Decision of the Complaints Committee 06615-17 Guppy v Daily Mail
Summary of complaint
1. Darius Guppy complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Pal Guppy’s murky past returns to haunt Boris”, published on 10 April 2017.
2. The article was a diary piece, which described the complainant as a “convicted fraudster” and “an associate of Boris Johnson”. It reported that the complainant’s “activities and associates” were to be “scrutinised anew” with legal proceedings taking place in both London and South Africa. It reported that the “actions” were “being brought” by Peter Risdon, who had appeared as chief prosecution witness when the complainant was tried and convicted of fraud. It said that the complainant had recently sued Mr Risdon for libel when he questioned his claim to be an Iranian patriot. The piece quoted Mr Risdon who had said that the complainant had “won the libel judgment unopposed”, and that he had launched his “legal response” as it was in the public interest as “courts shouldn’t be helping a criminal exact revenge against a prosecution witness”. The article stated that Mr Risdon had been unable to defend the libel case because he was being “treated for inoperable liver cancer”.
3. The article was published online with the headline “Legal proceedings begin against Boris Johnson’s dodgy friend Darius Guppy as the convicted fraudster returns from the shadows to haunt the Foreign Secretary”.
4. The complainant said that the article had wrongly suggested that Mr Risdon had commenced fresh legal proceedings against him when, in fact, he was trying to appeal two judgments: the libel judgment against him in the South African proceedings; and an order made against him in the English Court requiring him to pay the costs of the South African proceedings. The complainant said that Mr Risdon’s applications to seek permission to appeal were not new proceedings; these were a continuation of existing proceedings. It could not, therefore, be said that Mr Risdon was “launching” or “beginning” any “new” proceedings against the complainant, especially given that Mr Risdon may not be granted permission by the court to proceed with the appeals.
5. The complainant said that the newspaper had inaccurately reported that his activities and associates would be re-examined during further legal proceedings. In his defences to the South African and English proceedings, Mr Risdon had sought to persuade the courts to scrutinise the complainant’s past, and neither court had been persuaded by the evidence provided; it was inconceivable that the situation would be different with respect to his appeals.
6. The complainant also said the article had inaccurately asserted that Mr Risdon could not defend the libel action which had been brought against him, because he had been terminally ill with liver cancer. The complainant had first been informed of Mr Risdon’s illness in December 2016, seven months after the final hearing in the South African proceedings, and almost five years after the litigation had commenced. On 9 January 2017, Mr Risdon had written to the complainant’s solicitor to ask for the final hearing in the proceedings in the English court, which was scheduled for 11 January 2017, to be adjourned. He had said “my illness is not yet fully assessed, but I now know that it is a serious case of liver cancer, probably too large a tumour and far too advanced to be operable”. The complainant said that to support his position, Mr Risdon had relied on evidence which the judge at the final hearing had found “questionable”.
7. The complainant noted that Mr Risdon had stated in the Appellant’s Notice of 15 March 2017, by which he had sought permission to appeal the judgment of the English court, that he had been diagnosed with “advanced liver cancer” on 5 January 2017. The complainant therefore considered that his illness could not have prevented Mr Risdon from defending a claim which had been issued in the South African court in 2012 when the diagnosis was not made until January 2017. He said that Mr Risdon had been an active correspondent in the case, including in late 2016 and early 2017, and in mid-December 2016 he had been able to complete his autobiography.
8. The complainant said that the newspaper had only relied on Mr Risdon as its source, and it had failed to seek his comment on the claims in advance of publication.
9. The newspaper said that the article was accurate. It said that Mr Risdon had made an Application for Permission to Appeal, and that, if successful, he would then be pursuing an appeal. It said that these proceedings would take place in a different court, before a different judge, arguing a different case, and on different grounds from the original proceedings.
10. The newspaper did not consider that it was inaccurate to suggest that the complainant’s past would be scrutinised anew because the court had not yet heard the appeal, nor examined the evidence upon which Mr Risdon would rely. Furthermore, Mr Risdon’s Application for Permission to Appeal contained evidence which had not been examined in the previous proceedings.
