200 people in the UK with an estimated fortune of £260million and he was known to be a vastly wealthy man, who had invested £27 million of his own money into Darlington FC. Notwithstanding this, upon receipt of the complaint, as a gesture of goodwill, the newspaper removed “millionaire” from the headline of the online article.
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
6. The Committee recognised the distressing circumstances surrounding this complaint and expressed its sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Mr Reynolds.
7. Whilst the Committee acknowledged the distress caused to the complainant by the article’s publication, it noted that the references to her interactions with Mr Reynolds as having “ulterior” motivation reflected his daughter’s position and was clearly presented as such. The article was not inaccurate or misleading in setting out the respective positions of those involved in the case, with the Committee noting that the text of the article made clear that, according to Mr Reynolds, the complainant had “never taken any money from him or taken advantage of him” and that his daughter acted “maliciously” towards the complainant rather than out of concern for him. Furthermore, the Committee noted that the photographs revealed only the likeness of those involved in the case; they did not include any statement in the caption to the effect that the two women were "battling for money”. There was no breach of Clause 1.
8. The Committee next considered the second point of complaint: that it was inaccurate to describe Mr Reynolds as a “millionaire”. It was satisfied that the text of the article gave a sufficient basis for this term, with the panel titled, “From safecracker to multi-millionaire business mogul: Who was Ex-Darlington FC owner George Reynolds” providing an overview of Mr Reynolds’ well-documented entrepreneurial successes, including his previous inclusion on the Sunday Times Rich list. In such circumstances, where it was well established in the public domain that he had been in possession of extreme wealth and where the article made no claim that this information had been heard during court proceedings, the Committee did not consider that the newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of this information. Notwithstanding this, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s decision to amend the headline of the online article to remove this reference in light of the information provided by the complainant about Mr Reynolds’ reduced circumstances.
9. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 07/05/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 04/10/2021Back to ruling listing