Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11209-21 Watson v Sunday Mail
Summary of Complaint
1. Jennifer Watson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Sunday Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Cord-row lawyer dies weeks before new rip-off probe”, published on 7th November 2021.
2. The print article, which appeared on page 19, reported that a lawyer who was due to face a disciplinary hearing on serious professional misconduct charges had died; it said that “[a] lawyer who was facing a second complaint of ripping off a family has been found dead”. It described the accusations the lawyer had been facing: “He was accused of withholding tens of thousands of pounds due to an elderly client from her late husband’s will and overcharging her by thousands more”. The article went on to say that he was due to appear before a Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal (SSDT), but that “the case ha[d] been dropped after Smith Watson died suddenly in Lochgilphead, Argyll – where he had been working – on October 17”. It stated that the individual who complained about the lawyer had complained to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) and an investigation was launched by the Law Society of Scotland. It said that “[t]he estate was finally settled in September 2018 when she got a five-figure payment”.
3. The article also appeared online under the headline “Shamed Scots lawyer accused of fleecing OAP found dead just weeks before misconduct hearing”, which was published on 7th November 2021 in substantially the same format.
4. The complainant, the daughter of the lawyer, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as her father had not been found dead; he had been taken to a local hospital and died there. To support her position, the complainant provided her father’s death certificate, which showed the location of his death as being a local hospital. The complainant also said that the use of the phrase “found dead” inaccurately implied that her father had died by suicide before the disciplinary hearing to avoid sanction. The complainant said that the article was further inaccurate as she considered the wording of it misrepresented the findings of the SLCC; she said that if he had been accused of scamming or defrauding anyone the SLCC would have struck him off.
5. The complainant also considered that there had been a breach of Clause 4 as the publication of the article occurred one week after her father’s funeral. She also said that the implication that her father had taken his own life before the disciplinary hearing caused her and her family much upset and distress and had led to queries about the nature of his death which she considered upsetting.
6. The publication did not accept that the Code had been breached, though it expressed its regret and apologised to the complainant for any distress caused. It did not accept that the article gave the misleading impression that the complainant’s father had taken his own life. In addition, it said that the article made clear that the man had “died suddenly in Lochgilphead, Argyll – where he had been working”.
7. The complaint was passed to the publication on 3rd December 2021 and during direct correspondence with the complainant the publication offered to remove all references to her father being “found dead”. This was actioned on 1st February during IPSO’s investigation; the publication amended the online article and the headline to remove any reference to the complainant’s father being “found dead” and published the following footnote correction on the same date:
“A previous version of this article reported that Ian Smith Watson was 'found dead'. We would like to apologise for any upset caused, and would like to clarify that the reference to Mr Watson dying suddenly in Lochgilphead referred to him passing at a community hospital in Lochgilphead, where he had also been working previously.”
In addition, the publication also published the following correction in print in its established clarifications and corrections column. This was published on the 30th January 2022:
“On November last year, we reported that lawyer Ian Smith Watson was ‘found dead’. We would like to clarify the reference to Mr Watson dying suddenly in Lochgilphead referred to him passing at a community hospital in Lochgilphead, where he had also been working previously. We apologise for any upset caused.“
8. In regard to the complainant’s concerns that the article misrepresented the findings of the SLCC, the publication said that the article did not state that he was found guilty, and instead reported that he was facing a complaint, information which was in the public domain. The publication also highlighted that the article made no reference to the SSDT finding the lawyer guilty of the most recent allegation and made no reference to “scamming”.
9. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 4; it said that it was sorry for any distress caused by the article but considered that the lawyer’s death had been reported sensitively.
Relevant Code Provisions
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.
Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)
In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.
Findings of the Committee
10. The Committee first wished to express its sincere condolences to the complainant and her family for the loss of her father.
