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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 decision issued: 17/05/2018Back to ruling listing