13548-17 A man v The Belfast Telegraph

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 13548-17 A man v The Belfast Telegraph

Summary of complaint

1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Belfast Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “I felt sorry for my ex when we split. Now I live in constant fear and carry alarms because he stalked me in revenge”, published online on 21 June 2016.

2. The article reported on claims made by a named woman in an interview she had given to the newspaper; it said that after “years of being harassed by an obsessed former boyfriend”, she was now campaigning for the law to be changed to protect victims. The article reported the woman’s criticism of the current law in Northern Ireland relating to stalking offences, and her argument that it needed to be changed to protect victims, alleging that the current law resulted in “few criminal convictions”.

3. The article said that as a result of her experiences with her former partner, and her campaign for legislative change, she had launched an online support group for victims of stalking and had shared her experiences with Northern Irish politicians, “in the hope of getting new measures, including a register of stalkers and a register of domestic abusers, put in place to support victims”.

4. The woman had claimed that her former partner, who was not named in the article, had threatened to shoot her in 2012, followed her to work, chased her while she had been in her car, as well as stalked her and her friends. In addition to detailing these allegations, the article said that in March, she had “finally succeeded in obtaining a court order to prevent her tormentor from approaching her” and had “secured a full order against him”.

5. The complainant, the woman’s former partner, said that she had not obtained a court order against him: he had signed an undertaking which was not an acceptance of guilt of the allegations which she had made against him.

6. He said that the claims made by his former partner were inaccurate: he had not stalked, harassed or threatened to shoot her. He said that the newspaper had no evidence, other than her testimony, to support the veracity of her claims. He said that while the article had not identified him, by identifying the woman and publishing her photograph, he had been identified through his previous association with her. In doing so, and publishing allegations which related to him, the complainant said that the article had intruded into his privacy.

7. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the article was based on the testimony of a woman who had a right to tell her story, which was on a subject which was a matter of public interest. It said that the woman’s campaign for legislative changes in Northern Ireland had gained significant support from Members of the Northern Irish Legislative Assembly (MLA): her experiences had formed part of one MLA’s address to the Assembly, who had sought all-party approval for legislation to make stalking a specific crime. The newspaper said that the woman’s story had also been covered in other media organisations and she was in discussions with legal authorities about amending the law to protect stalking victims.

8. The newspaper also provided a number of documents, which it said supported the woman’s testimony. These included letters which had been sent on the woman’s behalf by her local MLA, which detailed the woman’s attempts at “raising awareness of the issue of stalking in Northern Ireland”, as well as a document detailing the number of incidents which the woman had reported to the police. The newspaper also provided screenshots of posts which the complainant had posted on his Facebook profile, which the newspaper said related to his former partner, as well as emails which he had sent to her.

9. The newspaper said that it had not contacted the complainant prior to publication because it was concerned that any contact with him may have jeopardised the woman’s safety and welfare. The newspaper declined to provide the reporter’s notes from the interview which the woman had given to the newspaper.

10. During IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper provided a copy of the court-approved undertaking, signed by the complainant and his former partner, which had been provided to the newspaper by the woman. The newspaper said it did not have this document in its possession prior to publication. The document detailed undertakings given by the complainant in relation to his future conduct towards the woman. It also contained a clause which stated: “this undertaking is offered by the Defendant and accepted by the Plaintiff on the express understanding that there are no admissions to any allegations as set out in the Plaintiff’s affidavit”. The newspaper said that the journalist had discussed this document in detail with the woman at interview; she had said that, on advice from her Counsel, she had agreed to accept undertakings from the complainant rather than pursuing her application for an injunction.

11. The newspaper did not accept that the article had contained private information about the complainant, and noted that the article had not identified him by name.

Relevant Code Provisions

12. 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 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications. 

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The public interest

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.

Protecting public health or safety.

Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.

Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.

Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.

Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will or will become so.

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.