11. The newspaper said that Mr Risdon’s illness and late diagnosis was a matter of fact. In support of the Appellant’s Notice of 15 March 2017, a witness statement made clear that he had been seriously ill for some time and was incapacitated throughout 2016 with advanced, but undiagnosed, cancer. It also provided an extract from a letter from Mr Risdon’s doctor, dated 5 January 2017, which stated that Mr Risdon had been feeling unwell for the “last couple of years”, and his symptoms had increased over the last 12 months. The newspaper noted that he had been misdiagnosed in April 2016.
12. During direct correspondence with the newspaper in relation to the complaint, the complainant confirmed that the English court had refused Mr Risdon permission to appeal. With regards to the South African case, he said there was no indication that Mr Risdon had applied for permission to appeal. In response to this, the newspaper said that Mr Risdon intended to challenge the decision to refuse him permission to appeal.
13. The newspaper said that it had been unable to find a way of contacting the complainant for comment before publication, but it did not consider that the omission of his comment was misleading, given that the article reported Mr Risdon’s intention to respond to a libel action which had been brought against him.
14. The newspaper argued that the only person who could properly answer questions about Mr Risdon’s health, was Mr Risdon. It could not have approached the complainant about this matter, especially as the details of an individual’s health are protected under Clause 2 of the Code.
15. Nevertheless, it offered to append the complainant’s comments to the online version of the piece in the form of a clarifying footnote. It also offered to add a footnote which would make clear that Mr Risdon’s application to appeal had been denied, but that he intended to challenge the decision. In addition, it offered to publish the following wording on page two in print:
A diary item on 10 April reported that a ‘legal response’ to a libel action brought by Darius Guppy was being launched by Peter Risdon. We are happy to clarify that the response involved applications to appeal decisions made in a South African libel action rather than a completely new case.
16. At the end of IPSO’s investigation, the complainant informed IPSO that Mr Risdon had died.
Relevant Code provisions
17. 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
18. The Committee noted that Mr Risdon had been seeking permission to appeal a libel judgment entered against him by the South African court and an order which had been made against him by the English court requiring him to pay the costs of the South African proceedings. He was not seeking to launch entirely new proceedings against the complainant, as may have been suggested by the headline to the online article. However, the article was a diary piece linking the story to the possible impact the proceedings may have on Boris Johnson; it was not a detailed examination of the legal proceedings themselves. Moreover, the article made the nature of the proceedings sufficiently clear: it said that the complainant had “won” the libel case which he had brought against Mr Risdon, and that Mr Risdon had launched his “legal response” in light of his view that it was in the public interest as “the courts shouldn't be helping a criminal exact revenge against a prosecution witness”. The article had not given the significantly misleading impression that the legal proceedings that Mr Risdon was seeking to initiate were new and separate from the earlier proceedings. While the Committee found that there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point, it welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification.
19. The article reported that Mr Risdon was appealing the libel judgment because, in his view, the courts should not be assisting the complainant in “exacting revenge against a prosecution witness”. Given Mr Risdon’s position that he would be raising the complainant’s past and associates in his appeal, it was not significantly misleading for the article to assert that any appeal would re-examine these matters. There was no failure to take care on this point.
20. It was not in dispute that Judgment had been entered against Mr Risdon by the South Africa court in his absence. Although the article had not expressly attributed the assertion that he had been unable to defend the case because he was being treated for inoperable liver cancer to Mr Risdon, the explanation had been presented in the context of his perspective on the legal proceedings and the reason for his decision to seek to appeal the findings of the court. While it was clear that he was not “being treated” for liver cancer over the whole course of proceedings, his cancer had been at an advanced stage when he was diagnosed, and the complainant was not in a position to dispute that Mr Risdon had been unwell for the latter stages of the South African proceedings. In the full circumstances, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly misleading for the newspaper to have reported that Mr Risdon had been unable to defend the case due to his illness. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.
21. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that he had not been contacted for comment before the article was published. However, the Code does not specifically require that comment is sought from the subject of an article before publication. The article reported on legal proceedings, which were a matter of public record, and Mr Risdon’s illness. The complainant’s comment on these matters was not required in order for the newspaper to take care over the accuracy of the article in accordance with Clause 1(i). There was no breach of the Code.
22. The complaint was not upheld.
Further action required
Date complaint received: 28/04/2017
Date decision issued: 20/09/2017Back to ruling listing