Ruling

00234-20 Sharp v thescottishsun.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      22nd April 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00234-20 Sharp v thescottishsun.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. Jill Sharp complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thescottishsun.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “NO REMORSE Jailed stalker ‘Champagne Jill’ poses in hot tub with bottle of bubbly as victims blast early release” published on 16 October 2019.

2. The article reported that a woman – aged 32 – had “posed in a hot tub following her early release from prison”. The article explained that the woman – described in the article as a fantasist – had been sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to stalking a former friend and her husband between 2014 and 2017. It reported the comments the woman had made on Facebook after her release and that she had shared photographs of her drinking champagne in a bubble bath and drinking champagne in her pyjamas surrounded by balloons – it reported that she had previously boasted of her “champagne lifestyle”. It then included the response from the husband of the former friend she had stalked who was quoted as saying “This obsession she has with champagne is sad but we won’t be intimidated by her”. The article reported the charges to which the woman had pleaded guilty– including sending abusive and threatening text messages and emails and “poison pen letters” cut out of newspapers.

3. The article also explained that the newspaper had reported in 2017 accusations that the woman had faked a relationship with a stranger for four years by manipulating photographs of the man and his fiancée posted on social media. The article then explained that the woman told her friends she was engaged to the man and created a “double life” for herself. It also explained that the woman would shadow the man and his real-life fiancée by going to places they had visited and taking her own pictures and sharing stories of their “alleged romance”. The article also reported that the woman had claimed that a footballer was “’going to help with an Ibrox proposal’ from her fake boyfriend”.

4. The article also included several photographs of the woman. It included one photograph which allegedly had been manipulated by her to claim she was in a relationship with the man, two photographs of the woman drinking champagne in a bubble bath, and one photographs of the woman drinking champagne whilst sitting on a sofa in her pyjamas. It also included a photograph of the woman, seemingly on holiday.

5. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1. She said that she was 33 at the time of publication, not 32. She said that she was not a stalker or a fantasist. She said that the husband of her former friend was inaccurate to claim that she was “obsessed by champagne” or that she had previously boasted of her “champagne lifestyle”. She said that she had never fabricated a relationship with the man, and she was the victim of a hoax. She also said that although she was originally charged with offences relating to the allegedly faked relationship, these were dropped and she was never convicted on these points. She said that she had always denied these allegations, and this denial was in the public domain via previous articles at the time the article was published. She said that she was not convicted of sending the former friend any “poison pen” messages cut out of newspapers, but did accept that her indictment showed she pleaded guilty to “repeatedly send letters to [former friend’s husband’s] colleagues which included malicious remarks”.

6. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 2, as it published photographs or stills from videos without her permission. However, she accepted that all the photographs or videos had been publicly available on social media at the time of publication. The complainant also said that the publication of the article 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.

7. The newspaper did not accept that the article breached Clause 1. It said that the claim that the complainant was “obsessed by champagne” was clearly an opinion – in this case the view of the former friend’s husband – and was attributed to him in a quotation. With regards to the point relating to poison pen messages, it provided a press release from the Scottish Crown Procurator Fiscal Service (SCPFS) published after the complainant was sentenced which said that she “sent threatening and abusive text messages, poison pen letters cut out of newspapers and emails to the employers of her victims”. Similarly, it said that the article also made clear that the points relating to the alleged faked relationship were allegations.

8. The complainant disputed the accuracy of the press release referred to by the newspaper but accepted that she had not approached the SCPFS to amend the alleged inaccuracies.

9. The newspaper did not accept that the article breached Clause 2. It said that all the photographs or videos had been published on open social media, and did not reveal anything private about the complainant. The newspaper said that in relation to Clause 3, this generally related to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. It did not apply to the frequency that articles about a person were published, so the terms of Clause 3 were not engaged.

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

10. The Committee emphasised first that it was not making a finding on the accuracy of the allegations made against the complainant. Its role was to decide whether there had been a breach of the Editors’ Code.

11. The difference between reporting that the complainant was 32 or 33 years old did not amount to a significant inaccuracy in the context of the overall article – it did not affect the reporting of the complainant’s conviction or the nature of the claims made against her. 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 “stalker” or a “fantasist”. The claim that the complainant was “obsessed with champagne” was a personal opinion rather than a statement of fact, and this was made clear by the article’s use of quotation marks to attribute it to the former friend’s husband. Furthermore, the Committee considered that where it was not in dispute that the complainant had posted pictures on social media of herself drinking champagne in a hot tub and the focus of the article was on the reaction to these posts, the extent to which the complainant had boasted previously about her “champagne lifestyle” was not significant to the overall article. Reporting this point did not give rise to any significant inaccuracy requiring correction. With regards to the claim that the complainant had sent poison pen letters cut out from newspapers, this had been accurately reported from the SCPFS statement released after the complainant’s conviction. The Committee noted that the complainant had disputed this statement, but in the absence of complaint to the SCPFS or material to contradict it and where the complainant had pleaded guilty to sending letters which included malicious remarks, the Committee could not find that this point represented a significant inaccuracy. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

12. With regards to the article’s reporting of the allegedly faked relationship, the article did make clear on some points during the article that this was an allegation by reporting that she was “accused” of an “alleged” romance. However, it also presented the claim as fact in stating that the complainant had a “fake boyfriend” and omitting any denial of the claims from the article. Presenting these allegations as fact, despite the existence of the complainant’s denial in previous articles, constituted a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, and there was a breach of Clause 1(iv). Where this meant that 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). The newspaper had not offered to take any action in response to the complaint, and so there was a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

13. The complainant accepted that the photographs and video included in the articles were publicly available on social media at the time of publication. Furthermore, they simply showed her likeness. For these reasons, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over these photographs or video 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.

Conclusion

14. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

15. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication. The nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

16. The Committee considered that the article gave a misleading account of the status of the claim made against the complainant that she had fabricated a relationship. However, this was not central to the main theme of the articles, which she had posted photographs of herself following her release from prison which had upset others. Furthermore, in this instance the requirement under Clause 1(ii) was to make clear that the claim that the complainant had fabricated a relationship was disputed by the complainant and to put her position on record. In light of these considerations, the Committee concluded that a correction was the appropriate remedy.

17. This correction should acknowledge that the claim that the complainant had stalked the man by pretending to be in a relationship with him, creating a fake Twitter account, and photoshopping images, were allegations disputed by the complainant, not established fact. This wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance and in addition to the points above, include a reference to the newspaper title, the article subject, and that it has been required following an upheld ruling from IPSO. It should be added to the article and appear as a standalone correction in the online corrections and clarifications column. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, the correction on the article should be published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the corrections should be published as a footnote which explains the amendments that have been made.

Date complaint received: 11/01/2020

Date complaint concluded: 21/01/2021