Ruling

00235-20 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 00235-20 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 articles headlined:

  • GUILTY TEARS Fantasist Rangers fan ‘Champagne Jill’ Sharp cries in dock as she’s jailed over fake online accounts to stalk fellow Gers supporting couple” published on 17 July 2019
  • “'LOYAL' CUSTOMERS Rangers stalker ‘Champagne Jill’ Sharp selling Celtic gear and other football merchandise in Airdrie market shop” published on 21 October 2019
  • “'MUST READ' Rangers fantasist ‘Champagne Jill’ Sharp’s victim writes new book about ordeal – as Andy Goram backs novel” published on 12 November 2"
  • “CHAMPAGNE JILL Rangers fan furious as stalker fan Jill Sharp boasts over Celtic cup final tickets – but others are convinced it’s fake” published on 15 November 2019

2. The article headlined “GUILTY TEARS” reported that a woman – aged 32 – had been sentenced for stalking a former friend and her husband over a period of years. It reported that the court heard that the woman became jealous when her former friend became engaged, and that this was also the former friend’s belief. It explained that the woman had created fake online profiles to target the former friend and her husband; sending messages to their employers and local golf club accusing them of being drug dealers and committing sectarian offences, sending them abusive and threatening text messages and emails, and also sending “poison pen letters” cut out of newspapers. In addition, it also reported that just over two months ago, the woman was filmed drinking champagne in a hot tub.

3. The article then explained that the newspaper had reported in 2017 accusations that the woman had faked a relationship was 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 by sharing stories of their “alleged romance”. 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. The article reported that the woman denied any wrongdoing, and said that the accusations “simply weren’t true”.

4. The second article headlined “’LOYAL’ CUSTOMERS” reported that the woman – aged 32 – had opened a market stall following her release from prison. It gave the name and location of her business, and included a photograph of the shop. It reiterated the charges for which the woman had been convicted in the same terms as the first article. It reported that following the woman’s release from prison, she had “moaned” in a Facebook post in which she claimed that she was the victim in the case, and that her actions were justified following “fake stories” which had been written about her. The article repeated the claims about the allegedly fake relationship in the same terms as the first article, but did not include her denial.

5. The third article headlined “MUST READ” reported that the former friend who the woman had stalked had written a book based on her experience, and that the book had been backed by a footballer. It also described the complainant as being 32. It included a quote from the footballer who said “I know the pain and mental torture [former friend] has been through along with [former friend’s husband]… it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone”. It repeated the description of the complainant’s conviction in the same terms as the first and second articles. It also repeated the reference to the allegedly faked relationship in the same terms as the first article, although it also reported that the woman claimed that a differed footballer was “’going to help with an Ibrox proposal’ from her fake boyfriend”. This article also did not include a denial from the complainant on this point.

6. The fourth article headlined “CHAMPAGNE JILL” reported that the woman had “boasted” on social media that she had obtained tickets to a football match. It said that the woman had claimed on social media that she had tickets for a football match, by uploading a screenshot from a football club appearing to confirm that this was the case, alongside the comment “Yeeeeeee haaaaaaaa. Let’s gooooo”. This had caused controversy in light of her recent conviction and jail sentence. It did not include the details of the complainant’s conviction or the alleged fake relationship as included in the previous articles. However, it did describe the complainant as a “fantasist”.

7. The complainant, the woman who had been convicted of stalking her former friend and her husband, said that the first article headlined “GUILTY TEARS” contained a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. She said that she was aged 33 at the time of publication, rather than 32. She disputed that she had ever been jealous of her former friend’s engagement, or that this was heard in court. She said that it was not the case that she pleaded guilty to sending threats of violence to her former friend and her husband, or using sectarian language. However, she provided a copy of her indictment, and did accept that it showed she had pleaded guilty to “repeatedly leave voicemail messages for [the former friend] in which [the complainant] did utter sectarian remarks and threats of violence”. 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”.  She also said that it was not the case that the video was filmed two months prior to the article being published – she said that instead it was filmed in 2017. Finally, 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 this allegation, and her denial was in the public domain at the time of publication via previous articles.

8. The complainant said that the second article headlined “LOYAL CUSTOMERS” also breached Clause 1. She said that where it reported her age, details of her conviction, and the allegedly fake relationship in the same terms as the first article, it was inaccurate for the same reasons. She said that it was also not the case that she had “moaned” in her Facebook post. She also said that reporting on her business constituted an intrusion into her privacy, in breach of Clause 2.

9. The complainant said that the third article headlined “MUST READ” also breached Clause 1. She said that where it reported her age, details of her conviction, and the allegedly fake relationship in the same terms as the first article, it was inaccurate for the same reasons. She also said that she had not claimed that a footballer would be helping her “fake boyfriend” propose at Ibrox stadium. She said that the footballer – a different one from the person allegedly involved in the proposal – was  inaccurate to say that her former friend and her husband had suffered “pain” and “mental torture” – she said that this was not the case.

10. The complainant said that the fourth article headlined “CHAMPAGNE JILL” also breached Clause 1. She said that she did not post a picture of her football tickets on social media.

