Ruling

00231-20 Sharp v mirror.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      11th February 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00231-20 Sharp v mirror.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Jill Sharp complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that mirror.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined “Serial stalker who boasted about fictional 'wild sex life' ruined couple's lives” published on 18 July 2019 and “Stalker posts champagne celebration snaps as early jail release angers victims” published on 16 October 2019.

2. The first article reported that a woman had been convicted of stalking her former friend and her husband. It reported that now the woman had been sentenced, the former friend and her husband had spoken out about their experience. It explained that two women were formerly best friends and that they had an “intense friendship”. However, the article reported that “after [former friend] fell for husband-to-be [name] a year later, it set off a jealousy in [woman] that fuelled a four-year vendetta”. It reported that this was also the belief of the former friend and her husband. The article explained that as a result, the woman had created fake social media accounts – including in the name of “Gemma Stuart” to “torment” the couple by targeting their friendships and family, sending death threats, and spreading lies about the couple. The former friend said that the woman was “…absolutely relentless and merciless for four years…” and that “…all that time it was [woman] that was twisting the knife”. The article also reported that the former friend had written a book about her experience.

3. The first article also reported that separate from this conviction, the complainant had fabricated a relationship with a man by using a stranger’s social media photographs and photoshopping herself into them. It reported that she “boasted about fictional ‘wild sex life’” and that she “created a fake fiancé of her own”. This was also repeated in the quotes attributed to the former friend, who gave details as to what this fabricated relationship consisted of and how it had been carried out.

4. The first article also included several photographs of the woman, including a photograph of the woman attending court, two photographs showing the woman and the former friends together, a photograph of the woman on holiday, a photograph of the woman and a man which the newspaper said the woman had fabricated to make it appear as if she was in a relationship with the man, and a photograph of the woman being arrested outside her home.

5. The second article was published after the complainant had been released from prison. It reported that she had caused controversy by posted photographs of her drinking champagne and celebrating after her release. The husband of the former friend was quoted in the article as saying that the woman was a laughing stock at Ibrox stadium, that “this obsession she has with champagne is sad but we won’t be intimidated by her”; that she was a “fantasist and a stalker” and that “details emerged in court” about her behaviour. 

6. The second article also included a reference to the allegedly fabricated relationship. It said that “In February 2017, it was reported that [woman] had stalked a man who was a complete stranger to her. She created a fake second life using photos [name] and his fiancée [name] had posted on social media. Sharp copied their movements so she could be pictured in places they had visited, then posted loved-up snaps online.  She set up a fake Twitter page for her ‘boyfriend’ and sent romantic messages between them, as well as explicit details of an imaginary sex life.” 

7. The second article also included several photographs of the woman, including a photograph of the woman drinking champagne in her pyjamas after having been released from prison, two different photographs of the woman drinking champagne in a bubble bath, a photograph of the woman and a man which the newspaper said the woman had fabricated to make it appear as if she was in a relationship with the man, and a copy of the original news article which had reported on the allegedly faked relationship.

8. The complainant was the woman who had been convicted of stalking her former friend and her husband, and who had been previously accused of fabricating a relationship. She said that the first article contained a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. She said that it was not the case that she had an “intense friendship” with the former friend before she started stalking her, or that she was jealous of her or her husband, or that she the name of “Gemma Stuart” to do so. However, she accepted that her indictment showed she had pleaded guilty to having created “…and repeatedly used social media accounts and email addresses which concealed her true identity” and that she did “contact said [former friend and her husband] and others connected to them using said social media accounts and email addresses which concealed your true identity”.  She said that it was not the case that she “tormented” the couple, targeted their friendship or family, or sent death threats although she did accept that her indictment showed she “sent abusive and threatening remarks, and that [she] left voicemails in which [she] did utter sectarian remarks and threats of violence”. She also did not accept that she was “absolutely relentless” in her behaviour or that she had been “twisting the knife”. She said that she did not stalk the couple for four years although she did accept that that the Sheriff had said that she carried out a campaign “for more than three years” and that her indictment covers from 1 January 2014 – 6 August 2017. Finally, she said that it was misleading to include reference to the former friend’s book, as this was a work of fiction.

9. The complainant said that the first article was also inaccurate to report that she had fabricated a relationship. She said that she had not been convicted of any offence in relation to this allegation and had always maintained that she was the victim of a hoax. She said that she had always strongly denied this allegation, which the article did not make clear. She said that her denial was in the public domain at the time of publication, via its inclusion in previous articles.

