Decision of the Complaints Committee – 14297-23 Booley v walesonline.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Michael Booley complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that walesonline.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 “Prince Harry story from Spare is ‘complete fantasy’ says former army instructor”, published on 23 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. The sub-headline to the article read: “Ex-Sergeant Major Michael Booley says he is in shock over claims made by Harry in his controversial memoir”.
3. The article went on to quote the complainant as having said “I am staggered by this. In shock even,” and reported that he had “claimed the prince’s tale is untrue, saying: ‘Whilst the book compliments me, the recollection of the sorties and lessons is inaccurate I’m afraid”.
4. Prior to a complaint being made to IPSO, the headline was amended to read “Prince Harry story from Spare ‘dramatised for effect’, says former army instructor”.
5. 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” and “in shock” 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 headline claimed.
6. 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.
7. During IPSO’s investigation, the complainant provided it 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”.
8. 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”.
9. On the day it was passed the complaint by IPSO, the publication added the following correction to the top of the 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.”
10. Turning to the question of whether the publication had presented the complainant’s comment that he was “in shock” in a misleading manner – where he said that had actually been said positively in response to the book – the publication noted that the complainant didn’t dispute having said this. 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.”
11. 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
12. The headline directly quoted the complaint as having said that the story was a “complete fantasy”. It was not in dispute that the headline 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. Having considered the headline in conjunction with the article, it considered that the basis for the online headline’s attribution was set out: the complainant disputed the accuracy of the training exercise depicted in the autobiography, and considered it had been “dramatised”. The article set out in detail why the complainant thought the book’s depiction of events was inaccurate, and raised several points which he disputed. To paraphrase this as 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.
13. 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.
14. Where the complainant had said in his messages to a journalist at another publication that he believed that the anecdote had been “dramatized”, 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.
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. Newspapers have discretion over the selection of material for publication, provided the Code is not otherwise breached. While the complainant disputed the accuracy of the depiction of the training in the autobiography, the publication was not obligated to include the complainant’s speculation as to how this inaccuracy had come about. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point, and concerns that the article had “cherry-picked” information did not represent a breach of Clause 1.
16. 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.
17. 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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