20737-17 Hewson v thetimes.co.uk

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20737-17 Hewson v thetimes.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. Barbara Hewson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thetimes.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harrassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Barrister ‘made death threats’ to student” published on 12 April 2017.

2. The article reported that the complainant, who practises as a barrister, had been the subject of a complaint to the Bar Standards Board. It said that in a 22-page complaint, a law student had claimed that he had “received death threats and abuse over the phone” from the complainant and had claimed that she had “pestered him so incessantly with nuisance phone calls that he was left ‘feeling frightened, alarmed, distressed and anxious’”.

3. The article identified the complainant as being the subject of a “harassment warning”, which it said had been issued by the police “amid allegations that she had “waged a campaign of online bullying, abuse and ‘death threats’” against the law student and another lawyer.

4. The article reported that this lawyer had told the newspaper that “following months of serious and frightening harassment” she had registered a complaint with the police. It said that the complainant “frequently crossed swords” with the other lawyer on social media, “over their opinions on investigations into alleged historical child abuse”. The article said that on 1 March 2017 the Metropolitan Police had confirmed that “a 55-year-old woman was issued with a harassment warning”. The article explained that such warnings have “no legal standing and do not establish wrong doing, but are used by police as a response to allegations of low-level harassment”; it said that “no finding” had been made against the complainant.

5. The complainant denied that she had engaged in the course of conduct alleged by the student and said that in any event, the newspaper had failed to report the student’s complaint accurately. She also raised concern that the newspaper had conflated two separate complaints about her conduct – the first, allegations made by the student and the second, allegations made by another lawyer – and had created the misleading impression that their claims were associated in some way.

6. The complainant said that the article’s headline was significantly misleading as it suggested that the police had suspected her of committing a serious criminal offence. The complainant noted that in his complaint to the Bar Standards Board, the student had explicitly acknowledged that he could not prove that she had anything to do with his alleged experiences.

7. The complainant provided a copy of the student’s complaint. In it, he had explained that he had engaged with the complainant directly on twitter, following his interactions with another lawyer. He had claimed that subsequent to this, he had been “subjected to a significant amount of nuisance phone calls” and said that “I have received death threats and abuse over the phone”. The student said that a twitter account called “Harry Troll” had “sent a picture of my address, my ex partner's details and a picture of my daughter’s head”. In his complaint the student said that he was unable to prove this activity had been orchestrated by the complainant; however, he said “this does not normally happen and is far from coincidence. I believe this to be her or through agents. The police are also aware of this”.

8. The complainant raised concern at two tweets published by the newspaper on 12 April 2017 which linked to the article. The first tweet stated: “A barrister has been handed a harassment warning over alleged ‘death threats’ to a student”. While the complainant accepted that she had been issued with a harassment warning in respect of claims made by another lawyer, she said that she had not received a harassment warning over any alleged ‘death threats’ to a student”. The second tweet stated: “Police issue harassment warning to barrister [complainant’s twitter handle] after online threats”. The complainant said that this tweet implied, inaccurately, that she had been found to be guilty of online harassment.

9. During the course of IPSO’s investigation, the complainant also raised concern over a third tweet published by a journalist for the newspaper on 12 April 2017, which stated: “Police warn high-profile barrister over online harassment”.

10. The complainant also said that the article had contained further inaccuracies. She did not accept that the three complaints to the Bar Standards Board, to which she was subject, amounted to “mounting complaints” to the regulator. She said that her decision to leave her Chambers had no relevance to the student’s claims; reporting that she no longer worked at her Chambers gave the misleading impression that this had been as a consequence of his complaint.

11. The complainant said that by identifying her as being the subject of a confidential complaint to the Bar Standards Board, the article represented an intrusion into her private life. She further said that it was not in the public interest to report on the student’s inaccurate claims.

12. The complainant said that prior to publication, she had received a series of persistent email messages from the journalist which she said was intimidating. The complainant provided a copy of this correspondence. She said that the journalist had failed to identify who had made the allegations against her and given the serious nature of the claims, imposing a 5-hour deadline to respond was unreasonable and underhand.

13. The newspaper said that the student’s complaint had been accurately reported and it had taken care to make clear that the article was reporting his claims.

14. The newspaper accepted that the student had acknowledged that he was unable to prove that the complainant had orchestrated the bullying and threats to which he was subjected, but noted that he had set out at length his reasons for believing and claiming that she was responsible; this was reflected accurately in the article. The newspaper said in respect of the harassment warning, the article had made clear that it had been issued in relation to the claims made by the lawyer. It noted that the nature and significance of the warning which was issued had been explained in the body of the article.

15. In relation to the first tweet, the newspaper said that it did not name the complainant, and the error it contained was not repeated in the article to which it linked and which was the subject of this complaint. In an attempt to resolve the complaint, the newspaper removed the tweet and offered to publish the following wording online:

A tweet posted from The Times Twitter account on April 12, 2017 wrongly stated that ““A barrister has been handed a harassment warning over alleged ‘death threats’ to a student”. As the article to which the tweet referred made clear, the barrister concerned, Ms Barbara Hewson received the harassment warning in respect of her conduct towards another barrister, [name]. We apologise for the error in the tweet.

