Decision of the Complaints Committee 04640-17 A woman v The Sun
Summary of Complaint
1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Billionheir”, published on 21 March 2017.
2. The article reported that a man had “won an 11-year battle to prove that a child destined to inherit nearly £1billion is his son”. It reported that this had been demonstrated by a DNA test, ordered by the judge, which showed it was “99.9999 percent” certain that he was the father. The article claimed that the man had a six year relationship with the child’s mother, described as the daughter of “Luxembourg’s richest tycoon”, and that they were engaged before he “discovered she had secretly married another man [in the previous year]”. The article claimed that the man had spent his “life savings” on the dispute, and has said that the mother’s family needed to pay him “for the decade of hell”. The article was accompanied with an image of the man, accompanied by a woman and child, whose faces were pixelated.
3. The complainant, the mother of the child, said that she was not an heiress, and that her child was not an heir to a fortune. She said that a simple internet search would have shown this to be the case, and that the newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of this claim. She denied that she had been engaged to the man, or that there had been a six year relationship. She denied that her marriage had been a “secret”. She said that that the man featured in the article did not have “life savings”, which the article claimed he had spent on the legal dispute. The complainant said she was prohibited by Luxembourg’s law from commenting on the DNA test.
4. The newspaper said that the article was clearly presented as the man’s account of a long-running dispute about paternity, the main element of which was that he had proven that he was the father of the child. It said that the inaccuracies alleged by the complainant in relation to specific aspects of his account should be viewed in this context.
5. The newspaper said that its journalist had approached the complainant for comment numerous times in the past. On one occasion, when he had put a business card through her door, asking to speak with her, he was threatened with legal action. The newspaper said that other journalists had had similar experiences. The newspaper said that it is difficult to get the complainant’s response to the claims made by the man, but that this should not prevent newspapers from publishing his story.
6. The newspaper said that the man had told its journalist that he had no idea how wealthy the complainant’s family were, but that he had speculated it was between £100 million and £1billion. It said that the complainant’s family had been described as “one of the richest families in Luxembourg” in court. It noted that the complainant’s grandfather had been the chairman of a very large company, and that the complainant and her child were the prospective heirs to the family money, which could be described as a “fortune”. The newspaper said that when its journalist approached the complainant’s mother for comment in 2012, and was told the family had no comment to make, he had referred to the child inheriting vast wealth. It said that the family had the opportunity to dispute the claim, but did not do so, and it was reasonable for the newspaper to accept the man’s claim that the family were very wealthy.
7. The newspaper said that the man who was the subject of the article had submitted evidence to the court to support his position that he had been in a six-year relationship with the complainant, and that they had been engaged. This evidence, which it provided to IPSO, included his own recollections, and the recollections of others who had spent time with them. It also included a series of photographs of the man spending time with the complainant, and her child. The newspaper said that the complainant’s wedding had been a secret to the man seeking to prove his paternity.
8. In order to resolve the complaint, the newspaper offered to publish the following wording:
Our article “Billionheir” reported that in legal proceedings in Luxembourg, Steve Marston had proved his paternity of a child. We claimed the child was “destined to inherit nearly £1billion”. The child’s mother states to us that she strongly contests Mr Marston’s account of their relationship, that they were engaged, or it lasted for six years. She also asks us to clarify that the child is not set to inherit a fortune. We are happy to put her position on record.
9. The complainant denied that evidence the newspaper provided in response to the complaint had been placed before the court. She argued that some of it had been fabricated, and that it was inconsistent. She declined the newspaper’s offer of resolution. The complainant said that while the journalist had approached her mother for comment in 2012, she had never been directly approached for comment.
Relevant Code Provisions
10. 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. On the newspaper’s own account, the man who was the subject of the article did not know how wealthy the complainant’s family were. It was a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, in breach of Clause 1 (i), to report that the complainant’s family wealth was “nearly £1billion”, on the basis that the man had been willing to speculate that they had between £100 million and £1 billion. In response to the complaint, the newspaper had not been able to demonstrate the accuracy of this claim, which was an important element of the story. The Committee considered that the article was significantly misleading on this point, given the prominent role given to the claim about the complainant’s wealth in the report of the paternity dispute. It therefore required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
12. The article also contained the specific claims that the man had a six year relationship with the complainant, and that they had been engaged, but that she had been secretly married to another man. These were presented as fact, rather than as the man’s account of the relationship. The Committee acknowledged the evidence the newspaper provided in response to the complaint, but considered that this did not prove these claims to be fact. The Committee noted the newspaper’s position that it was difficult to get the complainant’s response to enquiries about the man’s story, and that while it had not approached the complainant directly in preparing the article under complaint for publication, it had previously spoken and exchanged emails with her mother about the story in 2012, and had left a business card at the complainant’s address. Nevertheless, where the claims were presented as fact in the article, the burden was on the newspaper to take appropriate care to establish these claims as fact. The failure to make clear in the article the status of these claims represented a failure to take care not to publish misleading information, in breach of Clause 1 (i). The presentation of these claims as fact was significant, where the article concerned a paternity dispute between the complainant and the man. For this reason, the newspaper was required to correct the manner in which these claims were presented, under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
13. The final wording offered by the newspaper simply recorded the complainant’s position on her family wealth, and that she denied she was engaged to the man, or that the relationship lasted six years. The Committee recognised that this wording had been suggested by IPSO’s Executive, in an effort to mediate between the parties. It welcomed the newspaper’s effort to engage in a process of mediation, but the correction had not been offered by the newspaper promptly, and did not make clear how the article had been misleading on these points. For these reasons, the Committee upheld the complaint as a breach of Clause 1 (ii).
14. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern about the accuracy of the claim that the man had “spent his life savings” on the dispute. This Committee considered that this claim was not a general point of fact, or a claim which related directly to the complainant. Rather, it related directly to the man, and the effect of the litigation on his financial situation. By her own account, the complainant had not been in touch with the man for some time, such that she was in the position to dispute his account of his circumstances. The Committee considered that it was not in the position to establish that this claim was inaccurate, such as to require correction under Clause 1 (ii), or to demonstrate a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, in breach of Clause 1 (i).
15. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial Action Required
16. The Committee considered what remedial action should be required for the breach of Clause 1.
17. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was publication of a correction which made clear that the claim about the family’s wealth had in fact been speculation. The correction should also make clear that the mother of the child had confirmed that he would inherit a substantially smaller sum, rather than the claim of “nearly £1billion”, reported in the article. The correction should also make clear that while the article presented the claim that the relationship between the man and the complainant lasted for 6 years, that they had been engaged, and that they had been secretly married as fact, these claims represented the man’s account of the relationship, and that they were denied by the complainant.
18. This correction should appear on page two of the newspaper. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance.
Date complaint received: 02/04/2017
Date decision issued: 28/11/2017Back to ruling listing