Decision of the Complaints Committee – 14282-23 Booley v Sunday Mirror
Summary of Complaint
1. Booley complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Mirror breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “FLIGHT OF FANTASY”, published on 22 January 2023.
2.The article 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 opened by stating: “Prince Harry’s dramatic account of a ‘suicide’ training flight is a fantasy – says the man who was sitting alongside him [the complainant]”. It went on to report that:
“The royal claims in his autobiography that an Army instructor deliberately stalled their Slingsby T67 Firefly propeller plane without warning. But ex-Sergeant Major Michael Booley insists every detail of training flights is discussed beforehand. And he tells the Sunday Mirror: ‘I am staggered by this. In shock even.’”
3. The article included a further direct quote from the complainant, in which he said: “I think the reference to the flying sorties has been dramatised. I think it’s a result of the ghost writing.”
4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline “Prince Harry’s army instructor says story in Spare book is ‘complete fantasy’”. Prior to a complaint being made to IPSO, on 22 January 2023, the publication amended this headline so it instead read: “Prince Harry's army instructor says Spare story was 'dramatised for effect'”.
5. Prior to the article’s publication, a reporter acting on behalf of the newspaper had a conversation with the complainant via a messaging app; this conversation was the basis of the article. At the start of the conversation, the reporter referenced a journalist at another, separate publication, and that he was aware that the complainant had been working with him on a story that had ultimately not been published. In response, the complainant had said “I assume you have my exchange with him, I stand by all I wrote”. He also provided screenshots of the earlier correspondence to the journalist.
6. During the conversation, the complainant also said “The book is [g]host [w]ritten and there fire inaccuracies [sic] are apparent […] I would not go so far as saying ‘Harry was mistaken’ […] it is ghost written […] so very unfair to conclude Harry actually said it […] it may well be the writer who has presented it that way to dramatise it”.
7. The journalist 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 […] I think the reference to the flying sorties has been dramitised.”
8. 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 “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. He further said that he had never said that the claims in the book had been dramatised “for effect”, as the amended headlines claimed.
9. 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. He further said that he had requested to have sight of the full article before it was published, and the publication had refused – which he said represented a further breach of Clause 1.
10. 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.
11. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. Turning first to the headline of the print article, it noted that the phrase “Flight of Fantasy” was not attributed to the complainant, and it said the headline was the publication’s own characterisation of the anecdote. It said it was satisfied that the article reported what the complainant had said to the publication “fairly and accurately”, and said that the quotes the complainant disputed were put to him prior to publication, and that the complainant had responded in writing: “Yes ok…I agree with this…thank you”.
12. The publication accepted that the online headline claimed that the complainant had said that the Duke’s recollection of the training exercise was a “fantasy”, and that this was not in fact a direct quote from the complainant. It said it had already amended the online headline, and six days after being contacted by IPSO about the complaint it added the following correction and apology to the top of the online article:
“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.”
13. Turning to the question of whether the article 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.” It also proposed on the same date to publish the following correction in its print edition, should IPSO’s Complaints Committee find a breach of the Code:
“In regards to our article 'Flight of fantasy', 22 June, we have been asked to clarify that Michael Booley's 'staggered and shocked' quote was a 'pleasant comment' in response to him being mentioned in the book. We are happy to clarify this.”
14. 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
15. The online headline directly quoted the complaint as having said that “Prince Harry’s […] story in Spare book is ‘complete fantasy’”, and both versions of the article paraphrased the complainant as having said “Prince Harry’s dramatic account of a ‘suicide’ training flight is a fantasy”. The Committee noted that single quote marks do not always denote a direct quotation; they can, for instance, indicate that someone is being paraphrased, or that the portion of text which appears within single quote marks is the publication’s characterisation of comments. However, in this case, the use of inverted commas in tandem with a reference to “Prince Harry’s former army instructor” having “sa[id]” the phrase clearly attributed the quote “complete fantasy” to the complainant. The question for the Committee was whether this attribution was inaccurate, misleading, distorted, or unsupported by the text of the article.
16. Having considered the online headline in conjunction with the article, it considered that the basis for the attribution was clear: the complainant disputed the accuracy of the training exercise depicted in the autobiography, and considered it had been “dramatised” – most likely as a result of the ghost-writer. The article set out in extensive detail why the complainant thought the book’s depiction of events was inaccurate, and raised several points which he disputed. To quote the complainant having said that the story was a “complete fantasy” was not inaccurate or misleading, where the thrust of the complainant’s position – that the depiction of events as set out in the autobiography differed in several key respects from what had actually happened – was not substantively different from the headline’s summary of his views. There was no breach of Clause 1.
17. Notwithstanding this, the Committee welcomed the publication of wording putting the complainant’s position on record.
18. The headline of the print article – “FLIGHT OF FANTASY” – was not presented as a comment made by the complainant. In addition, it was not in dispute that the complainant disputed the accuracy of the flying exercise as described in the autobiography. The headline was not therefore, in and of itself, inaccurate or misleading. The Committee further noted that headlines are intended to be summaries of the content of articles; it was not feasible for the Committee to expect a headline to explain in exhaustive detail the specifics of the complainant’s thoughts on the autobiography and the Duke of Sussex. In such circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the headline of the print article was inaccurate, distorted, or misleading, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
19. The article opened with a paraphrased quote from the complainant, which said that “Prince Harry’s dramatic account of a ‘suicide’ training flight is a fantasy”. However, placing this opening in the context of the article as a whole, it was made clear that, although the complainant considered that “the flying sorties ha[d] been dramatised” he thought this was “a result of the ghost writing.” Read in the context of the article as a whole, and taking the complainant’s comments to the reporter prior to publication into account, the Committee did not consider this to be an inaccurate paraphrase of the complainant’s position. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
20. 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; the complainant had said “I am staggered by this. In shock even” before going on to say, in the same message, “whilst the book compliments me, the recollection of the sorties and lessons is inaccurate I’m afraid”. On this basis, the Committee did not consider the article inaccurate, distorted, or misleading on this point, and there was no breach of Clause 1.
21. Where the complainant had said in his messages to the writer that he believed that the anecdote had been “dramatised”, and had speculated that the ghost-writer had presented the anecdote this way purposefully, the amended online headline – “Prince Harry's army instructor says Spare story was 'dramatised for effect'” was not an inaccurate or misleading summary of his comments. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
22. Newspapers have discretion over the selection of material for publication, provided the Code is not otherwise breached. There is also no obligation for publications to provide interested parties with full articles prior to publications. The complainant’s concerns on these points did not therefore raise a breach of Clause 1.
23. 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.
24. The complainant had expressed concern that the publication had intruded into his private life, as it had received details from another publication about a potential article. The Committee first noted that the newspaper was not responsible for any actions undertaken by a journalist working on behalf of another publication; the question of whether the first journalist had intruded into the complainant’s privacy by passing over information was not a matter to be considered in this complaint. The Committee also noted that the complainant had spoken to the journalist acting on behalf of the Sunday Mirror at length, and had in fact passed him copies of his correspondence with the other journalist unprompted. Taking these factors into account, the Committee did not consider that the publication had not respected the complainant’s private and family life in the manner alleged by the complainant, and there was no breach of Clause 2.
25. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 06/06/2023
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 24/10/2023Back to ruling listing