07968-17 Baker v The Sun on Sunday

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07968-17 Baker v The Sun on Sunday

Summary of complaint

1. Richard Baker complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Ripper’s best pal is rapist”, published on 23 April 2017. 

2. The article reported comments made by a confidential source that the complainant had become friends with another prisoner whilst they were both serving custodial sentences. It reported that the complainant had knocked on his door to introduce himself, and that they had been spending time in each other’s cells. The article also described the complainant as “Britain’s worst serial rapist”, and reported that he had been convicted of sexual offences against twelve women and that he is suspected of attacking one hundred more. It reported that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) did not comment on the matter when it was contacted prior to publication. 

3. The article was published online in substantively the same format. 

4. The complainant said that he was not friends with the other prisoner. He had been into his cell to introduce himself and would sometimes return, but he did not visit the other prisoner regularly. 

5. The complainant said that he is not “Britain’s worst serial rapist”, as other individuals have been convicted of more sexual offences than himself. The complainant also said that he was not suspected of attacking one hundred more women. He said that at the time of his trial in 1999, it was reported that the police had commented that they believed he may have been responsible for one hundred more attacks. The complainant said that he was not questioned by the police in relation to these attacks, but accepted that he had been interviewed by the police in relation to 13 further assaults following his conviction. 

6. The newspaper said that the information was provided to its reporter by a reliable source who had previously provided stories about the other prisoner, and that it had no reason to doubt its veracity. It said that the reporter then telephoned the MOJ, outlining the story in full, who responded by saying that “we don’t comment on individual prisoners”. The newspaper said that a journalistic convention meant that the MOJ would have provided an on the record denial if the claim was inaccurate. As such, the newspaper said that it was sufficient to rely on the MOJ’s silence as supporting the accuracy of the claims. 

7. The newspaper said that it was not misleading to report that the complainant “got pally” with the prisoner, or that they were “best pals” or “chums”. The complainant accepted that he spent time in the other prisoner’s cell and the newspaper said that the circumstances suggest that he has a concern for the other prisoner, tantamount to a friendship, given the complainant's explanation that he had stepped into the other prisoner’s cell in recognition of the problems which the other prisoner suffered with his sight. 

8. The newspaper said that the reference to the complainant as “Britain’s worst serial rapist” was subjective and was justified to describe his crimes, particularly as other reports of the complainant’s trial had described him in similar terms. It said that the information that the complainant was suspected of attacking one hundred more women came from statements made at the time of his trial by the police, and was supported by the fact that, following the complainant's conviction, the police set up a telephone helpline to enable any other victims to contact them. The newspaper also noted a comment made by the complainant’s trial judge that “[the complainant] is the most dangerous man I have ever had the displeasure of trying” and that, at the time of his trial, the police had described the complainant as "one of the most prolific sex offenders this century.” Nevertheless, the newspaper removed the online article. 

Relevant Code Provisions

9. 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

10. A source of stories in relation to the other prisoner had informed the newspaper that he was friends with the complainant. The newspaper then sought to verify this information with the MOJ, which did not deny the allegations. The complainant was being held in prison and could not easily have been contacted for comment and as such, the Committee considered that sufficient care was taken over the accuracy of the claims made about the relationship between the complainant and the other prisoner. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i). 

11. The complainant accepted that he had introduced himself to the other prisoner and that he occasionally went into his cell and spoke to him. The Committee did not consider that it was significantly misleading to characterise this relationship as the complainant and the prisoner being “chums”, “best pals”, or that they “got pally”, particularly in circumstances where the nature of the alleged friendship was explained in the article. Furthermore, given that the complainant accepted that he had visited the other prisoner in his cell, it was not significantly inaccurate to report that they had spent time in each other’s cells. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points. 

12. Although the complainant said that he was not questioned in relation to a further 100 attacks, it was not disputed that, at the time of his trial in 1999, it was reported that the police had said that they believed the complainant may have attacked up to one hundred more women. In the circumstances, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly misleading to report that he “is suspected of attacking one hundred more”, particularly where the article reported this as speculation and not as fact. Furthermore, the newspaper was entitled to characterise the complainant as “Britain’s worst serial rapist”, given the comments made by the trial judge and the police at the time of his conviction and the seriousness of the assaults which had been committed by the complainant against particularly vulnerable victims. The article included details of the complainant’s convictions, and the Committee did not consider that the article was significantly misleading in employing this characterisation. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points. 

Conclusion

13. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

14. N/A

Date complaint received: 16/05/2017

Date decision issued: 15/09/2017

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