Decision of the Complaints Committee 18326-17 Webster v Sunday Mirror
Summary of complaint
1. Chris Webster complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Mirror breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Charity pervert hounded forces wives for sex”, published on 3 September 2017.
2. The article reported that the complainant, the head of an organisation which sent charity parcels to soldiers, had been “secretly pestering forces wives for sex – while their husbands served on the frontline”. The article reported that his youngest victim was “thought to be seventeen years old” and had been contacted by the complainant while her boyfriend was in the Gulf. It included her comment that “I was at college and he asked me to help with his charity…he was relentless asking for explicit photos of me naked”. The article also reported another alleged victim’s comment that “in my case I had just broken up with my husband and he knew that too…he sent photos of himself and a video”.
3. The article reported that the complainant had lied about having served in the army and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; it reported that the complainant had said that he did suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, but as a result of childhood issues.
4. The article reported that the complainant had apologised for his conduct, and included an excerpt of the apology, which had previously been posted on the organisation’s website and Facebook page. This excerpt included the complainant’s denial that his victims were married to men from any deployed or serving forces, and his denial that any of his victims were under the age of consent. It said that “I fully accept my historic conduct in relation to me sending unsolicited sexual messages, ‘sexting’ and sending explicit pictures of myself to some fourteen females over a period of time, often when they were at low points emotionally and emotionally vulnerable”.
5. The article was published online in substantively the same format, headlined “Charity pervert sent boxes of treats to soldiers on the front line then secretly hounded their wives for naked photos”.
6. The complainant said that the article contained a number of inaccuracies. He denied that any of the women he had contacted were married to men from deployed or serving forces. The complainant said that he did not contact a seventeen year old girl, and that the other woman had been separated from her husband for over a year when he contacted her. He also said that he did not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of childhood issues, but due to a recent attack.
7. The complainant said that he did not write or read the apology before it was posted on the organisation’s website, but it had been written on his behalf and with his consent. He said that nevertheless, the publication of the article had resulted in subsequent intrusions into his private life, and harassment, by members of the public. He said that the newspaper had contacted him by telephone and that this had amounted to harassment. The complainant also said that reporting on the allegations made against him was discriminatory.
8. The newspaper did not accept that there had been a breach of the Code. It said that the article was written by a freelance reporter, who had interviewed the two women. The newspaper said that both women had told the reporter that they were married to, or partners of, men from deployed or serving forces, when they had been contacted by the complainant. One of the women had confirmed that she had recently separated from her husband, and had told the complainant that she was an “army widow”, at the time. The newspaper said that the other woman had confirmed that she was a seventeen year old college student at the time. The newspaper provided copies of conversations between the complainant and the two women, the reporter and the two women, and messages posted on social media, in support of its position.
9. The newspaper said that its reporter had contacted the complainant on one occasion, prior to publication, and put the allegations to him that he had sent sexually explicit material to women whose partners or husbands were serving abroad, and that one of his victims was seventeen at the time. The newspaper provided a transcript and recording of this telephone conversation.
10. The newspaper said that the complainant’s apology included his comment that he did suffer from diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, sustained in his childhood. It did not accept that the article was inaccurate on this point.
11. The newspaper said that the publication of the article did not amount to an intrusion into the complainant’s private life because he had published the apology on the organisation’s website and Facebook page, and said that in any event, it was in the public interest to expose such behaviour. The newspaper also said that it did not engage in harassing behaviour towards the complainant, or discriminate against him in the article.
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.
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.
Clause 3 (Harassment)
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
Clause 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Findings of the Committee
13. The article was based on the accounts of the two women. The complainant had made a public admission on social media, regarding his conduct, and the newspaper had seen messages exchanged between the complainant and the two women. The newspaper sought the complainant’s comment on this information prior to publication. The newspaper demonstrated that it had taken care to ensure the accuracy of the article and there was no breach of Clause 1 (i).
14. The article reported that the complainant had been “secretly pestering forces wives for sex – while their husbands served on the frontline”; that his youngest victim was “thought to be seventeen”; and that one of the women had “recently separated” from her husband, when the complainant had contacted her. This information was based on the women’s accounts and was clearly attributed as such in the article. The newspaper was entitled to report this information and particularly in circumstances where the complainant’s denial was included, the Committee did not consider that the article was inaccurate or misleading on these points.
15. The complainant denied that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of childhood issues. In the context of an article which reported on allegations made against the complainant, that he had sent unsolicited sexual messages to a number of women, and in circumstances where it was accepted that the complainant did suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the Committee did not consider that the discrepancy as to the cause of the condition, was significant. Furthermore, this information was included in the complainant’s public apology and it was clearly attributed as such in the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
16. The article reported allegations made against the complainant by two women, which he had commented on publicly; despite the complainant’s position that he did not write or read the apology, it had been published on his behalf, with his knowledge and consent. Furthermore, the article did not include any previously undisclosed private information about the complainant and the Committee did not consider that its publication had intruded into his private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.
17. The complainant had been interviewed by the newspaper, and during this interview, he did not request that any contact should desist. He was contacted by telephone on one occasion, and the Committee considered that the reporter was polite, and not intimidating. There was no breach of Clause 3.
18. The article did not make a prejudicial or pejorative reference to the complainant in regards to any of the characteristics protected under Clause 12; there was no breach of Clause 12.
19. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 05/09/2017
Date decision issued: 13/11/2017