Decision of the Complaints Committee 05741-19 Grant and Pitts v Mail Online
Summary of complaint
1. Shane Grant and Genevieve Pitts complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “A real-life Mr Darcy... or a misguided clown? Boyfriend 'hijacks' his girlfriend's performance of Pride and Prejudice so he can propose in the hopes of staging a viral social media moment”, published on 26 July 2019.
2. The article reported on Mr Grant’s proposal to his partner Ms Pitts, which took place on stage following Ms Pitts’ performance in a play. Ms Pitts was described as a “semi-professional actress” and piano teacher. The article was critical of Mr Grant’s actions and said that he had “hijacked” the performance “in the hopes of staging a viral social media moment” as part of a “new trend” in which men have been accused of using proposals as a means of “upstaging” important moments in their partners’ lives.
3. The complainants said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. Mr Pitts said he did not plan the proposal so it would go “viral” on social media and it was not part of any “trend” or plan to “upstage” Ms Pitts or “hijack” her performance; the proposal was carefully planned with the director to occur after the end of the play, so that there was minimal disruption. The complainant’s also disagreed with the article’s description of Mr Grant as a “misguided clown”, and said that it was also inaccurate to describe Ms Pitts as a “semi-professional actress”; she was regularly paid for her acting work.
4. The publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate. In relation to the claim that Mr Grant planned the proposal “to stage a viral social media moment”, it noted that he had chosen to propose on stage, in front of an audience that were likely to have phones or to be recording the event, and noted that the complainants gave interviews to local newspapers, radio stations and a news agency in order to promote the story. Furthermore, the publication referred to a post made by Mr Grant on an online forum in which he said that further articles on the story would be “if nothing else… a nice memento of the occasion” and that he and Ms Pitts were “more than happy” for the theatre to use the video for marketing purposes and that the subsequent local newspaper and radio interviews were to “help push this”.
5. The publication also said that it was not misleading to describe the proposal as an attempt by Mr Grant to “hijack” or “upstage” Ms Pitts; it said that Mr Grant effectively took over the performance and stage with an ulterior motive, and held his partner in this situation until she had accepted his proposal. It noted that there had been other instances in which similar public proposals had been subject to criticism, and the article included a recent example of this; as such, it was not misleading to describe the event as part of a “trend”. In relation to the description of Ms Pitts as a “semi-professional actress”, it noted that she also works as a piano teacher.
6. Nevertheless, as a gesture of goodwill, the publication made several amendments to the article. It removed the references to a “viral social media moment” in both the headline and the body of the article, as well as the description of Mr Grant as a “misguided clown”. In addition, it changed the article to make clear that Ms Pitts was a professional actress rather than “semi-professional”, and also offered to remove the reference to “hijack” if this would resolve the complaint.
Relevant Code Provisions
7. 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
8. Whilst the complainants disputed that the proposal was planned in the hopes of staging a viral social media moment, their subsequent engagement with press interviews and their own engagement with the social media mentions of others meant that it was not unreasonable for the publication to assume that the subsequent social media impact had been planned in advance; it was not significantly misleading to report that it had been planned “in the hopes of staging a viral social media moment”. Furthermore, the article explained its basis for describing Mr Grant as having “hijacked” the performance where he had unexpectedly taken to the stage and became the focus of the audience’s attention. By giving another example of where a similar proposal had occurred, the article also gave an adequate basis for describing the proposal as being part of a “trend”. Where it was not in dispute that Ms Pitts also worked as a piano teacher, there was no significantly misleading impression as to her occupation created by describing her as a “semi-professional” actress. For all of these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1.
9. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 29/07/2019
Date decision issued: 08/10/2019