07363-18 Williams-Thomas v The Mail on Sunday

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07363-18 Williams-Thomas v The Mail on Sunday

Summary of complaint

1. Mark Williams-Thomas complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “How a self-promoting TV detective, obsessed with celebrity sex abusers, helped police ruin the lives of Sir Cliff and a string of other famous faces... who all turned out to be TOTALLY INNOCENT” published on 3 November 2018.

2. The article reported that a number of high profile, named men had “been falsely accused of historical sex abuse”, and that the complainant had been involved in publishing the allegations against many of them. It stated that the complainant had “openly boasted that he was the source of up to twenty suspects’ names being submitted to Operation Yewtree, and reported that when the complainant ”learnt that officers planned to investigate particular individuals, he publicised their names, even though police inquiries were at an early stage,” and that in some cases, “he issued regular breathless ‘updates’ on police inquiries”. It stated that the complainant had said that the newspaper’s investigation was “’littered with incorrect information’ but when asked what this was, he refused to answer.”

3. The article also included information about the complainant’s career and reported that “his real goal was to make it in television.” The article reported on a number of TV appearances the complainant had made, and said that following this he “boasted he was ‘working closely’ with Operation Yewtree, and was ‘sharing new leads and contact details for victims’. He claimed he had a ‘dossier’ featuring a ‘catalogue’ of allegations against about 20 suspects, including ‘some household names’.” It also claimed he had “triggered” a Met police enquiry into one individual, as he had claimed he had evidence the named man had sexually abused a child. It went on to detail what the complainant had shared on social media about a number of celebrities. It reported that he had been the first to name a number of celebrities arrested as part of Operation Yewtree, including one man who had said in his book that “he first learnt of this not from the police or Crown Prosecution Service but a reporter, who told him the source was ‘the ex-detective that did the TV programme exposing Savile’s behaviour’”. In relation to another named individual, it reported that the complainant had introduced a “fantasist” who went on to accuse a high profile celebrity of historical child sex abuse, to a named journalist. It reported he had been given taped copies of interviews that took place between these two individuals in 2002, before disclosing them to the police in 2013. It quoted a named Detective Inspector, who claimed that the complainant had tried to “reincarnate” the alleged fantasist as a witness.  It also stated that the complainant had considered giving the tapes to a broadcaster, but had decided not to do so.

4. The article was also published online with the same headline on the 3 November 2018. The online article included a photograph of the complainant with the caption “Mark Williams- Thomas featured in The Investigation: A British Crime Story. He leaked the names of up to 20 suspects linked to Operation Yewtree”. The rest of the article was substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.

5. The complainant said that the article, including the headline, was misleading as it suggested that he had been responsible for ruining the lives of the celebrities named in the article. He said that all major media outlets, broadcasters and newspapers had reported on the arrests, sometimes prior to his disclosures.  He said that a number of the celebrities had publicly stated that they held the police responsible, and none had made this specific claim against him. The complainant accepted that he had been the first to publicise the fact of two individual’s arrests.  However, he denied that doing so “tainted the whole investigation” and said that he co-operated fully with the police and that nothing he published could be said to have hampered their investigations. He also said that one of the individuals he was accused of naming first had in fact been named on twitter by a national publication eight hours before he had commented on the arrest.

6. The complainant also said that he had not leaked the names of up to twenty suspects, as reported in the online photo caption. Further, he also said that the claim he had told the police he had evidence that another high profile celebrity had sexually abused a child was inaccurate. He said that he had been contacted by an individual who he helped facilitate their approach to the police by giving the person’s details to Operation Yewtree.  Further, he said that he had given the tapes to the police as soon as he became aware that they may be significant and that this was the correct course of action, rather than releasing them to a broadcaster.

7. The complainant also said that the named former DCI was not a reliable source. The complainant also said that the article was not fair or balanced and had mischaracterised police advice – he said that it was inaccurate to report that publishing a suspect’s names in similar cases would now breach professional guidelines. He also said it had not been his goal to move from policing into television.

8. The publication said that the article had not accused the complainant of “ruining celebrities’ lives”. It said that the headline and the article had claimed he had helped the police to ruin the lives of a number of famous men. It said that the article had set out his involvement in supplying information to the police, and that he had publicised the names of a series of individuals linked to the high profile Inquiry.

9. The newspaper said that it was not in dispute that the complainant had been the first to publicly name two of the men referenced in the article. While it accepted the complainant had not been the first to name the third man, it said he had tweeted to “confirm” the arrest on the day it had happened and had added weight to the allegations made against the man. The newspaper said that although the journalist had carried out an internet search to try and establish if the complainant had been the first to name the accused, this had proved ineffective. It said that the journalist had contacted the complainant prior to publication, and provided him with an opportunity to reply to a number of allegations, including this claim. It noted that the complainant had not contradicted the journalist on this point. The newspaper also said that the accused man had said in a book about his ordeal that a reporter had indicated that the information had come from the complainant. Regardless, upon receipt of the complaint, the newspaper corrected this point in the online article, and offered to publish the following wording in print in its corrections and clarifications column:

“On November 4, 2018, we said the TV detective Mark Williams-Thomas was first to publicly identify [the named comedian] when he was arrested in suspicion (later cleared) of sex crimes. In fact Mr Williams-Thomas was not the first, and we apologise for this mistake.”

