Decision of the Complaints Committee 28280-20 A man v Isle of Wight County Press
Summary of Complaint
1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Isle of Wight County Press breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “SOLD FOR SEX AND ABUSED BY HUSBAND / Living a hell at home”, published on 25 September 2020.
2. The article was an account of a woman described as a “survivor of horrendous domestic abuse”. The article was referenced on the front page with the banner “SOLD FOR SEX AND ABUSED BY HUSBAND”. The article explained that the woman had “told the County Press” that her husband was an abuser and had told her story through a “chilling poem”, which accompanied the article. She had also been given a pseudonym in the article. The article reported that the woman’s husband, who she had since left, had abused her and had “sold his wife for sex, tracked her movements via her phone and timed her when she was permitted to go out.” The article also reported he had opened the results of a medical test and lied about its contents. It also said that the police and courts had sided with the husband over the woman. The article described her husband as a “man in a position of high power and considerable finances”. Neither the wife, husband nor children were named or photographed in the article.
3. The article also contained multiple quotes directly attributed to the woman. She said that she had “learnt that I've been through coercive control, sexual coercion, rape, GBH, grooming, exploitation, trafficking and imprisonment.“ She said that her husband had power over her in her workplace, had groomed her and “opened up seven bank accounts in my name without my knowledge, which he loaded up with hundreds of thousands of pounds, and cleared them the day I left”. She said that she had now started high-intensity complex PTSD therapy with the NHS, moved out and had started a new hobby. The article included biographical details about the husband and wife as well as information regarding their conduct and behaviours. The article was followed by the poem written by the woman, which described the abuse she said she had experienced, and one line used a pet name unique to this woman/family.
4. The article also appeared online under the headline “Isle of Wight woman speaks of domestic abuse horror”, in substantially the same format.
5. The complainant, who said he was the husband of the woman in the article, was complaining on his and his children’s behalf. He said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that he had not abused his wife, and provided copies of notifications of “no further action” letters received from the police, after the police had investigated the allegations by his wife. He also provided notes from a child protection conference which repeated that many of the claims his wife made were considered to be false. He also said that her social media posts showed that she did go out with friends during their period together. He said that it was inaccurate to state that he had opened her mail or lied about her health to her, and had opened bank accounts in her name. He further stated that both social services and the police had found her work was not threatened due to him. He also said it was inaccurate to report that he had sold his wife for sex, and that this allegation had not been made previously, or been reported to the police.
6. The complainant said it was misleading to report that the police and courts “took his side” when he received residency of the children, as there had been thorough investigations by both the police and social services that found that there was not enough evidence to prosecute him and concluded that his children should be returned to his custody. He also said it was inaccurate to report that the woman was receiving treatment for PTSD through the NHS, as he had seen her medical records during the court case.
7. The complainant said that the article also breached his right to privacy under Clause 2. He said that both he and his children were identifiable from the information published in the article, as it accurately described certain biographical details about him, his wife, the recent changes to their domestic circumstances, and other information relating to their conduct and behaviour. The complainant said that the effect of this was exacerbated as he lives in a small town on the Isle of Wight.
8. The complainant said that the article had also intruded into his children’s time at school in breach of Clause 6. He said that his children were being monitored by social services and their teachers. He noted that the allegations in the article had been repeated to one of his children at school. He said that his other children had received comments and questions at school, and that one of his children had said that friends’ parents do not allow their children to come to his home.
9. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code, but deleted the article upon receipt of the complaint as a gesture of goodwill. It said the woman in the article had sent the newspaper her poem, at which point a journalist with previous experience of speaking to victims of domestic abuse, spoke at length with the woman. The journalist said that the experiences of the woman matched what she had previously written about domestic abuse victims, in that their partners were not convicted of crimes and the victims are often not believed. The woman said she was speaking to an abuse support group and the NHS. The newspaper emailed the abuse support group, and after receiving no response followed up with a phone call, but was unable to speak to the woman’s councillor – it assumed this was due to reasons of confidentiality. The woman had also written a very detailed blog of her experiences which she shared with the newspaper, and the information contained within the blog corresponded to what she had said during the interview.
10. The publication said that prior to writing the article it had been aware that the police and courts had sided with the woman’s husband – indeed, this was the angle of the story. The publication said it knew that the husband would have denied the allegations. It said that the woman felt she had no power, and that the article and her poem was a way of her having a voice and expressing her opinion. The publication said that it was very difficult to “prove” deeply personal domestic situations, and that it was important for victims, even where the police or courts had not found in their favour, to be able to tell their story. It said it made sure to anonymise the article on this basis.
11. The publication also said that the article was not presented as a straightforward news article, and that it was framed as a first-person narrative. It said it was framed from the outset as “her story” and, in addition to the multitude of quotes, the poem was framed as “she told the County Press”. It said that readers would understand that the article was being told from the woman’s side and was only one version of events. It also made sure to state that both the police and courts had taken the husband’s side.
