20221-17 Clarke v The Sun on Sunday

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20221-17 Clarke v The Sun on Sunday

Summary of complaint

1. Stephen Clarke complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “My hell with cheating, car killer hubby”, published on 19 November 2017. The article was also published online with the headline “'I'M LUCKY I GOT OUT' I’m A Celebrity’s Rebekah Vardy says she survived hell with cheating, car killer ex-husband”.

2. The article was presented as an interview with Rebekah Vardy, who was a contestant in a new series of ‘I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!’, due to commence on the day of publication. It reported that Ms Vardy had spoken for the first time of “her three marriages and the abuse she says she suffered at the hands of hubby No2 Steve Clarke”. The article appeared on page 8 of the newspaper. The main image on the front page of that day’s edition was of Ms Vardy, and was captioned “My hell husband by Rebekah Vardy (and it’s not Jamie)”.

3. The article reported that Ms Vardy had started dating the complainant, when he was her boss at a timeshare company, and reported her comment that it “quickly became a horrible relationship – I was scared of him. He’d tell me what to do, where to be and how to act”. It reported Ms Vardy’s comment that the complainant “made me go public” about having spent a night with a named-celebrity, “because he wanted the money”. It reported that Ms Vardy married the complainant when she was pregnant by another man, and that following the child’s birth the complainant made them move to Cyprus. It reported Ms Vardy’s comment that after moving to Cyprus, the complainant “became violent. He cheated, he lied”. It reported that the relationship continued for a further ten months before Ms Vardy “escaped back to the UK with my baby after he cheated on me”. The article reported that “weeks later”, the complainant was sentenced to two years’ jail for causing death by reckless driving, after his car steered into the opposite lane in Paphos. It reported Ms Vardy’s comment that “he got his divorce papers for unreasonable behaviour”. The article concluded by reporting that the complainant had said “I was always a good husband and I never cheated on Becky or ever raised my hand to her. I am devastated two people died. It was a terrible accident”. The article was accompanied by a picture of the complainant with the caption “Denial…ex Steve Clarke”.

4. The complainant said that the allegations contained in the article were untrue, and without foundation; he said that he was not a celebrity and that there was no public interest in the story. He said that he found the article emotionally traumatising. The complainant said that he had never abused Ms Vardy, either mentally or physically. He said he never cheated on her. He said it was completely untrue that he had made Ms Vardy “go public” about her night with a celebrity; he said payment records would show that she was paid for this story, and kept the money herself. He said that when he married Ms Vardy, he did not know she could possibly be pregnant by another man. He emphasised that the car crash he had been involved in was an accident, that it had taken place at a dangerous junction, and had not involved him “steering into the opposite lane”.

5. The complainant said that the article misreported the denial, he had given the newspaper prior to publication. He said he had actually told the newspaper that he was not a public figure, and that the accusations were untrue and without foundation. The journalist then asked him if he was “devastated” about the car crash, and whether he was a “good husband”, to which he said he was.

6. The newspaper said that the article was Ms Vardy’s personal account of her former marriages. It said that it was clearly Ms Vardy’s account; all of the allegations were presented as quotes from her, and were not adopted as fact. It said that Ms Vardy was entitled to discuss what she considered to be an abusive marriage.

7. The newspaper said it was approached by Ms Vardy’s agent with the story. The story was passed to a journalist who had known Ms Vardy for some time, including when she had been in a relationship with the complainant. The newspaper said that the journalist had been aware of one or two specific incidents of violence, through having spoken to Ms Vardy about them. It said that this included the journalist having taken a phone call from Ms Vardy, while she was in Cyprus, and immediately following an incidence of violence.  The newspaper said that the journalist spoke to Ms Vardy’s agent, who compared their knowledge of the complainant’s conduct. It said that the agent confirmed she knew about the incident, following which Ms Vardy had called the journalist, and that they also discussed a second specific incident of violence, which took place in the UK.

8. In relation to the allegation of infidelity, the newspaper said that in 2005, when they lived in Cyprus, Ms Vardy had heard the complainant arranging to meet another woman behind her back. It said that when she challenged him about this at the time, he was violent towards her. It said that the journalist who prepared the article under complaint had been aware of this, as immediately following the 2005 incident, Ms Vardy had called and spoken to her about it. The newspaper said that Ms Vardy then returned to the UK for a break, where she spoke to the complainant’s girlfriend on the telephone, and decided to leave him permanently.

9. The newspaper said that Ms Vardy had said that in 2004, the complainant told her that she had to sell a story to the News of the World about her night with a celebrity, because he needed to pay off debts. The newspaper said that Ms Vardy did not want to do this, but agreed after several heated conversations. It said she received a cheque from the News of the World, and that the complainant asked her for the money.