11. The newspaper had stated as fact that the complainant’s father had been “found dead”, whereas he had been taken to a local hospital and died there. During the investigation, the publication had not set out what steps it had taken to ensure that care was taken in regard to this inaccuracy. It was the Committee’s view that, as there appeared to be no basis for the claim, the publication had failed to take sufficient care not to publish inaccurate information and found that there had been a breach of Clause 1 (i).
12. As the inaccuracy related to the circumstances surrounding the man’s death and where specifically he had died, it was the Committee’s view that this was a significant inaccuracy, and therefore the newspaper was obliged, in accordance with the terms of Clause 1(ii), to correct this promptly and with due prominence.
13. The Committee then turned to the question of whether the action undertaken by the publication was sufficient to avoid a further breach of Clause 1 (ii). During direct correspondence with the complainant on the 4 January, the publication had offered to remove the reference to the complainant’s father being “found dead” from the online article. The newspaper had amended the online article and published a footnote correction and apology on the 1 February; this was during the early stages of the investigation, which the Committee considered sufficiently prompt. The correction identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record, and had also contained an apology, which the Committee considered appropriate in the circumstances. While the inaccuracy had appeared in the headline of the online article, the Committee considered the footnote correction was sufficiently prominent, where the headline had also been amended and the original inaccuracy removed. There was no further breach of Clause 1(ii) on this point.
14. In relation to the print article, the publication had published a correction in print in its established clarifications and corrections column on the 30th January. The publication’s complaints team had discovered that the article was also published in print on 28th January, and so the correction was sufficiently prompt. The correction identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record, and also contained an apology. The print correction had appeared on page 2 of the newspaper, which the Committee considered sufficiently prominent, in circumstances where the original print article appeared on page 19. As such, the Committee considered the action taken was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii).
15. The complainant had also expressed concerns that the phrase “found dead” had inaccurately implied her father had died by suicide. While the Committee acknowledged that it would have been distressing for the complainant and her family to have been questioned by people about the circumstances of her father’s death, it did not consider that the article implied that her father had taken his own life. The article had made no reference to suicide and had only stated that he had been “found dead” and “died suddenly”; it does not follow that an individual who has been found dead or who has died suddenly must have died by suicide. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
16. The Committee next turned to the complainant’s concerns that the article had misrepresented the findings of the SLCC; she said if her father had been accused of scamming or defrauding anyone he would have been struck off. The online headline stated that the lawyer had been “accused of fleecing [an] OAP”, and the Committee noted that the article stated that he had been due to appear before a SSDT on “serious professional misconduct charges”, but that this case had been dropped due to his death. The article also stated that the individual had complained to the SLCC and that an investigation had been launched, and the estate settled. The article had not stated that he had been found guilty of professional misconduct. The Committee further noted that the article did not claim that the SSDT had made findings on the case. Where the article had made clear what accusations had been made against him, and that the case had been dropped before he appeared at his SSDT, the Committee did not consider the article was inaccurate or misleading on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.
17. Clause 4 requires that publication is handled sensitively in cases involving grief or shock and that enquiries and approaches are made with sympathy and discretion. Although reporting on the death of family members can be very upsetting to family and friends, deaths affect whole communities and the obligation to handle publication sensitively does not restrict the right to report on deaths. The Committee did not consider the article reported on the death in a way that was insensitive; it reported that the complainant’s father had been “found dead” and had “died suddenly” in the context of an article that focused on the allegations that had been made against him, which were a matter of public record and public interest. The Committee also noted that the publication had apologised for any distress and upset caused. While the Committee had found it was significantly inaccurate to state that the complainant’s father had been found dead, inaccurate information regarding these circumstances did not amount to insensitive publication that constituted an intrusion into the complainant’s grief and shock. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that it had been insensitive to publish the article only a week after her father’s funeral; however, it considered the publication of the article was handled sensitively within the meaning of Clause 4. There was no breach of this Clause.
18. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1.
Remedial Action Required
published corrections put the correct position on record and were offered
promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required.
Date complaint received: 09/11/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 23/05/2022Back to ruling listing