Decision of the Complaints Committee 08363-16 The Christian Gospel Mission (Australia) v Mirror.co.uk
Summary of complaint
1. The Christian Gospel Mission (Australia) complained that Mirror.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Korean ‘sex cult’ plucking girls off street to be ‘spiritual brides’ for rapist who claims to be Messiah”, published on 20 May 2016.
2. The article reported that the Christian Gospel Mission, which the newspaper referred to as Jesus Morning Star and a Korean “cult”, was allegedly “recruiting” young girls and brainwashing them into “sexual devotion” towards its leader, Jung Myung-seok, who was serving a ten-year prison sentence for rape. It said that “attractive recruits” were said to be “delivered” to Mr Jung in prison and were encouraged to write him letters. It reported that one alleged victim had said that she had regularly received letters from Mr Jung, which were “laced with sexual comments”. The article said that her account had previously been supported by other anonymous alleged victims who had said they had been pressurised into dressing up for Mr Jung and were taught that having sex with him would “purify” them. Another alleged victim reportedly claimed that Mr Jung had asked her to send a photograph of herself wearing a bikini and makeup. The piece stated that Peter Daley, a university lecturer, had spent years researching the church and had said that the church was “dangerous beyond assaults from the leader. The sleep deprivation and stress caused when members cut ties with their family is incredibly damaging”. The article concluded by saying that the newspaper had contacted the church for comment, and that it had previously denied being a cult or teaching that its leader was the Messiah.
3. The complainant said that the article had included numerous accusations about its practices which it denied. It said that the article had misleadingly suggested that the Christian Gospel Mission “recruits” young women. It said that the church did not “recruit” members; the church was introduced to the public, both men and women were welcome to attend and were free to leave. It also denied that girls had been brainwashed into “sexual devotion” towards Mr Jung, and were “delivered” to him in prison. It said that men and women could request to visit Mr Jung and were free to write him letters if they wished. It said that Mr Jung had not sent letters that were “laced with sexual comments”; his letters were written in Korean and read out orally to recipients by a translator; the translator had denied reading the statements to the alleged victim. The complainant also denied that any member of the church had been “encouraged” to send Mr Jung a photograph of themselves wearing a bikini or heavy makeup.
4. The complainant said that the allegation that people had been pressurised into dressing up for Mr Jung and were encouraged to have sex with him was also untrue. It considered that these allegations had been orchestrated by men seeking to harm Mr Jung or for personal gain. It argued that the assertion could not be true because many of its members were male. It considered that the journalist had made no enquiries to verify the statement.
5. The complainant said that Peter Daley was not an expert on the church and denied the claims he had made about its practices, including that its members were sleep deprived and encouraged to cut family ties. It said that more than half the church was made up of families.
6. The complainant said that the newspaper had not contacted it for comment, as reported.
7. The newspaper noted that the complainant had not denied that Mr Jung was currently serving a ten-year prison sentence for rape. It considered that it was legitimate to report the current claims that had been made against him, which had been set out as allegations in accordance with the Code.
8. The newspaper said that its reporter had believed he had contacted the complainant for comment before publication, and had received a bounce-back message. However, during correspondence with the complainant, it became apparent that the reporter had contacted the wrong church. The newspaper did not consider that this represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article.
9. The newspaper did not consider that the omission of the church’s denial from the article was significantly misleading. It said that the current allegations about the church “pale into insignificance” when compared to the crimes for which Mr Jung had been convicted. The newspaper considered that the appropriate course of action was to add the following line to the article:
The Christian Gospel Mission denies recruiting women and delivering them to Jung Myung-seok in jail for sex. The CGM also refutes Elizabeth's claims and maintains that there is no record of the letters she claims to have received from Jung Myung-seok.
10. The complainant did not consider that the suggested wording met the Code’s requirement to provide a fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies. It said that it did address all the unfair allegations in the article.
Relevant Code provisions
11. 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
12. The newspaper had taken care to clearly set out the allegations made in the article as claims, by describing them as “claims” and “allegations”, and by attributing the statements to specific individuals. The newspaper was entitled to report the individuals’ accounts; the article had not given the significantly misleading impression that their claims had been proven.
13. The newspaper had not taken adequate steps to secure comment from the complainant before publication. However, the leader of the church was serving a ten-year prison sentence for rape. The article had also accurately stated that the church had previously denied that it was a cult and that its leader was the Messiah. In these circumstances, the omission of the complainant’s denial of the specific claims made in the article, which had been clearly set out as such, was not significantly misleading. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i).
14. The Committee did not identify any significant inaccuracies or misleading statements which required correction under Clause 1(ii) or an opportunity to reply under Clause 1 (iii). Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to add the complainant’s denial to the article.
15. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 11/09/2016
Date decision issued: 04/01/2017