12. The publication did not accept that the complainant was identified by anyone outside of the people with whom he had already discussed the events. The publication said it had taken care to remove any information which could identify him to a larger audience, such as the town they lived in, the number of children they had, and it had changed the woman’s name. It also said it had amended lines in the poem which specified the duration of the marriage and had named a specific location.
13. The publication said the information that was included within the article could not identify a specific person. It said that some of the information the complainant said identified him was not mentioned in the article. It also noted that, as the town was not specified, the article could relate to anyone within the Isle of Wight’s population of 140,000 people. The publication also said that the complainant did not have a high public profile and his name was not widely known. It said that, therefore, writing that the man was in a position of power and had considerable finances did not identify him. It said that the pet term in the poem would not be known to anyone not close enough with his wife to know the circumstances described and that the conduct and behaviours described could be true of many people.
14. The publication also stated that the complainant had set up a fake social media account and that a relative of the complainant had also posted comments under her own name on the publication’s website, referring to her familial relationship to the complainant. The publication said this could have led to the identification of the complainant, rather than the anonymised article itself. It said no one had contacted it identifying him, and that it had not been asked to remove it by the police, courts, or social workers.
15. The publication said that as the children could not be identified in the article, there was no breach of Clause 6. It also noted that as some of the complainant’s children were six and under, they would be unaware of the article, and noted that a document provided by the complainant said that they may become aware of it in the future. It said that any comments from other pupils could not be demonstrated to have resulted from the article as opposed to other sources.
16. The complainant accepted that he had created a fake social media profile and that a family member had commented on the article, but stated that he had been identified multiple times prior to these comments by people who were not aware of the details of his case.
Relevant Clause 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.
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 private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Clause 6 (Children)*
i) All pupils should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.
ii) They must not be approached or photographed at school without permission of the school authorities.
iii) Children under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents.
iv) Children under 16 must not be paid for material involving their welfare, nor parents or guardians for material about their children or wards, unless it is clearly in the child's interest.
v) Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child's private life.
The Public Interest
There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.
1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.
4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.
5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.
Findings of the Committee
17. The Committee made clear that it is of significant public interest for the press to be able to report on domestic abuse. It noted that IPSO is not in a position to make a ruling over whether either parties’ allegations were accurate, and that its role was to find whether the publication breached the Editors’ Code. In such sensitive and personal cases, the press has a responsibility to ensure that it is reporting in a responsible and accurate way, and to balance the rights of all individuals involved.
18. The publication accepted that the complainant was the man referred to in the article, but said that it was impossible to prove allegations as personal as those relating to domestic issues, and so it had anonymised the article in order to be able to tell the woman’s story. It also said it had taken care to portray the story as being from the woman’s point of view and had made clear that the police and courts had found in her husband’s favour. However, the publication retained an obligation to ensure that it took care over the accuracy of published claims, and to distinguish claims from established facts.
19. While some aspects of the woman’s account in the article were clearly attributed to her as claims, the article had stated as fact that the complainant’s wife was a “survivor of horrendous domestic abuse”, that her husband had sold her for sex, tracked her movements, timed when she was permitted to go out and lied to her about the contents of a private medical letter. These were extremely serious claims of behaviour, some of which would amount to criminal conduct. The publication accepted that its sole source of information was the woman herself; it had attempted to speak to her counsellor but had been unable to do so. It had not taken other steps, such as contacting the complainant or any official source, to test the allegations. Given the nature of the allegations and the limited steps that the publication had taken, the Committee found that their presentation in this form represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article and was a breach of Clause 1(i). The accusations were very serious and damaging to the complainant and were therefore significant and required clarification. The publication had offered a right to reply to the complainant, but this did not meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii). There was therefore a further breach of Clause 1(ii).
20. The article also contained several claims which had been made by the complainant’s wife and which were presented as direct quotes from her. They were clearly distinguished as the comments of his wife, and not as established fact, and the publication of these claims did not breach Clause 1.
21. The complainant had noted a number of biographical details and information relating to the conduct and behaviour of both him and his wife that he said could make him identifiable as the husband. The Committee considered that the extent of biographical information contained in the article reduced the possible pool of families this article could relate to. The article also gave details about the his wife’s behaviours and conduct that had the potential to identify the family within the local community. When taken together, these personal and biographical details about the complainant had the clear potential to identify the complainant and his children as the subjects of the article, and the complainant as the subject of the allegations. The Committee found that the allegations against the complainant related his family life, in respect of which he had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Clause 2 was therefore engaged.
