08138-19/08755-19 Allison/North Ayrshire Council v Irvine Times

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 08138-19/08755-19 Allison/North Ayrshire Council v Irvine Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Gail Allison, represented by the North Ayrshire Council, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Irvine Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Man’s life ‘ruined’ after NAC staff accused him of stalking”, published on 15 October 2019.

2. The article was a first-person account by a man who had faced charges under sections 38 and 39 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 and who “claim[ed] his life has been ruined after North Ayrshire Council employees accused him of stalking”. It focussed on this man’s feelings after being accused of stalking, and what had happened in his personal life. The article detailed that the man “spent three weeks in prison… after being accused of stalking two former colleagues”, and included a quote from him in which he stated that he had lost everything because of “this” and had “spent three weeks on remand in prison” as well as losing his home, car and being sacked from his job at the Council. The article reported that “a Sheriff dramatically threw out all the stalking charges” and that he had then been “found guilty of a much lesser breach of the peace charge” after “posting an offensive message… on his social media page” about one of the women who had accused him of stalking. It included several quotations from the man about his experience, including him saying that he felt that he was “the one who was victimised here” and that, after all but one of the charges against him were dropped, that those who made the allegations against him should face “justice”. The article also detailed the penalties the man faced as a result of the accusations: he was “fined £100 and ordered to pay the woman £500 compensation for the offensive Facebook post and ordered not to contact her”.

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format headlined “Man’s life ‘ruined’ after council staff accused him of stalking”, published on 18 October 2019.

4. The complainant was one of the women who the man was accused of stalking. During IPSO’s investigation, she was represented by her employer, North Ayrshire Council. She said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said that the man had gone to prison because he had breached his bail conditions; the breach of bail was a separate matter to the stalking charges. She said that the article was misleading as it implied a causal link between the stalking charges and the man’s time in prison.  She also said it was misleading to report that all the stalking charges against him had been thrown out as the charge he was convicted of related to conduct that the complainant considered to be stalking and harassment. The complainant also said it was misleading to characterise the section 38 breach of the peace charge for which the man was found guilty as a “much lesser” charge than the section 39 charge of stalking he had been accused of. She said that the conviction was still very serious, and the social media activity which was the basis for the conviction involved serious threats. The complainant also stated that he had been charged with repeated offences, but was eventually found guilty in respect of one single occasion.

5. The complainant also said that the man had not been sacked by the council, but had resigned, and that his job title was reported inaccurately. However, she did not say what his job title was. She also disputed that he had been victimised and that nothing had happened to his accusers. She also said that the article was unbalanced, as it portrayed the man as having his life ruined without demonstrating the seriousness of his offences. Finally, she said that the article was misleading as it did not include the fact that the man was also now banned by the court from entering Council premises for 3 years and was required to attend a number of programs.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the article was not a detailed law report of the court case, but the man’s first-hand account of his experience. It said that the man was entitled to talk about his experiences, and the article was clearly presented as his account, rather than as a court report. Whilst the complainant may disagree with the man’s views, that did not mean they could not be published or that the article was inaccurate. It also said that the complainant was wrong to suggest there was not a connection between the man’s time in prison and the stalking allegations as if he had not been charged with stalking, he would not have had bail imposed upon him which he then went on to breach. The publication said that it was not misleading to report that all stalking charges had been thrown out where he had originally been charged with nine incidents under section 39 but was only convicted of one offence under section 38 (breach of the peace). Furthermore, the publication also said it was not misleading to describe the section 38 charge as being “much lesser” than the section 39 charge and noted that the man’s own solicitor had said that he had been convicted on “a much reduced charge”. It said the seriousness of a section 39 or section 38 charge would depend on the conduct, however the maximum penalty for a section 38 charge was five years in prison on indictment or a year on remand.  As the man received a fine and all the charges under section 39 were dropped, the publication said that this was further evidence that the court convicted him of a less serious charge.