Findings of the Committee

13. The woman whose story had formed the subject of the article had been campaigning for a number of years for changes to the law on stalking in Northern Ireland. She had been the subject of widespread media coverage in which she had set out the concerns she had about the complainant’s conduct, and which had been taken up by Members of the Northern Irish Legislative Assembly. The article under complaint formed part of that narrative.

14. Following the breakdown of their relationship, the complainant and the woman- his former partner- had been engaged in a long running and bitter dispute in which both parties had made claims about the other’s conduct; some of which amounted to allegations of serious criminal conduct. The Committee wished to emphasise that it was not in a position to make findings of fact in relation to what had transpired between the complainant and his former partner. Nothing in the Committee’s decision should be taken as a finding about the truth of the claims made by the parties. The primary question for the Committee was whether the newspaper had taken care to publish an accurate account of the claims which had been made by the woman at interview, and had done so in a way that was not misleading.

15. The article contained a number of serious allegations relating to the complainant’s conduct. While many of these claims were attributed directly to the woman, the newspaper had adopted her position; as a consequence, the newspaper had reported, as fact, that the complainant had harassed and stalked the woman since 2012. While the complainant had not been named, his former partner had been. In addition, she had made detailed references to a past relationship, its subsequent breakdown, and the conduct of her former partner which had followed: given these specific details, it was foreseeable that the complainant was identifiable through his known association with her.

16. The complainant had not been given the opportunity to deny the allegations which had been made against him, or have his denial recorded in the article. The newspaper had made no attempt to contact him for comment, nor had it sought to obtain corroborating evidence to support the woman’s serious claims. Given the nature of the allegations which the article contained, it was understandable that the newspaper wished to consider the woman’s welfare; however, where she had consented to being clearly identified in the article, the Committee did not consider that the newspaper had provided a sufficient justification for its failure to seek comment from the complainant. The Committee also recognised that by publishing material which so clearly related to another person’s conduct, the article contained the implicit suggestion that these were claims which represented only one side of a complex story. However, where the allegations which had been made were so exceptionally serious, and related to the conduct of an individual who was identifiable, greater care was required to ensure that the presentation of the material was not misleading. In such circumstances, the failure to put the allegations to the complainant, the resulting omission of his denial in the article and the overall manner in which the claims were presented created the significantly misleading impression that his former partner’s claims were undisputed fact in breach of Clause 1 (i).

17. The article had reported that the complainant’s former partner had “secured a full order against him” in March 2016; this had been presented in the article as fact, rather than distinguished as one of the woman’s allegations. In those circumstances, the Committee considered the steps which the newspaper had taken to establish the accuracy of this factual claim.

18. The newspaper had not asked to see the document, referred to as a “court order” in the article, prior to publication. During the course of IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper obtained the order from the woman: this document showed that the undertakings which had been given by the complainant had been made on the express understanding that there were no admissions to any allegations which had been made against him. This document also showed clearly that there had been no judicial finding in relation to the allegations which the complainant’s former partner had made.

19. While it was accurate to describe the document as an order, reporting that it had been obtained against the complainant, rather than that the undertakings had been provided by him voluntarily to the court, created the impression that there had been a finding by the court about the complainant’s conduct. The full position had not been made clear in the article by, for example, including an explanation of the basis upon which the order had been made. It appeared from the newspaper’s submissions during IPSO’s investigation that the woman had discussed this document in detail with the journalist at interview and had specifically made reference to the fact that undertakings had been given by the complaint, in contrast to an injunction having been granted by the Court. Further, there was no indication that the newspaper would have been unable to obtain a copy of the document from the woman, prior to publication, so as to satisfy itself of the circumstances in which the order had been made. The article’s presentation of this document in a way which suggested a judicial finding had been made, particularly where its terms had been explained to the newspaper at interview, and was available to them upon request, represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1 (i)

20. The Committee then turned to consider the complaint under Clause 2. The article had reported the testimony of the woman who had detailed, at length, an account of her experiences with a former partner. The woman had been entitled to tell her story, and by doing so, the Committee did not consider that the article disclosed information about which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy, particularly given that he had not been named. In any case, the Committee considered that there existed a clear public interest in reporting on the woman’s claims, particularly given her concern at the difficulty in obtaining legal redress for stalking offences in Northern Ireland. There was no breach of Clause 2.