10. The complainant also said that the first article intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 2 by using photographs of her without her permission. However, she did accept that all the photographs had either appeared on open social media profiles, had already been published in articles from 2017, or had been taken in public places.

11. With regards to the second article, she said that it also included a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. She said that it was not the case that she was a laughing stock at Ibrox, nor that she had an obsession with champagne. She disputed that she was a fantasist or a stalker or that “details emerged in court” about her behaviour – she said that very little was said in court about her behaviour. Where the second article also repeated the references to the allegedly faked relationship as fact and did not include her denial, she said that it was inaccurate for the same reasons as the first article.

12. The complainant also said that the second article intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 2 by using photographs of her without her permission. However, she did accept that all the photographs had either appeared on open social media profiles or had already been published in articles from 2017.

13. The complainant also said that the publication of the articles represented a continuation of persistent coverage by the newspaper, which she said was unjustified and excessive. Therefore, she said that the publication of these articles constituted a breach of Clause 3.

14. With regards to the first article, the newspaper did not accept that it inaccurately reported the nature of the complainant’s conviction. It said that reporter’s notes showed that the former friend had contacted the police in relation to unwanted contact from a person called “Gemma Stuart”, along with two other accounts which had been traced to the complainant. It said that although it accepted that Gemma Stuart had never been traced to the complainant, where it was not in dispute that she had used fake names and accounts to harass the complainant, any inaccuracy on this point was not significantly misleading as to the nature of her conviction. However, it said that as a gesture of goodwill it would be happy to add a clarification setting out that although “Gemma Stuart” had not been traced to the complainant, two other usernames were proven to have been used by her. It said that in relation to the complainant contacting the couple’s friends and family, this was presented in the article as a quote from the former friend’s husband, it said that where the complainant had admitted creating false email addresses and social media accounts to contact the couple’s employers and social clubs and accepted that it could have resulted in loss of their employment, the publication did not accept that this would be a significant inaccuracy whether she contacted family members or not. It noted that according to the reporters’ notes, the Sheriff had said:

'Probably the most serious part of your behaviour was in sending emails to their employers and golf club about selling heroin to children and involvement in bigoted sectarianism and demanding they be dismissed from their jobs. These emails were treated seriously by their employers and resulted in investigations.'

It said that in relation to the claim that the complainant had harassed the couple four years, it noted that the Sheriff had said:

“For more than three years you conducted a campaign against them in a calculated and deliberate attempt to ruin their lives. In this aim you succeeded.”

15. With regards to the allegedly faked relationship which appeared in both the first and second articles, it said that at the time that these articles were published, the publication was confident that the article was accurate. It said that the complainant was originally charged with offences relating to this allegation, although they were not pursued by the Crown.  In light of this development, the newspaper accepted that the articles should be amended to reflect this. As such, on receipt of the complaint it amended both articles to make clear that the points relating the allegedly faked relationship were claims, and added this wording as a footnote:

This article has been amended to make clear that the information relating to [name] are claims. 

In the newspaper’s first response to IPSO’s investigation, it also offered to add this wording to the footnote:

Prior to the trial of the defendant with charges of harassment relating to [former friend and former friend’s husband], we are happy to make clear that the Crown did not pursue the charges in relation to [name]

A day after this offer, it then revised this wording to state:

“This article has been amended to make clear that the information relating to [name] are claims. Prior to the trial of the defendant with charges of harassment relating to [former friend and former friend’s husband], we are happy to make clear that the Crown did not pursue the charges in relation to [name] and that Jill Sharp disputes these claims.”

16. The newspaper did not accept that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the photographs published in the articles. It said that, in particular, the photograph of the complainant being arrested was taken in a public place where the arrest would have been visible to any passer-by. In relation to Clause 3, it said that the frequency of articles did not engage the terms of Clause 3.

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.

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.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Findings of the Committee

17. In regards to the first article, where it was accepted that the complainant had formerly been close friends with her former friend her husband, describing this friendship as “intense” was not significantly misleading as the facts of the case such as to require correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). With regards to the claim which appeared in the first article that the complainant had been jealous of her former friend’s engagement – it was partly attributed to her former friend and her husband, who said it was their belief that this was the case. The Committee also had regard to the statement from the SCPFS, which said that this narrative had been heard by the court. Where this was clearly speculation, attributed to a person rather than adopted as part of the court’s findings, there was no failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, and was not significantly misleading as to charges to which the complainant had pleaded guilty. Where it was accepted that the complainant had used a variety of pseudonyms and fake social media accounts to harass her former friend and her husband, the actual names which the complainant used were not significant in reporting this fact. Reporting that the complainant had used the name “Gemma Stuart”, when in fact she had been convicted of using different names, was not significantly misleading as to the nature of her conviction as to require correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

