Decision of the Complaints Committee 05484-18 A woman v Press Gazette
Summary of complaint
1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Press Gazette breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in a reader comment published on an article headlined: “Metro and Mail Online apologise and take down articles which reported only one side of paternity dispute involving '£1bn fortune'”, published on 17 November 2017.
2. The comment
under complaint was posted beneath an article reporting on two statements
published by IPSO, recording the fact that two complaints had been resolved to
the complainant’s satisfaction during the course of an IPSO investigation.
These complaints related to two articles which reported a man’s belief that,
following a prolonged legal battle, he had managed to prove that he was the
father of the complainant’s child, who the man claimed was heir to a
substantial fortune. The complainant in this case is the same as the
complainant in the two original complaints. She was not named in the original
coverage, or in IPSO’s resolution statements.
3. The username of
the commenter was the same name of a journalist who had written an article
about the dispute in another publication. The comment included claims about
both the complainant and the man, although it did not name either of them.
4. The regulation by a publication of reader comments on a publication’s website falls within IPSO’s remit when there is a possible breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice, and where it can be shown that the comment has been subject to some level of editorial control either through pre or post moderation. The complainant complained anonymously to the publication directly about the comment on 14 May 2018, in an email which said that the comment contained “a list of false allegations”. This email gave the publication an opportunity to review or moderate the comment. As the comment was not removed at that stage, the comment fell within IPSO’s remit.
5. The complainant said that the comment contained inaccurate and damaging claims in breach of Clause 1, and the publication of this false information was a form of harassment.
6. The complainant
said that contrary to the claims made in the reader comment she was not
“duplicitous”; her grandfather was not "the founder of one of the world's
biggest media empires"; she had not “refused” to take her child to “5 DNA
tests in 10 years”. The complainant said that there was no DNA test result
which showed with “99.9999% certainty” that her husband was not the real father
of her child, as the commenter had claimed.
7. The complainant
also disputed the accuracy of a number of the claims made about the man
involved in the paternity dispute and the nature of her relationship with
him. She said that, contrary to the
commenter’s claims, there was no court paper which demonstrated “evidence of a
six year relationship and engagement”; the man was not from a “humble
background”, nor had he been left “penniless and broken” from the paternity
dispute. The complainant said that she had never attempted to claim in court
that she had never been intimate with the man; this question had never been put
to her; the complainant denied being intimate with the man at the time her
child was conceived.
8. The complainant said that the media was not being “browbeaten” for “sticking up for the little man”, nor was her case a “morally nauseating story”, as the comment had said; she was simply fighting against false allegations concerning her and her family.
9. The publication said that it had received the email in May which raised concerns about the comment. This had been overlooked. The publication said that it would not ordinarily remove comments when requested to do so anonymously. The publication removed the comment shortly after IPSO began its investigation, because its accuracy was disputed. The publication said that it was not in a position to comment on the complainant’s concerns about the accuracy of the claims made by the commenter. The publication did not accept that a single reader comment could constitute harassment under the Code.
10. The publication offered to publish the following
wording, to resolve the complaint:
On 17 November Press Gazette published a story about the
fact that Metro and Mail Online had taken down stories which reported claims
made by a man involved in a paternity suit.
A reader added a comment to the Press Gazette article which
made a number of claims about the subject matter of the original stories,
published in the Metro and Mail Online. The reader commented that the woman
involved in the suit had refused 5 DNA tests in 10 years, and that she had not
accepted a DNA result that showed with “99.999 certainty” that her husband is
not the father of her child. The reader also said that there was evidence that
the woman had a six year relationship and engagement with the man; the reader
also stated that the woman had told a court that she and the man were never
intimate. The reader comment also stated that the woman’s grandfather was the
founder of one of the world’s biggest media empires.
The woman concerned strongly disputes the accuracy of these
statements. We are happy to make clear her position that there is no DNA result
which shows with “99.999% certainty” that her husband is not the child’s
father. The woman says that she has only denied being intimate with the man at
the date of conception and there is no court paper which corroborates the claim
that she was in a six year relationship with him. Further, we have been told
that, in fact, the woman’s grandfather did not found a media empire and she
says that she has not refused 5 DNA tests in 10 years. The woman has asked us
to make clear that only one DNA test has been ordered by the judge and she
denies being “duplicitous”, as the reader claimed.
We are happy to clarify this, and set out the woman’s denial
of the claims contained within the reader comment. This comment has now been
Relevant Code Provisions
11. 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.
Clause 3 (Harrassment)
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
Findings of the Committee
12. The publication continued to publish the reader comment following receipt of the complainant’s email of 14 May 2018 in which she challenged the accuracy of a number of claims made in the reader comment. The question for the Committee, under Clause 1, was whether the obligation to take care over the publication of the comment to ensure compliance with the Code arose from that date, or a later date, and whether the publication had failed to take care by the continued publication of the reader comment. Key to the Committee’s consideration of this complaint was the need to be proportionate. In this case the comment under complaint had included serious allegations about the complainant. However, she had not been named and her identity had been unknown to the publication up until she had complained to IPSO. The Committee considered the complaint in that context, while also noting that the item under complaint was a reader comment rather than editorially generated material.
13. On 14 May 2018, the publication had received the complainant’s anonymous email in which she challenged the accuracy of a number of claims made in the reader comment. The Committee noted that the publication accepted that it had received the email and acknowledged the publication’s explanation that the complainant’s email had been overlooked. Nevertheless, the Committee considered that, from that date, the publication had had an opportunity to engage with the complainant in order to clarify which of the claims made in the reader comment were said to be false, or to seek further information about the challenges being made. The question under the Code, as to what care a publication should take in relation to user generated content, will depend on the nature of the content and the manner in which the content is presented (including whether presented as a statement of fact, comment or conjecture).
14. The Committee emphasised that it was not in the position
to make findings of fact about the matters in dispute between the individuals
who were the subject of the reader comment, and nothing in this ruling should
be taken as such a finding.
15. The material under complaint was a user generated comment which, by its very nature, would be understood to be the claims being made by the reader and their view on a situation under dispute. The manner in which the reader had presented their claims – unambiguously as a comment following publication of the article did not suggest that the claims were undisputed fact; by continuing to publish the reader comment, following receipt of the 14 May 2018 email, neither had the publication adopted the claims as such. Further, the complainant had not been named, nor was she identifiable from the information contained in the reader comment. In light of these circumstances, the Committee did not conclude that the publication had failed in its obligation to take care over the accuracy of published information by continuing to publish the reader comment after 14 May 2018. Further, the Committee did not conclude that the reader comment gave rise to a misleading impression of the situation such that a correction was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii), as it would be understood that the claims made in the reader comment were the subject of a dispute. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to publish a full clarification, setting out the complainant’s position in response to the claims which the reader had made.
16. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the publication of this reader comment was in itself a form of harassment, particularly where the username of the reader shared the same name as a journalist from another publication. However, Clause 3 generally relates to the conduct of journalists in the news gathering process. The Committee did not conclude that journalists acting on behalf of the publication under complaint had engaged in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit such as would engage the terms of Clause 3. There was no breach of the Code.
16. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Independent Complaints Reviewer
The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.
Date complaint received: 12/08/2018
Date complaint concluded: 05/02/2019
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