21. The Committee expressed significant concern that the newspaper had not responded to the complainant during the referral period and had not provided sufficient justification for its failure to do so. The Committee also noted that there had been several delays, on the part of the newspaper, to provide a response to the complaint during IPSO’s investigation. Given the newspaper’s failure to correspond directly with the complainant and the delays to the process, the newspaper’s conduct during IPSO’s investigation was unacceptable. IPSO will consider separately what further action is appropriate to address what appear to be serious concerns.

Conclusion

22. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

23. The newspaper had breached Clause 1 (i) and had not complied with its obligation to correct under Clause 1 (ii). The appropriate remedial action was therefore the publication of an adjudication.

24. The Committee required the newspaper to publish the adjudication on its website, with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing on the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against The Belfast Telegraph, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance.

25. If the newspaper intends to continue to publish the article without amendment, the full text of the adjudication should also be published on the article, beneath the headline. If the newspaper intends to amend the article, a link to the adjudication should be published on the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication, and noting the amendments made. The newspaper should contact IPSO to confirm the amendments it intends to make to avoid the continued publication of material in breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

26. The text of the adjudication to be published is as follows:

Following publication of an article of headlined “I felt sorry for my ex when we split. Now I live in constant fear and carry alarms because he stalked me in revenge”, published online on 21 June 2016, a man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Belfast Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required The Belfast Telegraph to publish this adjudication.

The article reported on claims made by a named woman in an interview she had given to the newspaper; it said that after “years of being harassed by an obsessed former boyfriend”, she was now campaigning for the law to be changed to protect victims. It said that in March 2016, she had secured a full order against her former partner.

The complainant said that the claims made by his former partner were inaccurate: he had not stalked, harassed or threatened to shoot her. He also said that she had not obtained a court order against him: he had signed an undertaking which was not an acceptance of guilt of the allegations which she had made against him.

The newspaper said that the article was based on the testimony of a woman who had a right to tell her story, which was on a subject which was a matter of public interest. It said that the woman’s campaign for legislative changes in Northern Ireland had gained significant support from Members of the Northern Irish Legislative Assembly.

Nothing in the Committee’s decision should be taken as a finding about the truth of the claims made by the parties. The primary question for the Committee was whether the newspaper had taken care to publish an accurate account of the claims which had been made by the woman at interview, and had done so in a way that was not misleading.

The complainant had not been given the opportunity to deny the allegations which had been made against him, or have this recorded in the article. The newspaper had made no attempt to contact him for comment, nor had it sought to obtain corroborating evidence to support the woman’s serious claims. The failure to put the allegations to the complainant, the resulting  omission of his denial in the article and the overall manner in which the claims were presented created the significantly misleading impression that his former partner’s claims were undisputed fact.

The article had reported that the complainant’s former partner had “secured a full order against him” in March 2016. While it was accurate to describe the document as an order, reporting that it had been obtained against the complainant, rather than that the undertakings had been provided by him voluntarily to the court, created the impression that there had been a finding by the court about the complainant’s conduct. The full position had not been made clear in the article by, for example, including an explanation of the basis upon which the order had been made. The article’s presentation of this document in a way which suggested a judicial finding had been made, particularly where its terms had been explained to the newspaper at interview, and was available to them upon request, represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. The complaint was therefore upheld as a breach of Clause 1.

The Committee expressed significant concern that the newspaper had not responded to the complainant during the referral period and had not provided sufficient justification for its failure to do so. The Committee also noted that there had been several delays, on the part of the newspaper, to provide a response to the complaint during IPSO’s investigation. Given the newspaper’s failure to correspond directly with the complainant and the delays to the process, the newspaper’s conduct during IPSO’s investigation was unacceptable. IPSO will consider separately what further action is appropriate to address what appear to be serious concerns.

Date complaint received: 08/06/2017
Date decision issued: 01/12/2017

 

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