10. The newspaper said that the print article did not claim that the complainant had leaked the names of 20 individuals, but that he had boasted of being the source of up to 20 names being submitted to Operation Yewtree, which was accurate. However it accepted that a photo caption on the online article had stated, “Mark Williams-Thomas featured in The Investigation: A British Crime Story. He leaked the names of up to 20 suspects linked to Operation Yewtree”, which it said suggested he had leaked the names publicly. It said that this had been mistakenly written by a sub-editor upon receipt of the complaint, the newspaper amended the caption and added a footnote correction to the article stating,

“A picture caption also said Mr Williams-Thomas had leaked the names of up to 20 suspects linked to Operation Yewtree. In fact, the article says Mr Williams-Thomas has claimed to have been the source of that information to the police but not to the public.”

11. Further, the newspaper said that the claims the complainant had interfered with and tainted police investigations were attributed to a named senior police officer. The newspaper said that not referring to the officer’s removal from the case, which was later heavily criticised, was not misleading. It also said that the article accurately reported that the complainant did not give the audio tapes to the television programme which planned to use them to discredit the witness making the allegations, and that he had been offered the opportunity to explain his reasons prior to publication, which he did not take. It did not accept that it had inaccurately reported the complainant’s desire to have a TV career after leaving the police or that naming individuals in the way the complainant did would now be a breach of professional guidelines. Regardless, the newspaper offered to publish a statement from the complainant responding to the allegations in the article, if he wished. The complainant did not accept the offer.

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.

Findings of the Committee

13. A photo caption in the online version had erroneously stated that he had “leaked the names of up to 20 suspects linked to Operation Yewtree”. This was not accurate, and represented a failure to take care in breach of Clause 1(i). Publishing this represented a significant inaccuracy, as although the complainant had provided the police with the names of up to 20 individuals, the caption stated that he had put these names in the public domain, an action that was criticised in the article, which was not the case. This inaccuracy required correction in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). Within two weeks of the complaint being sent to the publication, it amended the photo caption and published a footnote correction which identified the inaccuracy and made the correct position clear. This was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii) and there was no breach of the Code on this point.

14. One of the individuals the complainant had been accused of being the first to name publicly had in fact been named by a national publication 8 hours previously. However, given that the complainant had not disputed this claim when it was put to him prior to publication, and was also supported by a published statement made by the accused in his book, the newspaper had taken sufficient care. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point.

15. However, the complainant had not been the first to publicise the man’s arrest. Reporting that he had done so represented a significant inaccuracy, as it erroneously accused him of placing the fact of an arrest in the public domain before any other source.  This required correction to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). The publication had amended the online article and published a footnote correction within two weeks of receiving the complaint. It had also offered to publish a correction in print in the newspaper’s correction and clarification column. This was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii) and should now be published.

16.  The headline reported that the complainant had helped the police to ruin the lives of various celebrities. The question of whether the complainant had helped the police in this way, was a matter of opinion. The article outlined the complainant’s involvement with the police investigation, and therefore the basis of the headline was made clear. In these circumstances, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The claims that the complainant’s actions had tainted police investigations, was attributed to a named senior police officer. The newspaper was entitled to report it and had clearly distinguished it as the source’s opinion. Omission of the named officer’s further conduct did not make the article inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. Also, where the complainant had passed the details of an individual who alleged he had been sexually abused by a named celebrity to Operation Yewtree, it was not misleading to state that he had told the police that he had evidence that the celebrity had abused the child. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. The article had accurately reported when the complainant had provided the audio recordings to the police and that he had decided not to provide these recordings to a named TV programme. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. Further, the article had accurately reported that the College of Policing Guidelines now stated that an individual should not be named before they are charged, except in “exceptional circumstances”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. In the context of the article which reported on his involvement with the police in Operation Yewtree, and where he had had a successful TV career after leaving the police as outlined in the article, reporting that working in TV was the complainant’s “goal” did not represent a significant inaccuracy in breach of Clause 1. Further, while the complainant believed the article was not balanced, and was biased against him, the Committee noted that the Code does not include a requirement for impartiality. Under the terms of Clause 1 the press is free to editorialise and campaign, so long as publications take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. In this instance the fact that this article did not reference the commendations the complainant had received for his work, did not engage the terms of Clause 1.

Conclusions

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

Remedial Action required

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

The publication had published a correction both promptly and prominently on the online article. It had also promptly offered to publish a correction in its corrections and clarifications column in print. The Committee found that this was sufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1 (ii). The print correction should now be published.

Date complaint received: 13/11/2019

Date decision issued: 10/05/2019


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