Ruling

00385-16 Billingham v Chichester Observer

    • Date complaint received

      23rd June 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00385-16 Billingham v Chichester Observer 

Summary of complaint

1. Marilyn Billingham complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Chichester Observer breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “George Bell: Hero bishop now known to have abused child”, published online on 22 October 2015, and headlined “Legacy of Bishop Bell lies in ruins”, published in print on 29 October 2015.

2. The online article reported that the former Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, was “known to have abused [a] child”. It said that he had “abused a young victim while leader of the diocese”, and that this news would “come as a great shock to people who regarded him as a hero”. It said that “police [had] confirmed that if George Bell was still alive when the victim [first] contacted the Diocese of Chichester in 1995, he would have been arrested and interviewed on suspicion of ‘serious sexual offences’”. It also included a number of biographical details about George Bell, and set out why many members of the public held him in such high esteem. It said that “it now seems likely he will be remembered for a horrendous act that has scarred a victim for life”. It quoted the claimant’s solicitor, who said that “for [her] client, the compensation finally received does not change anything. How could any amount of money possibly compensate for childhood abuse?”

3. Similar coverage appeared in the print version of the article. This also reported that George Bell had been “revealed to have abused a young child while leading the diocese”.

4. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to report as fact that George Bell had sexually abused a child. George Bell had not been found guilty in a court of law of such offences, and there was no further evidence to corroborate the allegations. It was therefore also misleading for the article to have referred throughout to a “victim”, rather than an “alleged victim”; the fact that the police had said that George Bell would have been arrested had he been alive when the allegations were first made was not indicative of any guilt.

5. The complainant provided a copy of a Church of England press release which she said appeared to be the only information available in the public domain about the matter prior to publication. The complainant noted that, while the press release said that the current Bishop of Chichester had issued a formal apology following the settlement of a civil claim, it did not make any absolute admissions of guilt or liability. She argued that on the basis of the information available in the public domain, the newspaper was unable to claim that it was accurate to report that George Bell had abused a child.

6. The complainant also said that separately, and a number of months following the publication of the article, the Bishop of Durham speaking in the House of Lords had indicated that the Church had not accepted the allegations were true; he said that “if noble Lords read very carefully the statements that have been put out, they will see that there has been no declaration that we are convinced that this took place”. She also noted that the Church of England press release had been the subject of some criticism by supporters of George Bell.

7. The newspaper said that it had given the matter careful consideration prior to publication, and argued that the article accurately reflected the Church of England’s position on the claim. According to the Church press release, the claim had been settled on the basis of a payment of civil damages and the current Bishop of Chichester had apologised to the victim. It made clear that there had been a thorough pre-litigation process, which included the commissioning of expert independent reports; it said that none of the reports “found any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim”. The newspaper argued that in these circumstances – and given that the statement also included reference to the police’s position that George Bell would have been arrested had he been alive – it was clear that the Church had accepted the veracity of the claim, and that its coverage was therefore reasonable, accurate, and proportionate.

8. The newspaper noted that, separately, the Church had taken steps beyond the civil settlement; it had removed all reference to George Bell’s name in the properties it owned. Further, in response to an interview with the claimant subsequently published in a different newspaper, the current Bishop of Chichester released a statement which made clear his position that “words of apology written in a letter can never be enough to express the Church’s shame or our recognition of damage done”. It also noted that during a radio interview which took place a number of months following the publication of the article, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that “on the balance of probability, at this distance, it seemed clear to us after very thorough investigation that [the person who came forward and said that they had been abused by George Bell] was correct and so we paid compensation and gave a profound and deeply felt apology”. Further, the newspaper noted that the current dean of Chichester Cathedral subsequently said that “in time to come we will acquire ways to continue to recognise the huge contribution which Bell made to the history of his time and his lasting legacy, and hold them alongside an acknowledgement of his serious wrongdoing”, and that the settlement “does not re-write history: Bell’s achievements are a matter of record. It does though acknowledge serious wrong-doing on his part”. It said that this demonstrated that the Church had accepted that George Bell had abused a child.

9. The newspaper also argued that, to have referred in the article to “allegations” of abuse – or to have referred to an “alleged victim” – would have been to cast doubt on the victim’s account; it had an obligation not to undermine those who make claims of serious child sexual abuse. This had been a failing of too many people for too long, and had allowed for a number of serial offenders to continue their behaviour unchallenged. It argued that it served the public interest not to dismiss the offences as mere “claims” in the full circumstances. It noted that high-profile individuals also accused of similar offences following their deaths – and who had never faced criminal proceedings while alive – were not on the whole referred to as “alleged” offenders in the media for this reason.

10. Finally, the newspaper said that it understood that a number of people would want to defend George Bell given his past popularity. It had allowed people to do so by publishing a number of articles and letters – including one written by the complainant – in defence of George Bell.

Relevant Code provisions

11. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

Findings of the Committee

12. The Committee acknowledged that George Bell had not been found guilty in a court of law of serious sexual offences against a child. Following George Bell’s death, there was however no prospect of any such proceedings taking place. Therefore, when reporting on the extent to which the allegations could be said to have been proven, it was impossible for the newspaper to rely on the findings of a court when taking care not to publish inaccurate information in line with its obligations under Clause 1 (i), as it might have done had George Bell still been alive.

13. The Committee did not accept the contention that a newspaper may only report historic allegations as fact in circumstances where a court has found this to be the case. Given their nature, many such allegations will never reach the stage where they could be considered by a court: in such cases, newspapers are not obliged to cast doubt on allegations by constant qualification where a sufficient factual basis can be found elsewhere.

14. In this case, the newspaper had relied on the information provided by the Church of England in an official press release which made clear the basis on which the legal claim relating to the allegations had been settled. It stated that this had “followed a thorough pre-litigation process during which further investigations into the claim took place including the commissioning of expert independent reports” and that “none of those reports found any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim”. The Committee was not in a position to dispute the Church’s conclusions about the reports.

15. While the Committee noted that  the press release did not include a clear admission of liability, it confirmed that the current Bishop of Chichester had apologised to the claimant; included a statement from the claimant’s solicitor setting out the claimant’s response to the settlement; and made clear that the police had “confirmed […] that the information obtained […] would have justified […] Bishop Bell’s arrest and interview on suspicion of serious sexual offences, […] and the subsequent submission of a police report to the CPS”.  The press release did not refer to an “alleged victim”, and instead referred to the claimant as a “survivor”, and said that the current bishop of Chichester “paid tribute to the survivor’s courage in coming forward to report the abuse”.

16. To this extent – while initially referring to “allegations” – the press release had adopted the allegations of abuse as fact.

17. The newspaper was entitled to report the information provided by the Church in an official press release. Given its content and tone, it was not unreasonable for the newspaper to conclude that the Church had accepted the account of the victim.  The Committee noted that the subsequent statements made by the Church publicly in relation to the case made clear that it had accepted that abuse had taken place.

18. In the specific circumstances of the case, where the Church had provided details of the investigation it had carried out in its press release, as well as the conclusion of independent experts that there was no basis to doubt the veracity of the allegations against Bishop Bell, the Committee was satisfied that publication of those allegations as fact in the headline of the article did not represent a failure to take care over the article such as to breach Clause 1 (i) of the Code. While the Committee expressed some concern that the online article did not make clear the full context in which it had been published, it was not significantly misleading; there was no breach of the Code.

Conclusions

19. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 21/01/2016
Date decision issued: 06/06/2016