Ruling

00575-22 Simon v thesun.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      17th November 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00575-22 Simon v thesun.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Peter, Michael, and Ramana Simon complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thesun.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “COLD CASE 20 years on, there’s no clue about what happened to my girl who went missing in Germany”, published on 27th July 2021.

2. The article, written to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of Louise Kerton, was largely based on an interview with Louise’s father, Phil Kerton. The article described the case as a “cold case” and included details about the disappearance and Mr Kerton’s recollection of what occurred at the time. It reported that Louise had gone missing while in Germany after staying with her boyfriend Peter Simon’s family there during the summer and as she travelled back to her home in Kent. It said that “the lack of independent witnesses, Peter’s odd behaviour back in the UK and the revelation his brother once stood trial for murder led to Louise’s family… asking questions”. The article quoted from the interview with Mr Kerton, who had said that “[t]here have been no arrests, no witnesses, - nothing”.

3. The article stated that Louise Kerton had met Peter Simon, one of the complainants, “at an ice rink when she was 17. He was 14 years her senior yet they hit it off”. It went on to state that “[a]fter a year, he invited her to move in to his flat in Broadstairs within a property owned by his German mother who lived there with another son, Michael Simon. Louise’s parents Phil and Kath found her new boyfriend pleasant and likeable but came to view his family — led by domineering Mrs Simon — as odd”. The article quoted Mr Kerton further as having said “[h]e [Peter Simon] never seemed to work and we couldn’t help thinking, what has he been living on? Mrs Simon didn’t trust anyone in authority, police, doctors or dentists” and that “[o]ne of his brothers had taken his life and another, Michael, was mentally unwell and had been accused of killing a woman. He was cleared but after the case she didn’t let any doctor see him over his mental health. The only treatment he had was when his mother would give him something to calm him down if he got overwrought.”

4. The article went on to describe the events leading up to the disappearance, stating that while in Germany “it appears [Louise’s] health and state of mind deteriorated”. The article quoted Mr Kerton’s recollection of the events, who said that: “Neighbours said she appeared very miserable. It must have been really boring for her — the village was very small.” He also said that “Mrs Simon also said Louise had fallen ill but as she didn’t trust doctors she was medicating her with antibiotics she had bought from a pharmacist”. The article reported that, on the last day Louise was seen, Ramana Simon had taken Louise to the train station and “[h]aving left the car in a no-parking zone, she took Louise into the ticket hall, said goodbye and left without seeing if Louise bought a ticket for the 12.04pm service to Ostend”; the article later reiterated that “[i]t was never established… whether Louise even bought a train ticket at Aachen”. The article went on to quote Mr Kerton as having described Peter Simon as “in tears” after learning that Louise Kerton was not on the ferry.

5. The article also said that a difficulty faced by the investigation “was that the Simons didn’t want to speak to police and criticised Louise’s family for publicising the search. Phil said: ‘Their view was that Louise had run away because she was unhappy due to the way we had brought her up. They said we shouldn’t make a fuss because that would frighten her and she would never come back’”. It further reported that the Simon family had moved and that “Peter is now thought to be living in Switzerland”. The article quoted Mr Kerton as having said “I have always wanted the authorities to explore every possible avenue to find out what happened to my daughter, any dad would”. The article was accompanied by a number of photographs, including one of Peter Simon and Mrs Simon, captioned “Phil [sic] and his mother Ramana at their home in Germany in 2001”.

6. The complainants said that the article contained a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. They said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that “[o]ne of his brothers had taken his life” as he had not taken his own life and had instead died from acute peritonitis and a perforated duodenal ulcer. To support this, the complainants provided a copy of the death certificate. The complainants also said that it was inaccurate for Mr Kerton to have stated that “[t]he only treatment [Michael Simon] had was when his mother would give him something to calm him down if he got overwrought” as this was untrue, and Michael Simon was never said to be “overwrought”.

7. The complainants also said that the headline was inaccurate to refer to the case as a “cold case” as it was instead a complicated drama, and the article should have considered other incidents which occurred in the Simon family. The complainants further said that the article was inaccurate to state that it was a “revelation” that Louise Kerton’s family found out that Michael Simon had once stood trial for murder, as Louise’s mother had asked about the trial in 1993 after hearing the innocent verdict. The complainant said that therefore it was not a revelation, as Louise Kerton’s mother would have told the rest of the family. The complainants also said that the article inaccurately stated that Peter Simon and Louise Kerton had met when Louise was 17, whereas they had met when she was 16, and that Louise had not lived in Peter Simon’s flat, she had lived in her own flat next door to the family.

