Decision of the Complaints Committee 20445-17 De Groote v thetimes.co.uk
Summary of the complaint
1. Cecilia De Groote complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thetimes.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Violinist found not guilty of abusing prosecutor wife” published on 3 December 2016.
2. The article reported that the complainant’s estranged husband had been found not guilty of alleged physical and mental abuse towards his wife, who was a prosecutor, and their son, after a sheriff ruled that the complainant’s evidence “could not be relied upon.” The article detailed the abuse the defendant had been accused of, but stated that the sheriff who presided over the train “said the evidence of Mrs De Groote and other witnesses in the case could not be relied upon” and had found the defendant not guilty of the three charges he faced.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate, as the Sheriff had not stated that the complainant, or her evidence was unreliable. She had not been in court at the time, but had confirmed with the sheriff that he had in fact stated “I have considered the evidence and submissions. I consider the evidence presented by the Crown in this trial is not of such a quality that I can rely on it, to be satisfied on it, beyond reasonable doubt, in respect of the essential elements in respect of these charges. Therefore the verdict in respect of each is not guilty.”
4. The complainant said that when a sheriff states that they cannot rely on the evidence, it means that the evidence does not reach or met the high threshold for criminal liability; it does not mean the evidence or the witness who gave that evidence is unreliable. She said that there were four witnesses who gave evidence during the trial, and the judge did not refer to her, or her evidence specifically, when giving his judgment. She said the article gave the misleading impression that she was unreliable and suggested she was not fit to hold the role of prosecutor. She also said that reporting such as this would deter other victims of domestic abuse from coming forward.
5. The publication apologised for any upset the article had caused the complainant; however it said the article was accurate and did not breach the Editors’ Code. It said that the sheriff had stated “the evidence presented by the Crown in this trial is not of such a quality that I can rely upon it to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt”, which clearly included the complainant’s evidence as well as other witnesses. It said the sheriff was very clear that the reason he reached a not guilty verdict was unreliable evidence, as he had expressly avoided giving a verdict of not proven, which is available in cases in Scotland where the evidence is unclear.
6. The publication said the article did not suggest that the complainant was unreliable, or unfit to hold office, but had accurately reported that in this case, her evidence could not be relied upon. The publication said that the article was a fair and accurate report of the outcome of the trial.
Relevant Code 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.
Findings of the Committee
7. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that she believed the article would discourage people who experience domestic abuse to come forward. However, the question for the Committee was whether the publication had failed to take care to report court proceedings accurately. It was accepted that the Sheriff had stated that “the evidence presented by the Crown in this trial is not of such a quality that I can rely upon it to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt”. The article had made clear that the complainant was not the only witness in the case, and in circumstances where the evidence of the complainant had been part of the evidence presented by the Crown, the publication had taken care over the accuracy of the statement included in the article that the sheriff had found that the complainant’s evidence could not be relied upon, and had not mischaracterised his remarks. Reporting this did not represent a significant inaccuracy, and therefore there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
8. The article did not make any broader claim about the complainant’s reliability or her professional ability. Therefore, the article was not misleading in the way the complainant had suggested, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
9. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer
about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent
Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold
the request for review.
Date complaint received: 29/11/2017
Date decision issued: 29/03/2018
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