7. The publication said that it was not misleading to report that the man had been sacked. Prior to publication it had contacted the Council, who had sent an email asking if the main issue was “That we were wrong to sack him?” The publication did not consider any inaccuracy in the reporting of the man’s job title to be significant to the overall article. However, it did offer to correct both the man’s job title and the reason for dismissal if the complainant was able to provide the material showing the correct position. It said that the article had also included several of the penalties the man was subject to and that other penalties, including the requirement that he attend a number of programs, were sanctions from the breach of bail, rather than the section 38 conviction; the article made clear that it was referring to penalties imposed “for the Facebook post”. It said that the only detail it had not included from the section 38 conviction was that his restraining order also applied to council properties, but this was not significantly misleading as to the overall article. Finally, the publication said that it had put the man’s comments on his experience to the Council prior to publication, including his view that he spent 3 weeks in prison “over the charges which were thrown out” and the Council had declined to provide any comment or rebuttal.

Relevant Code Provisions

8. 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

9. The article was a subjective first-hand account of the man’s experience of the criminal justice system, which the newspaper was entitled to publish, provided it took care to avoid inaccuracy in line with its obligations under the terms of Clause 1. Notwithstanding this, the Committee acknowledged that the article had caused the complainant distress, and reported on matters which were also deeply personal to her.   

10. The Committee noted the complainant’s concerns that the article had not specified that the man had gone to prison for three weeks because he had breached his bail conditions, rather than being sentenced to prison as a result of the allegations of stalking. However, the article did not report that the time spent in prison was directly as a result of the allegations. It set out the man’s account of what had happened after the allegations against him had been made and included a quote from him in which he said that he had been on remand in prison “because of this”. The article accurately reported the offences for which the man had been convicted and the penalties he had received for those offences. Where the time the man spent in prison was part of a chain of events which followed the allegations being made, it was not misleading to report that he had spent three weeks in prison after the allegations against him had been made, or to include a quote from the man in which he expressed the view that his imprisonment had occurred “because of this”. On this basis there was no failure to take care under Clause 1(i) on this point, and no significant inaccuracy as to require correction under Clause (ii).

11. The charge the man faced under section 39 of the 2010 Act (Offence of stalking) involved 9 incidents and the charge he faced under section 38 (Threatening or abusive behaviour) involved one incident. It was not in dispute that the man was convicted under section 38 and not under section 39. Where he had been convicted of an offence only under section 38, it was not inaccurate for the article to report that the stalking charges against him had been thrown out. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. The article had also referred to the complainant as being convicted of a “much lesser” breach of the peace charge after all the stalking charges had been thrown out by the Sheriff. In circumstances where the man was acquitted of the charge under section 39 which involved multiple incidents and was convicted under section 38 in relation to a single incident, it was not significantly misleading to report that the man had been convicted of a “much lesser” breach of the peace charge. There was no failure to take care on this point, and no breach of Clause 1.

12. The complainant had said that the man had not been fired from his job, but that he had resigned. The publication had relied on an email sent by a council employee which had suggested that they had ended the man's employment. On this basis there was no failure to take care under Clause 1(i), and the complainant had not provided any evidence to suggest that the information contained in the email was inaccurate. In addition, the complainant had said that the man’s job title had been reported inaccurately, but without indicating his correct title.  As it was not in dispute that the man had previously been employed by the Council, and without evidence of the man’s job title, the Committee did not find a breach of Clause 1 on this point. The publication had offered to publish a clarification on each of these points if it was demonstrated that they were inaccurate, which the Committee welcomed.

13. The complainant had said that the article had made the man out to be the victim and lacked balance. Under the Editors’ Code, articles do not need to be balanced, as long as publications take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. Therefore there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

14. Finally, the article had reported that the man was fined £100 and ordered to pay the woman £500 compensation for the offensive Facebook post and ordered not to contact her. The article made clear that these penalties related to the offensive Facebook post only, and where the article had also reported that he was subject to restrictions which precluded the man from contacting the complainant, it was not significantly misleading to omit to report that the restraining order to which the man was subject also covered council properties. On this basis, there was no failure to take care under Clause 1(i) and no significant inaccuracy requiring correction under Clause 1(ii).

Conclusions

15. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

15. N/A

 

Date complaint received: 15/10/19

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 21/10/20

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