Decision of the Complaints Committee -- 09155-19 Brown v thesundaytimes.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Lucy Brown complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the thesundaytimes.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “BBC’s ‘jellyfish’ bosses sting investigative reporting to death. They must go”, published on 24 November 2019.
2. The article was a first-person account of a male BBC reporter who made a documentary for the BBC on a far-right activist. It said that the activist “tricked me, using an ex-member of his cult, Lucy Brown, to play victim” and that “Brown had pulled a similar trick on another BBC reporter who was pregnant. The online abuse got so nasty she mistakenly feared she was having a miscarriage. (Mother and baby are fine.)”
3. The complainant, the alleged ex-member of the activist’s “cult” and person accused of tricking the two reporters, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said that it was inaccurate to describe her as a member of a “cult” as she had acted of her own free will and had even spoken out against the far-right activist. She also said that she had not played any “trick” on the pregnant BBC reporter. She accepted that she had recorded an interview with the female reporter and then released her own edited recordings, because she felt that the version released by the BBC misrepresented her. However, she said that the female reporter and the producer had consented to her recording the interview and had not objected when she said she may publish it later. The complainant also said it was a breach of Clause 1 to report that, “[t]he online abuse got so nasty she mistakenly feared she was having a miscarriage” because she said that this gave the impression that she, the complainant, had asked her followers to abuse the pregnant female reporter with the intent of causing her, or her baby, medical harm.
4. The publication said it did not accept that the article was inaccurate. It said that the far-right activist had a small number of people who intensely supported him, and that the complainant was formerly one of these people. On this basis, it said it was not misleading to describe the complainant as a member of the activist’s “cult”. The publication disputed the complainant’s position that the recording of the BBC interview had been consensual. It said that she had recorded audio of both the first and second interview without the reporters’ knowledge and consent, and then selectively edited the recordings in order to discredit the reporters; for the female reporter in particular, it was a surprise to her when the video was released. It said that a source close to the female reporter confirmed that she felt that she had been “tricked” by the complainant following her interview with her. The publication said that the article did not say that the complainant had any part in the online abuse, or that she was personally responsible for the female reporter’s fear that she would miscarry. It noted that the complainant did not dispute that the female reporter had received online abuse following the release of her recording of the interview, and the complainant was not in a position to know whether the reporter had any fears for her health as a result of the abuse. The publication also noted that a complaint had been made to Cambridgeshire Police in relation to the complainant’s conduct.
5. Upon receiving the complaint from IPSO the publication offered to change the article from “The online abuse got so nasty she mistakenly feared she was having a miscarriage” to “The online abuse got so nasty she feared for the health of her baby”, as a gesture of goodwill. The complainant refused this offer.
Relevant Code Provisions
6. 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
7. The Committee noted that the complainant did not dispute that she was formerly a supporter of the far-right activist and the journalist was entitled to characterise the people near this person as being part of a “cult” where this was clearly his own comment. On this basis the publication had taken care not to publish misleading information under Clause 1(i) and there was no need for a correction to be published.
8. The Committee noted that the article did not detail what the alleged “trick” entailed, only that the complainant had “played the victim” in the first interview, and in the second interview had “played the same trick”. The Committee acknowledged that there was a dispute as to whether the female BBC reporter had consented to the recording and publishing of the interview. However, it was not in dispute that the complainant had released her own recordings of both of the interviews following her dissatisfaction with the way they had been presented by the BBC, to try and garner support for her position and defend herself against criticism; this could reasonably be described as “playing the victim”. Where she had repeated this in relation to the second reporter, there was no failure to take care in reporting that she had “played the same trick”. There was no breach of Clause 1(i), and no significant inaccuracy requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
9. The Committee acknowledge the complaint’s view that the article suggested that she was in some way responsible for the abuse that the female reporter received, however the complainant did not dispute that the female reporter had received online abuse following the release of her recording of the interview, and she was not in a position to dispute whether the reporter feared she was going to have a miscarriage as a result. The article did not accuse the complainant of abusing the female reporter online, or for being responsible for the reporter’s fear that she would miscarry her baby. For this reason, the article was not misleading as the complainant suggested, and there was no breach of Clause 1.
10. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 26/11/2019
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 17/04/2020Back to ruling listing