05686-18 Ashford v Basingstoke Gazette

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05686-18 Ashford v Basingstoke Gazette

Summary of complaint

1. Jade Ashford complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Basingstoke Gazette breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime) of  the Editors' Code of Practice in four articles headlined:

  • "Former chair of players at rugby club stands trial of alleged sexual assaults" published online on 21 August 2018
  • "Jury retired in sexual assault case of former RAF engineer" published online on 23 August 2018
  • "Former chair of players at Basingstoke Rugby Football Club found guilty of sexual assault" published online on 24 August 2018
  • "Trio's triathlon effort to aid school" published in print on 30 August 2018

2. The three online articles reported on a court case involving the chair of players at Basingstoke Rugby Club, who was initially charged with three counts of sexual assault and one count of indecent exposure against one woman, and one count of indecent exposure against a second woman.

3. The fourth article, in print, reported that three pupils at a primary school had raised funds for a new minibus. This article was featured next to another article about the court case, which was not under complaint.

4. The complainant, the wife of the defendant in the case, said that the first article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said the defendant was aged 33, not 34 as reported, and the article claimed that the defendant had led initiation games, when in court it was clear that someone else had led them. The complainant said the article's claim that she was club secretary was inaccurate; she had never been club secretary, only membership secretary and not at the time of the incident. She said that the article stated that the first woman had "accused him of pushing her up against the wall and touching her leg", when this evidence was never discussed in court. The complainant said the article also breached Clause 2 (Privacy) as the journalist who wrote the article was friends with one of the alleged victims in court.

5. The complainant said the second article was inaccurate because it claimed that she had been married to the defendant for six years, when they had been married for two years. She also said the article reported on one of the indecent exposure charges, where the alleged victim had accused him of "touching her thigh and exposing his penis in her face" despite this charge being dropped after the first day of the trial.  The complainant also said the article breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime) because it featured her name and job without her permission.

6. The complainant said that the third article was inaccurate as it also reported that the defendant was aged 33 and had led initiation games. She said it inaccurately reported that the defendant would be sentenced later that afternoon, when he was due to be sentenced on 21 September.

7. The complainant raised a number of concerns in relation to Clause 3 (Harassment). She claimed the reporter had been asked to write the articles by one of the complainants in the trial as they were friends, and as a result the articles were one-sided and biased in their coverage. She said that the fourth article was intentionally placed next to an article about the trial to humiliate her. The complainant alleged that the reporter purposefully sat near her and her husband in the court building and followed them and sat near them when they moved to a new location; the reporter was not sat in the press area. She said that when her and her husband attended the sentencing hearing they had waited for longer than they normally would to ensure the complainants in the case and any members of the press had left. However, when they left the building, the reporter was outside with the victim and her family; the complainant said they proceeded to follow them from the court house. The complainant also alleged that the judge had directed to the reporter in court that the defendant would not be sent to prison and that they wanted this documented; the publication did not report this.

8. The publication denied that the first article was inaccurate in breach of the Code. It said that while the article did not attribute the quote to the prosecution, the reference to the defendant pushing the victim against the wall was heard in open court during the prosecution speech. During the referral period, the publication accepted the defendant's age and the complainant's role at the Rugby club had been reported inaccurately, and while it had also inaccurately reported they had been married for six years, they had been in a relationship for six years. The publication said that these points did not amount to significant inaccuracies under the Code.

9. The publication accepted that the second article, the first to be published after the charges were dropped, was inaccurate. It said that the article referenced the charges and did not mention they had been dropped. The newspaper offered to remove this reference and add an addendum to the article to indicate it had been updated. It offered the following wording:

This article was updated on <date> to reflect the fact Mr Ashford had been acquitted of three counts - two of indecent exposures and one sexual assault - on August 22 and omit a description of one of these incidents.

10. The publication said the third article was not significantly inaccurate. The court had heard the defendant had led drunken "initiation games", a witness confirmed this, and the article did not assert this claim as fact. The publication said that the Judge was due to sentence the defendant that afternoon; this was accurate at the time of publication.