11. The newspaper did not accept that the first article contained any inaccuracies. It said that the difference between 32 and 33 was not significant in the context of the overall article, especially when the difference was only one of a year. With regard to the former friend’s claim that the complainant was jealous of her, it provided a press release from the Scottish Crown Procurator Fiscal Service (SCPFS) published after the complainant was sentenced which said that “the court heard that Sharp became jealous when a former friend formed a relationship and subsequently married” and that the complainant “sent threatening and abusive text messages, poison pen letters cut out of newspapers and emails to the employers of her victims”. It said that the actual time that the video had been filmed was not significant to the article, and it was not in dispute that it had been recently uploaded to social media. The newspaper said that in relation to the allegedly fabricated relationship, the article made clear that these were allegations. It noted that the article reported that the complainant was “accused” of faking a relationship and that she had shared stories of “their alleged romance”. It also said that the article included the complainant’s denial of these allegations by reporting “she denied any wrongdoing and said the accusations ‘simply weren’t true’”. Nevertheless, on receipt of the complaint it removed the references to the fake relationship from the article, the word “fantasist”. It also offered to add the following footnote to the article:

A previous version of this article reported suggestions that Jill Sharp had stalked a man by pretending to be in a relationship with him. We would like to make clear that Ms Sharp disputes the allegations.

12.  The newspaper said that the second article was not misleading to characterise the complainant’s Facebook post as having “moaned” – it was clear from the post that she was denying the crimes she had been convicted of and believed she was in fact the victim. It said that in relation to the reporting of her age, conviction and the allegedly fake relationship, this was also not misleading for the reasons given for the first article. However, on receipt of the complaint it removed the word “fantasist” from the article and all references to the allegedly fake relationship, aside from the complainant’s own quote referring to “fake news stories in 2017”. It also offered to publish the same footnote as for the first article.

13.  The newspaper said that the third article presented the point regarding the former friends having suffered “mental pain and torture” as a quote from the footballer. Therefore, it was clearly distinguished as a person’s opinion. Furthermore, in the SCPFS’s press release, the Procurator Fiscal was quoted as saying that the complainant’s conduct “caused significant anxiety and alarm” and that “the invasion of the personal lives of her victims was wholly unacceptable”. Therefore, this quote did not mislead as to the nature of the complainant’s conviction. It said that in relation to the reporting of her age, conviction and the allegedly fake relationship, this was also not misleading for the reasons given for the first article. However, on receipt of the complaint it removed the word “fantasist” from the article and all references to the allegedly fake relationship. It also offered to publish the same wording as for the first article.

14. The newspaper said that the fourth article was not inaccurate. The article did not say that the complainant posted a picture of her tickets on social media – only that she had posted about it and posted a screenshot of an email appearing to confirm that this was the case. It said that it was not misleading to describe the complainant as a fantasist when she had been convicted of creating fake social media accounts to harass her former friend and her husband. However, on receipt of the complaint it removed the word “fantasist” from the article.

15. 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.

16. 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

17. In relation to the claim made in three of the articles regarding the complainant’s age, the difference between 32 and 33 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. With regards to the claim which appeared in the first, second and third articles 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. For these reasons, the Committee did not find that these points raised any breach of Clause 1 in relation to the first, second and third articles.

18. With regards to the claim which appeared in the first article that the complainant had been jealous of her former friend’s engagement – this was a claim attributed to the former friend, who said it was her 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 the article had accurately reported the statement from the SCPFS, there was no failure in taking care over the accuracy of the article in reporting that this claim had also been heard by the court. For the reasons set out previously – that this did not affect the charges for which the complainant had been convicted – it did not represent any significant inaccuracy requiring correction. In regards to the first article, whether the video had been filmed in 2017 or the previous year was not significant to the overall article where it was not in dispute that it had been posted recently on social media. For these reasons, the Committee did not find that these points in the first article raised any breach of the Clause 1.

19.  In regards to the second, third and fourth articles, where the second article set out that the complainant had expressed her dismay and disagreement with her conviction in the video she posted online, and considered that she was the victim in the case, the basis was made clear to describe her as having “moaned” in the video. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in describing the complainant’s actions in these terms and no significant inaccuracy requiring correction. The claim in the third article that the complainant’s behaviour had caused her former friend and her husband “pain” and “mental torture” was attributed to the footballer in quotation marks. There was no failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact in reporting this quote, and where the complainant was not in a position to have first-hand knowledge of the effects of her behaviour, there was no significant inaccuracy requiring correction. In relation to the fourth article, the article did not say that the complainant had posted a picture of her tickets on social media. As such, the article was not inaccurate in the way she suggested. There was no breach of Clause 1 in relation to these points. The ownership of a business is a matter of public record and the publication of its name, location and appearance did not relate to the complainant’s private life. As such, there was no breach of Clause 2 in relation to the second article.

20. In relation to the allegedly fabricated relationship which was referenced in the first, second and third articles, the articles did make clear that the complainant disputed the claims, and some of the references included in the articles were presented as claims – for example by reporting that the complainant was “accused” of the fabrication and describing it as the “alleged romance”. However, the Committee considered that the articles did make claims of fact – they reported that the complainant had told her friends that she was engaged to the man and that she had created a “double life”. The third article also stated as fact that the complainant had a “fake boyfriend”. Presenting this allegation as fact, despite the existence of the complainant’s denial via previous articles, constituted a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, and there was a breach of Clause 1(iv). Where the articles were 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).

21. On receipt of the complaint, the newspaper had amended the first, second and third articles to remove references to the allegedly fake relationship. It also offered to publish footnotes to record that this change had been made, and to put on record that the faked relationship was an allegation which the complainant disputed. Where these offers were made on receipt of the complaint, they were sufficiently prompt, and as footnotes to the online article, they were sufficiently prominent. The wording of the footnotes 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) in relation to the first, second and third articles.

22. The fourth article did not contain any reference to the allegedly faked relationship, and so for the reasons already set out, it did not contain any breach of the Code.

23. Finally, 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 in relation to the first, second and third articles.

Remedial action.

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: 11/01/2020

Date complaint concluded: 21/01/2021