Decision of the Complaints Committee – 14278-23 Booley v express.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Michael Booley complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that ecpress.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Another Prince Harry story in Spare debunked as it's labelled 'complete fantasy'”, published on 22 January 2023.
2. The article, which appeared online only, reported on comments the complainant had made regarding his experience accompanying the Duke of Sussex on a flight training exercise, which the Duke had subsequently described in his autobiography. It said that the complainant had “dismissed the Duke’s tale”, and included the following quotation from the complainant: “Whilst the book compliments me, the recollection of the sorties and lessons is inaccurate, I’m afraid.” It also reported that the complainant “told [another publication]: ‘I am staggered by this. In shock even.’”
3. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1, and denied that he had said that the Duke’s account of the incident was a “complete fantasy”. He also said that the article had presented his statement that he was “staggered by this […] In shock even” in an inaccurate and misleading manner. He said the article presented his shock as being due to the alleged inaccuracies in Prince Harry’s story – whereas in reality, he was in shock at being mentioned, and complimented, in the autobiography.
4. The complainant also said that the article inaccurately suggested that he believed the alleged inaccuracies in the autobiography were due to the Duke. The complainant said he actually believed these inaccuracies were due to the autobiography being ghostwritten. He also said that the conversation which formed the basis of the article was extensive and that the publication had cherry-picked parts of it in a way that breached the terms of Clause 1.
5. The complainant also said that Clause 2 and Clause 10 may have been breached, as he had heard strange noises on his iPad and telephone around the time of the article’s publication. He therefore thought someone was listening into his calls, though he did not specifically say that the publication had caused these noises or were listening in to his calls. He further said that another journalist had passed a conversation with him to the publication, which he considered to be a breach of his privacy.
6. During IPSO’s investigation, the complainant provided IPSO with the messages between the complainant and a reporter at another publication which acted as a basis for the article under complaint. The reporter had, during the conversation, sent the complainant a list of quotes he said he wanted to include in the article. This included the following:
“I am staggered by this. In shock even. Whilst the book compliments me, the recollection of the sorties and lessons is inaccurate I’m afraid”.
7. The publication accepted that the complainant had not described the autobiography’s description of events as a “complete fantasy”. It said that another publication had used the word “fantasy” in its reporting – with an article headline describing the anecdote as a “flight of fantasy” – and it had incorrectly presented this as a quote from the complainant in its headline.
8. Six days after being passed the complaint by IPSO, it amended the headline so it instead read: “Prince Harry story in Spare addressed by his army instructor”. It also added the following correction to the top of the article on the same date:
“A previous version of this article reported that Sergeant Major Michael Booley stated that the version of events published in Prince Harry's 'Spare' was a 'complete fantasy'. In fact, Booley has never made any reference to this version of events as being 'fantasy', but believed the reference to flying sorties was 'dramatised' and disputed the accuracy of some other accounts in the book. We are happy to clarify this and apologise for the error.”
9. Turning to the question of whether the publication had presented the complainant’s comment that he was “in shock [….] staggered even” in a misleading manner, the publication noted that the complainant didn’t dispute having said this. It also noted that the complainant had sight of the context in which the publication planned to use this quote prior to publication, and raised no objections at the time. Notwithstanding this, three days after the start of IPSO’s investigation, the publication proposed to amend the correction it had already to published to include the following line: “Booley has also asked us to clarify that his 'staggered' quote was a 'pleasant comment' in response to him being mentioned in the book.”
10. The publication did not accept that the terms of Clause 2 or Clause 10 were engaged.
Relevant Clause 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 2 (Privacy)*
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)*
i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.
ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.
Findings of the Committee
11. Another newspaper had “labelled” the autobiography’s depiction of the training exercise as a “flight of fantasy”; the Committee therefore did not consider the headline was inaccurate in and of itself, where the story had been described in this manner. However, the article did not make clear the source of the “fantasy” descriptor, and the headline could be read as attributing this quote to the complainant. The question for the Committee was, therefore, whether this rendered the headline misleading or distorted.
12. It was not in dispute that the complainant had “dismissed” the story, and had said that “the recollection of the sorties and lessons is inaccurate”. In such circumstances, and where the headline did not attribute the quote “complete fantasy” to the complainant – and nor did the article – the Committee did not consider that the headline was misleading or distorted, when read in conjunction with the text of the article.
13. Notwithstanding this, the Committee welcomed the publication of wording putting the complainant’s position on record.
14. The complainant had said that his comments that he was “shocked and staggered” had been taken out of context, as this was actually him expressing surprise and pleasure at having been mentioned in the book – rather than a comment on any inaccuracies within the autobiography. However, these comments had been made in the context of a discussion about what the complainant saw as an inaccurate recollection of the flying exercise. On balance, the Committee did not consider the article inaccurate, distorted, or misleading on this point, and there was no breach of Clause 1.
15. The complainant considered that any inaccuracies within the book would have been as a result of the book being ghost-written, rather than as a result of the Duke, and considered that article should have made this clear. However, the Committee did not consider that omitting this from the article rendered it significantly misleading, distorted, or inaccurate; regardless of the complainant’s speculation as to the source of the inaccuracy, it was not in dispute that he considered parts of the autobiography which the Duke had authored to be inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
16. Newspapers have discretion over the selection of material for publication, provided the Code is not otherwise breached. Therefore, concerns that the article had “cherry-picked” information did not represent a breach of Clause 1.
17. The complainant had expressed concerns framed under Clause 10 and Clause 2 in relation to unusual noises he had heard on his devices. However, he had not alleged that the publication was responsible for the interference, and the Committee therefore did not consider that there was sufficient basis to identify a possible breach of Clause 2 or Clause 10 in relation to the complainant’s electronic devices on the part of the publication.
18. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 06/06/2023
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 24/10/2023
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