10. The newspaper said that the complainant was given an opportunity to respond to Ms Vardy’s claims prior to publication, via a telephone call. The newspaper provided a recording and transcript of this telephone conversation, and said that his denial was included in the article. In this phone call, the journalist said that Ms Vardy had “spoken out about [the end of the relationship] and said that… you were abusive in the relationship…would you want to say anything?”. The complainant responded to this saying “Not once have I ever raised my hand to her. Not once. Right”. Later in the conversation, the journalist asked “…and her saying about the violence? Are you saying that didn’t happen?”, to which the complainant responded “never”.

11. In response to the complaint, the newspaper provided a signed affidavit from Ms Vardy, in which she confirmed she stood by the claims reported in the article. The newspaper said that the affidavit was made under oath, and that if the issues in the complaint were to be tested in court, it would represent the highest form of evidence.

12. The complainant denied the specific incidences of violence, referred to by the newspaper in response to the complainant. He provided statements from third parties in support of his position that Ms Vardy’s claims were untrue. He said that one of the specific incidences could not have taken place as described by Ms Vardy as they had moved from the property at which it was alleged to have taken place, by the date on which it was alleged to have happened. He said that there were no police reports of any incidents between them. He said that in early 2006, after a dispute while living in Cyprus, Ms Vardy flew back to England, and the relationship ended. He said that he only began his relationship with another woman after this.

Relevant Code provisions

13.  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 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Findings of the Committee

14. The article contained a series of claims about the complainant. These claims related to the complainant’s conduct towards Ms Vardy, during their relationship, which ended more than ten years ago. The Committee recognised the inherent difficulty of verifying claims about one party’s conduct during a relationship, and made clear it was not in the position to rule on the truth of these claims, and nothing in this ruling should be read as such a finding. However, it considered the care taken by the newspaper not to publish inaccurate information, and whether the presentation of the claims was misleading, such as to require correction.

15.  The Committee first considered the care taken in publishing the claims that the complainant had cheated on Ms Vardy, that he was violent and that he was controlling. These were claims that related to the details of the relationship between the complainant and Ms Vardy. The newspaper had not simply proceeded on the basis that Ms Vardy was now making these claims; the journalist who prepared the article under complaint had in fact known Ms Vardy at the time of her marriage to the complainant, and recalled speaking to her on the telephone about an alleged incident of violence, immediately after it was alleged to have taken place. The newspaper had asked the complainant for his response to the claims that he was abusive in the relationship, violent, and that he was unfaithful, prior to publication. The complainant denied these claims, and his denial was recorded in the article.

16. The article did not present these claims as having been established by the newspaper to be fact; care had been taken in the headline and text of the article to make clear that the newspaper was reporting Ms Vardy’s account. For instance, the headline of the article was in the first person. The article began “Rebekah Vardy has told how she divorced her second husband”. The article was accompanied by the prominent by line: “Says Becky Vardy”, and throughout the article, claims were placed in direct quotations from Ms Vardy.

17. For these reasons, the Committee considered that there was not a failure to take care in relation to the claims that the complainant had cheated on Ms Vardy, that he was violent and that he was controlling, and there was no breach of Clause 1 (i) on these points. The claims were clearly presented as Ms Vardy’s, and the article made clear the complainant’s position that they were not true. The Committee did not find that the article was misleading on these points, and there was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

18. The Committee contrasted this with the care taken by the newspaper in publishing the claim that the complainant had “wanted the money and so made me go public”, with the story of the night she had spent with a celebrity. The claim that the complainant had “made” his wife disclose information about her sex-life to a national newspaper, was both a specific, and serious claim about the complainant’s conduct.  The Committee recognised that where the claim related to discussions that took place between two people more than 10 years ago, it may be difficult to corroborate or identify evidence to support the claim. However, one step clearly available to the newspaper was to contact the complainant, to ask if his recollection matched that of Ms Vardy. Indeed, the newspaper had contacted the complainant, to ask for his response to the broader claims made by Ms Vardy.

19. The Committee has previously made clear that when it considers a newspaper’s pre-publication approach to a complainant, in considering a newspaper’s argument that it took sufficient care, it will not simply have regard for the fact that a complainant has been approached, but the extent to which they have actually been told the substance of an allegation, and given a substantive opportunity to respond. The newspaper had not tested the claim that the complainant had forced Ms Vardy to sell a story about having spent a night with a celebrity, by asking the complainant for his response. The newspaper was not able to show that it had taken care over the accuracy of this claim. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (i).