16. The newspaper did not accept that the second tweet was inaccurate, nor did it accept that it suggested that the complainant had been found guilty of harassment.

17. In respect of the complaint under Clause 2, the newspaper did not accept that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of the student’s allegations because they formed part of a complaint to a professional regulator. In any event, it said that there was a clear public interest in reporting the student’s complaint. The newspaper noted that one of the core duties set out in the Bar Standards Board’s handbook is that barristers “must not behave in a way which is likely to diminish the trust and confidence which the public places in the profession”. The newspaper said that the complainant’s public and private conduct was a legitimate subject for scrutiny, given her own high profile and the involvement of the police.

18. The newspaper did not accept that the journalist’s conduct amounted to harassment. It said that repeated attempts were made to contact the complainant, and publication delayed by 24 hours, in order to give her an opportunity to comment on the allegations it intended to publish, however she had chosen not to engage.

Relevant Code provisions

19. 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 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.

Findings of the Committee

20. The complainant had been the subject of a complaint to the Bar Standards Board in which a student had set out at length his experience of receiving online harassment, including death threats, from an anonymous twitter account. The student had explicitly acknowledged that he was unable to prove that the complainant had orchestrated, or had any involvement, in the alleged conduct. However, the newspaper had been entitled to report on the claims which he had made, in an official complaint to the complainant’s regulator, in which he had set out in detail the reasons for his belief that she was responsible. The newspaper had taken care to ensure that each allegation made against the complainant had been attributed to the student and presented in the context of his complaint. There was no failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact; the newspaper’s reporting of his claims did not represent a breach of Clause 1.

21. The complainant had been issued with a harassment warning from the police in relation to claims made by another lawyer. The newspaper was entitled to place the student’s complaint in that context, particularly where the student had accused the complainant of engaging in a course of conduct - which he had considered to be harassment - as a consequence of his association with the same lawyer. The article had made clear what conduct had been alleged by which individual. The Committee noted that the article had explained that it was the lawyer’s claims which had led to a harassment warning being issued by the police and the nature and significance of this warning had been set out. In those circumstances, the Committee did not establish that reporting the student’s claims alongside that of the lawyer's represented a breach of Clause 1.

22. The complainant had been the subject of three complaints to her professional regulator; it was not misleading to characterise these official complaints as “mounting”. The newspaper was further entitled to note that the complainant had left her chambers; the article did not suggest that the complainant had left her chambers as a consequence of the student’s complaint, and the Committee noted that the article had included a colleague’s comment that she had left for “personal reasons”. There was no breach of the Code on these points.

23. The Committee then turned to consider the tweets which had linked to the article on social media.

24. The complainant had not been issued with a harassment warning in respect of the claims made by the student, contrary to what the first tweet had claimed. The Committee were concerned by this error. The newspaper had been informed by the lawyer that she had registered a complaint with the police against the complainant. There was no suggestion that the student’s complaint to the Bar Standards Board had resulted in any action from the police. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the tweet, in breach of Clause 1(i). While the article which it linked to had made the basis for the harassment warning clear, the wording of the tweet conflated two separate and serious claims, the effect of which intensified the seriousness of the allegation that the complainant had made death threats to the student, by suggesting that it had resulted in police action. The tweet therefore represented a significant inaccuracy under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

25. The second tweet did not suggest that the complainant had been found guilty of harassment: it was accurate to report that online threats had formed the basis for the harassment warning. The Committee noted that article had made clear that such warnings have no legal status and no finding had been made against the complainant. In respect of the third tweet, this fell outside of IPSO’s remit, given that the complainant had raised a complaint about it outside of the one year time period for online material. These tweets did not represent a further breach of the Code.

26. The complainant had raised concern that the article had identified her as being the subject of a confidential complaint to her regulator. Critical to the Committee’s considerations under Clause 2 (Privacy) was the fact that the student had addressed his concerns about the complainant’s alleged conduct to her professional regulator. To that extent, his complaint related to an aspect of her professional life. The article had disclosed the fact that the complainant had been the subject of a complaint, and details of it. While the allegations which had been made against her were serious and had been made in the context of a complaint which, until the publication of the article, had remained confidential, it related to her professional life and activity which was alleged to have taken place on a social media platform.  The article did not disclose information concerning the complainant’s private or personal life. In all the circumstances and in the specific context in which it had been made, the Committee did not establish that the reporting of the student’s complaint represented an intrusion into the complainant’s private life. The complaint under Clause 2 was not upheld.

27. The complainant had chosen not to respond to the journalist’s initial inquiry. The newspaper was entitled to contact the complainant again to seek comment on the serious allegations which had been made against her. While the complainant had found these approaches concerning, having carefully scrutinised the correspondence, the Committee did not establish that the journalist had engaged in a course of conduct that was intimidatory, persistent or amounted to harassment. There was no breach of Clause 3.

Conclusion

28. The complaint was upheld in part.

Remedial Action required

The newspaper had offered to publish a clarification online which had made clear that the complainant had received the harassment warning in respect of her conduct towards another barrister, contrary to the first tweet’s claim. This should now be published.

Independent Complaints Reviewer

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: 14/12/2017

Date complaint concluded: 17/05/2018

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