Decision of the Complaints Committee – 12352-20 Hewitt v chroniclelive.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Steven Jon Hewitt complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that chroniclelive.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Byker stalker jailed after threatening to burn down woman's home while she was inside”, published on 14 January 2020.
2. The article reported on the court case of a man who had “been jailed after he sent his victim lewd texts, hid in the bushes outside her home and threatened to burn her building down”, and that “after he appeared on the doorstep of [his victim’s] flat block, pressed the buzzer and then hid in some nearby bushes.” It also reported that in court he admitted “to rooting through her handbag while she wasn’t looking and finding a bill with her address on”. It also described the man as an “obsessive stalker”.
3. The complainant, the defendant in the article, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as he had not admitted to going through the complainant’s handbag in court. He also said that the judge had accepted he had not hid in the bushes, and noted that online maps showed that there were not any bushes outside of the house. He said that the newspaper was inaccurate to call him “obsessive” as this was a psychological evaluation it could not substantiate.
4. The publication said that it had based its article on a press release published by the police, and that this stated that the complainant had admitted “to rooting through [his victim’s] handbag” and hiding in bushes. Upon receipt of the complaint, the publication contacted the police, who amended the press release removing the reference to rooting through his victim’s handbag. The publication amended the article to report that the complainant “found her address on a piece of paper” and added the following as a footnote correction:
A previous version of this article stated that Hewitt 'admitted rooting through her handbag while she wasn't looking and finding a bill with her address on'. This information was based on a Police press release. The press release has since been amended to remove reference to this, as Steven Jon Hewitt has advised that he did not 'admit' to doing this. We are happy to amend the article to reflect this.
5. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1(i) as it said it was reasonable for the publication to rely on the original press release from the police. It said that the correction published satisfied its obligations under Clause 1(ii).
6. The publication noted that the police had not made an amendment to the point about the complainant hiding in the bushes outside of his victim’s house when challenged, and therefore it was not a breach of Clause 1 to include this. It also said that the term “obsessive” was frequently used by newspapers, and was not an inaccurate characterisation of the complainant’s actions.
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.
Findings of the Committee
7. The newspaper had accepted that it was inaccurate to report that the complainant had rooted through his victim’s handbag. However, it had relied on a press release supplied by the police. The publication was entitled to rely on the press release and by doing so had taken care not to publish inaccurate information. Therefore, there was no breach of Clause 1(i) on this point. However, whilst police press releases carry qualified privilege, they do not carry a guarantee of accuracy and corrections should be noted, and where significant, replicated by the newspaper. When the publication was alerted to the significant inaccuracy in the press release, it had an obligation to publish a correction. The correction was added to the article as a footnote on receipt of the police confirming the inaccuracy, which represented due promptness. As a footnote to the article, this was also duly prominent and put the correct position on the record. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).
8. The police press release had been reviewed and amended to remove one of the statements in dispute, but had not deleted the reference to the complainant hiding in the bushes. The Committee acknowledged that it was contested by the complainant as to whether he had done this. However, where the complainant did not dispute that his conviction of a stalking offence had been reported accurately it was not considered significant as to whether the complainant had hid in bushes. Additionally, the term “obsessive” was considered to be a description of the complainant’s crime of stalking, and the Committee did not find this characterisation to be significantly inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
9. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
10. The published correction put the correct position on record and was offered promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required.
Date complaint received: 05/10/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 29/04/2021Back to ruling listing