22. The Committee then considered whether the publication of this information was justified in the public interest. The Committee recognised the importance of the right of freedom of expression generally, and specifically noted the public interest in reporting on matters of significant public interest, such as domestic abuse. The Committee noted, further, the importance of balancing the right of individuals to give an account of their experiences with the rights of individuals who may challenge that account. The publication had recognised that the woman’s account could be given without infringing the rights of the husband and children; indeed, it sought to do so by anonymising the woman. However, in this instance, the article contained extensive information about the complainant and his children and their family life, which made them identifiable as the subject of the article. The information about him and the children, including the disputed allegations, was plainly information about their private lives in respect of which they had a reasonable expectation of privacy and its publication was an unjustified intrusion in breach of Clause 2.
23. The relevant part of the Editors’ Code relating to the complainant’s children was Clause 6(i) which states that all pupils should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion. The complainant had stated that his children had faced problems at school after the publication of the article, where allegations about their father had been repeated to them. Publication of the article, in circumstances where the children were identifiable, represented an unnecessary intrusion into their time at school. As the publication had not identified an exceptional public interest there was a breach of Clause 6.
24. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1, Clause 2 and Clause 6.
Remedial action required
25. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee had established a breach of Clause 1, Clause 2, and Clause 6, the appropriate remedial action was an adjudication.
26. The Committee considered the placement of the adjudication. The print article had featured on page 3, with a banner referencing the article on the front page. The Committee therefore required that the adjudication should be published on page 3 or further forward in the newspaper, with a reference to the adjudication on the front page. The headline to the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, reference the title of the newspaper and refer to the complaint’s subject matter. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance.
27. The adjudication should also be published online, with a link to this adjudication (including the headline) being published on the top 50% of the publication’s homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. The headline to the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, give the title of the publication and refer to the complaint’s subject matter. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance.
28. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:
Following an article published on 25 September 2020 headlined "SOLD FOR SEX AND ABUSED BY HUSBAND / Living a hell at home”, a man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the newspaper had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 Privacy and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors' Code of Practice. IPSO upheld this complaint and has required the Isle of Wight County Press to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.
The article was an account of a woman described as a “survivor of horrendous domestic abuse”. The article was referenced on the front page with the banner “SOLD FOR SEX AND ABUSED BY HUSBAND” advertising the article on the front page of the newspaper. The article explained that the woman had “told the County Press” that her husband was an abuser and had told her story through a “chilling poem”, which accompanied the article. The article reported that the woman’s husband, who she had since left, had abused her and had “sold his wife for sex, tracked her movements via her phone and timed her when she was permitted to go out.” The article also reported he had opened medical letters and lied about their content. It said that the police and courts had sided with her husband and he had acquired residency of the children. The article contained biographical details about the man and his wife, as well as references to their conduct and behaviour.
The complainant, who said he was the husband of the woman in the article, was complaining on his and his children’s behalf. He said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that he had not abused his wife, and provided notifications of no further action from the police. He also provided notes from a child protection conference which repeated that many of the claims his wife had made were considered to be false. He also said that her social media showed that she did go out with friends during their period together. He said that it was inaccurate to state that he had opened her medical test results, and that she had lied about suffering from a serious illness. The complainant said that both social services and the police had found that her work was not affected by him. He also said that whilst there had been bank accounts which were opened in his wife’s name and then emptied, this had been done so by his wife, and not by him. He also said it was inaccurate to report that he had sold his wife for sex, and that this allegation had not been made previously, or been reported to the police. The complainant said that whilst he was not named in the article, the biographical details about him and his wife, as well as references to their conduct and behaviour made him identifiable. He also said that his children had faced problems at school since the publication of the article, including allegations from the article being repeated to his children at school.
IPSO made clear that domestic abuse is an important and sensitive issue of significant public interest. The press plays a critical role in highlighting such issues, however, when doing so the press has a responsibility to ensure that it is reporting in a responsible and accurate way and to balance the rights of all individuals involved. IPSO was not making a finding on the accuracy of the allegations, but whether there had been a breach of the Editors’ Code.
IPSO found that the article had stated as fact that the complainant’s wife was a “survivor of horrendous domestic abuse”, that her husband had sold her for sex, tracked her movements, timed when she was permitted to go out and had lied about medical information relating to her after he had opened a letter addressed to her.
IPSO found that where the publication had failed to demonstrate how it had taken care not to publish inaccurate information there was a breach of Clause 1.
IPSO also considered that the biographical details and information relating to the conduct and behaviour of both him and his wife rendered the complainant identifiable as the husband in the article. The Committee found that the allegations against the complainant related his family life, in respect of which he had a reasonable expectation of privacy and the information was not justified nor in the public interest. There was a breach of Clause 2.
IPSO had found that the complainant was identifiable in the article, and his children had faced problems at school after the publication of the article, where allegations about their father had been repeated to them. The allegations related to serious, intimate and inaccurate allegations and amounted to an intrusion into their time at school. Publication of the article, in circumstances where the children were identifiable, represented an unnecessary intrusion into their time at school, and there was a breach of Clause 6.
Date complaint received: 28/09/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 10/06/2021
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