18. Where the complainant had been convicted of causing her former friend and her husband fear and alarm, it was not misleading to report that she had “tormented” them. Similarly, with regards to the claim that that the complainant had contacted the former friend and her husband’s friends and family, the Committee noted that the indictment provided by the complainant recorded that part of her conviction relating to contacted people “connected” to the woman and her husband; it did not specify whether this was their friends, family, or both. As such, the Committee did not have grounds to find that reporting that the complainant contacted the woman’ and her husband’s families as part of her campaign of harassment was significantly misleading as to the nature of her conviction. The Committee also had regard to the complainant’s indictment which showed she had pleaded guilty to making “abusive and threatening remarks” and “threats of violence”. Where it was clear that the complainant had been convicted of making threats of a violent nature, reporting that she had made “death threats” was not significantly misleading as to require correction.

19. Where the complainant had been convicted of a course of conduct lasting more than three and half years, it was not inaccurate to report that she had been “absolutely relentless” in her behaviour – the Committee also noted that this was attributed to the former friend via quotation marks. Also attributed to the former friend was the claim that the woman had been “twisting the knife” – it was clear that this was in reference to the complainant causing her former friends distress, and so was not significantly misleading as to her behaviour or conduct as to require correction. Where it was accepted that the complainant’s indictment covered a period of more than three and a half years, the difference between three and a half and four years was not significantly misleading to the fact that the complainant had engaged in a significant period of harassment against her former friends. For all of these reasons, the points in the first article did not contain any significant inaccuracies requiring correction. There was no claim in the article that the former friend’s book was factual – only that it was based on her experience, which was not in dispute. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

20. In regards to the second article, all of the claims under dispute were attributed to the husband of her former friend via quotation marks. There was no failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact in reporting his comment. With regards to the claim that she was a “laughing stock” at Ibrox, although he complainant disputed this, she did not provide any basis to suggest that she had not been criticised or caused controversy following her conviction or release from prison. The Committee also considered that the complainant was not in a position to dispute this claim – she could not claim to have knowledge of the entire Ibrox community or fanbase, or their views of her behaviour. For this reason, the Committee did not find that this claim raised any significant inaccuracies requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). Similarly, although the complainant disputed she had an “obsession with champagne”, the basis for this was set out in the article – she had celebrated her release from prison by posting pictures on social media of her drinking champagne. The Committee could not find that this comment – clearly presented as the former friend’s husband’s own characterisation – as representing a significant inaccuracy requiring correction. Where the complainant had been convicted of stalking offences and was found to have created fake online profiles in order to do this, it was not significantly misleading to describe her as a “fantasist and a stalker”, and where her case had been heard in court, it was not inaccurate to report that “details emerged in court” about her behaviour. For all of these reasons, these points did not raise any breach of Clause 1 in the second article.

21. In relation to the allegedly fabricated relationship which was referenced in both articles, this was reported as fact and the articles did not report that the complainant denied the allegation. Presenting this allegation as fact, despite the existence of the complainant’s denial which was in the public domain at the time of publication, constituted a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, and there was a breach of Clause 1(iv). Where the article was significantly misleading as to the status of these serious allegations, a clarification putting on the record that these claims were allegations disputed by the complainant was required under Clause 1(ii).

22. On receipt of the complaint, the newspaper had amended the article to make clear that the points relating the allegedly faked relationship were claims, rather than points of fact. It also added a footnote to the articles to record that this change had been made. In the first response to IPSO’s investigation, it offered to add to the footnote that the charges relating to this allegation were not pursued by the Crown – a day after this response, it added that the complainant disputed the claims. This offer was sufficiently prompt and as a footnote to the online article, was sufficiently prominent. The wording of the footnote made clear the complainant’s position and the status of the claims, as required under Clause 1(ii). For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

23. With regards to the photographs which appeared in both articles, the complainant accepted that they were publicly available on social media at the time of publication, had been taken in public places, or were already in the public domain after having been published in previous articles. For these reasons, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over these photographs and their publication did not represent an intrusion into her privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2. The terms of Clause 3 are generally interpreted to apply to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. The concern that the newspaper had printed an article which was unnecessary did not engage the terms of Clause 3.

Conclusions

24. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1(iv).

Remedial Action Required

25. The action which the newspaper had offered was sufficiently prompt and prominent, and made clear the status of the claims. This was sufficient to comply with the terms of Clause 1(ii), and should now be printed.


Date complaint received: 20/5/2020

Date decision issued: 21/1/2021