20. Ms Vardy’s claim that the complainant had “made me go public”, with the story of her night with a celebrity supported the wider allegation of abusive conduct. However, it was also a specific and serious claim about the complainant’s conduct, and the complainant’s general denial implied that he either accepted this specific claim, or at least that he had not denied it.  This was not the complainant’s position; in addition to his general denial, he also denied this specific claim, as would be made clear in his complaint, post-publication. The Committee considered that it was significantly misleading to report Ms Vardy’s claim about the payment, without also making the complainant’s position clear. The newspaper did not offer to publish a correction on this point, and the complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

21. The complainant said that that he was convicted for “causing death by accident without intention due to careless reckless or dangerous driving”, and the Committee therefore considered it was not significantly inaccurate to report that he was convicted for “causing death by reckless driving”; there was not a significant difference between these charges, and no breach of Clause 1 on this point. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that he had not “steered into an opposite lane”, but that the accident had happened at a dangerous junction. However, no particular significance attached to the article’s brief description of the incident, and the Committee considered that if the article’s description was inaccurate in the manner alleged by the complainant, this was not a significant inaccuracy, such as to require a correction under Clause 1 (ii), or to demonstrate a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, in breach of Clause 1 (i).

22. It was inaccurate to refer to the complainant as being sentenced weeks after Ms Vardy left; he was actually sentenced around 2 years later. It was the driving offence itself that was committed around 10 weeks after she left. However, as part of an explanation of why Ms Vardy considered she had had a “lucky escape” from the complainant, the reference to the sentencing taking place “weeks later”, as opposed to the offence itself, was not a significant inaccuracy, such as to require correction under Clause 1 (ii), or to demonstrate a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, in breach of Clause 1 (i).

23. The statement from the complainant reported in the article was in fact a summary of his comments, which the journalist had provided to him towards the end of their telephone conversation, prior to publication. The Committee considered that the journalist’s summary did not misrepresent his comments. When the journalist provided the complainant with the summary, which ended: “I never cheated on her or raised my hand to her”, he responded saying: “Ever, and I was a good father...”. It was reasonable for the newspaper to believe that the complainant was agreeing with the journalist’s summary of his remarks. The article did not misrepresent the denial the complainant had provided, prior to publication, and this aspect of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 1.

24. The Committee acknowledged that the article had caused the complainant distress, but the article concerned his relationship with the complainant, which ended more than ten years before publication. This was not a case of “personal grief or shock”, such as to engage the terms of Clause 4.

Conclusion

25. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action required

26 The newspaper had breached Clause 1 (i) and not complied with its obligation to clarify under Clause 1 (ii). The Committee considered that the appropriate remedial action was publication of an adjudication.

27. While a preview of the article appeared on the front page, this claim that the complainant had made Ms Vardy sell her story about the night she had spent with a celebrity appeared on page 8. The adjudication should therefore be published on page 8, or further forward. The adjudication should appear beneath a headline, which makes clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, identifies the publication by name, and refers to the subject matter of the complaint. It should be agreed with IPSO in advance

28. The adjudication should also be published on the publication’s website, with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing in the top 50% of stories on the publication’s website for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. In relation to the online version of the article, if the newspaper intends to continue to publish the article without amendment to make clear the complainant denies making Ms Vardy sell the story, the full text of the adjudication should also be published on the same page as the article, beneath its headline. If amended, a link to the adjudication should be published with the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication, and noting the amendments made.

29. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

Stephen Clarke complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “My hell with cheating, car killer hubby”, published on 19 November 2017.  The complaint was upheld, and The Sun on Sunday has been required to publish this adjudication.

The article was an interview with Rebekah Vardy, in which she made a number of allegations about the complainant, her ex-husband. One of these claims was that he “made me go public” about having spent a night with a celebrity, “because he wanted the money”.  The article did not include any response to this specific allegation from the complainant, although it did report his denial of the other claims made about him.

The complainant said that the claim he had made Ms Vardy “go public” about having spent a night with a celebrity, was completely untrue.

The newspaper said that the article was clearly Ms Vardy’s account, and she was entitled to discuss what she considered to be an abusive marriage. It said that it had given the complainant the opportunity to respond to the claims, and reported his response in the article. In response to the complaint, it provided an affidavit from Ms Vardy stating her account of the relationship.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee found that the complainant was never asked for his response to the serious and specific claim that he had made her sell a story about having spent a night with a celebrity. This was a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and no offer was made to publish a correction, making clear the complainant denied this specific claim. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1, and The Sun on Sunday was required to publish this adjudication as a remedy.

Date complaint received: 20/11/2017
Date complaint concluded:10/05/2018

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