11. The publication denied that it had engaged in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit in breach of Clause 3. It said that the reporter was sat where she was in the court building, outside court one, so she could view the information screen and access the courtroom and the secure WIFI. It said that the reporter had waited outside after the sentencing hearing to ask the victim and her parents for a comment, which was declined and then walked towards the car park with them, where she was parked; there was no other direction to walk. The publication said the reporter saw the complainant and defendant walk past them minutes before and assumed they had already left. The publication said it was coincidental that the fourth print article, which referenced the complainant's place of work, featured near an article about the court case; the publication did not know that this was where the complainant worked. The publication also stressed that the reporter was not the editor of the newspaper as alleged by the complainant; she was a freelance reporter and had no input on how stories were covered, or where they featured.

Relevant Code Provisions

12. 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.

v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.

Clause 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusion into any individual’s private life without consent. In considering an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Clause 3 (Harassment)*

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.

Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime)*

i) Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.

ii) Particular regard should be paid to the potentially vulnerable position of children who witness, or are victims of, crime. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Findings of the Committee

13. The publication referred to a charge of indecent exposure even though it had been dropped, and did not report that two other charges had also been dropped. The publication had not checked this information was still accurate at the time of publication and this represented a failure to take care; there was a breach of Clause 1(i).

14. The correction offered during investigation addressed the inaccuracy, it made clear the counts the defendant had been acquitted of, and when. This was sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

15. The publication said that the allegation that the defendant had touched the leg of the alleged victim had been included as part of the opening speech made by the prosecution. The complainant did not dispute that the allegation had been heard in court. The Committee noted that the defendant was acquitted of the charge to which the allegation related because the witness did not give evidence to support the allegation during the trial. The allegation had been heard in court, and was not reported as evidence given by the alleged victim. Therefore it was not significantly misleading for the publication to have reported that the allegation had been made in circumstances where the offences which the defendant was facing were accurately reported; there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. The publication had misreported the defendant's age, length of marriage and the complainant's role at the rugby club. However, in the context of the trial as a whole, misreporting this information did not give a significantly misleading impression of the events surrounding the case and the alleged offences. This did not render the article significantly misleading, there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

16. The complainant's job title and name were heard in open court. In accordance with the principle of open justice, the publication was entitled to report on court proceedings which were not subject to reporting restrictions; there was no breach of Clause 2 on this point. Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) provides  protection to relatives of convicted or accused individuals that are subject to publicity as a result of criminal proceedings, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story. The complainant had given evidence in the trial and was therefore relevant to the story; identifying her did not breach the terms of Clause 9.

17. The date of the sentencing hearing subsequently changed, but was accurately reported at the time of publication. There was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, nor did it render the article significantly misleading; there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. That the defendant had "led" the initiation games was heard in court, and this was not disputed by the complainant; there was no breach of Clause 1.

18. The complainant raised concerns that the reporter knew one of the victims involved in the case. Clause 3 generally relates to the conduct exercised by journalists when contacting members of the public during the newsgathering process. Aside from Clause 13 (Financial Journalism) which concerns financial reporting, the Code does not stipulate that reporters cannot have a personal connection to the events they report; there was no breach of Clause 3 on this point. That the reporter knew one of the victims in the case did not engage the terms of Clause 2 (Privacy).The complainant alleged that the judge had asked the reporter to report that the defendant would not be receiving a custodial sentence, and that the fourth article had been intentionally placed next to another article about the trial. The selection of material for publication is considered by IPSO to be a matter for discretion by individual editors, so long as the Editors’ Code of Practice has not otherwise been breached. Similarly, the prominence afforded coverage of a subject is also a matter of editorial discretion. The publication was under no obligation under the Code to report that the defendant would not receive a custodial sentence; he had not been sentenced at this point. There was no breach of Clause 3 on these points.

19. The purpose of Clause 3 is to prevent intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit by the press, subject to public interest exemptions. Simply sitting near an individual in a public building did not amount to harassment and the Editors' Code does not stipulate that journalists must stay in a particular spot or area when reporting court cases. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant's account of her encounter outside the court building differed to that offered by the publication. However, the complainant did not allege that the reporter spoke to her or the defendant, tried to take photographs of them, or that she had asked the reporter to desist. In these circumstances, being in close proximity on a public street did not amount to harassment and the reporter was not obliged to take a different route away from the court.  There was no breach of Clause 3 on this point.

Conclusions

20. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial Action Required

21. Having upheld the complaint, The Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

22. The publication had offered a correction promptly and with due prominence. The Committee found this correction was sufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii). This should now be published.

Date complaint received: 22/08/2018

Date decision issued: 04/02/2019

 

 

 

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