8. Further, the complainant said that it was in breach of Clause 1 for the article to state that there were “no witnesses” and a “lack of independent witnesses” as there had been several sightings of Louise around Aachen. The complainants also said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that Mrs Simon “left without seeing if Louise bought a ticket for the 12.04pm service to Ostend” and that “[i]t was never established… whether Louise even bought a train ticket at Aachen” as their position was that Mrs Simon had accompanied Louise while she bought a ticket. The complainants further said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that while in Germany, “it appear[ed] her [Louise’s] health and state of mind deteriorated” as Louise had been happy in Germany and there were photos of her smiling.

9. The complainants also said that a number of the quotes given by Mr Kerton were inaccurate. They said that it was inaccurate for Mr Kerton to have said: that “[Peter Simon] never seemed to work and we couldn’t help thinking, what has he been living on?” as he had to work to pay the mortgage; that “Mrs Simon didn’t trust anyone in authority, police, doctors or dentists” as she did trust people; that “Mrs. Simon also said Louise had fallen ill but as she didn’t trust doctors, she was medicating her with antibiotics she had bought from a pharmacist” as  Mrs Simon was not medicating Louise and had given her penicillin as she had requested it; that “Michael, was mentally unwell and had been accused of killing a woman” as at the time of his arrest, Michael Simon had been assessed as fit to be interviewed. They also said that the quote “[t]heir view was that Louise had run away because she was unhappy due to the way we had brought her up. They said we shouldn’t make a fuss because that would frighten her and she would never come back” was inaccurate because their view was that Louise had described difficulties she was facing but she may not have wanted to burden her family with them, due to their misunderstanding of her. The complainants added that Louise had explained this unhappiness and told Peter Simon that she would like to run away from home because of the stress in her family. The complainants also said it was inaccurate for Mr Kerton to have said that he has “always wanted the authorities to explore every possible avenue to find out what happened to my daughter, any dad would”.

10. The complainants also said that the article had breached Clause 1 by stating that “the Simons didn’t want to speak to police and criticised Louise’s family for publicising the search” as the family were compliant and did speak with the police. They further said that it was inaccurate to describe Mrs Simon as “domineering”.

11. The complainants said that the article was also in breach of Clause 2. They said that it breached their privacy by stating that Peter Simon was now thought to be living in Switzerland, which they considered was not relevant to the story. In addition, the complainants said that Clause 2 had been further breached with the inclusion of the photograph of Peter and Ramana Simon at their home in Germany; the complainants said that they had no knowledge of the existence of the photograph and that it had been used without their consent.

12. The complainants further said that the article had breached Clause 4. They said that describing Peter Simon as being “in tears” and his behaviour as “odd” was a breach of Clause 4 as there was nothing odd, and it was a normal response to be upset given the circumstances. The complainants further said that the article had breached Clause 4 by stating that “[o]ne of his brothers had taken his [own] life” as this was insensitive, and offensive and shocking for their family.

13. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It noted that the article was based on an interview with Louise’s father, and supported by information from previous stories which had been in the public domain for many years. It highlighted that Mr Kerton had a right to express his opinion about the case. The publication said that it was fully aware of its obligation under the Code to take care over the accuracy of the information, and the reporter had attempted to contact Peter Simon before the article was published in order to give him the opportunity to provide his input. It explained that it had attempted to locate Peter Simon and discovered that he had likely moved to Switzerland, but it had not been possible to find an address for him and owing to Covid travel restrictions it had not been possible to travel to Switzerland to make inquiries. The publication added that after the article was published, Peter Simon made contact with the newspaper and the reporter made repeated attempts to contact him, but no response was received.

14. In regard to the complainants’ concerns about the statement that one of Peter Simon’s brothers had taken his own life, the publication said that the complainants’ current position was at odds with what Peter Simon had said in the past. The publication said that Peter Simon had told Louise’s family that his brother had died by suicide and this was included in an official statement made to the police at the time by Louise’s sister. It said that this was reported in a newspaper article in 2002, which the publication provided, and which stated that Louise’s sister had said in her statement to police that Peter Simon had said “he had spiritualist powers and contacts and that he had similar feelings when his brother… committed suicide”. The publication said that, given that the information about the suicide was recorded in a police statement, it was entitled to rely upon it and took care over the accuracy of the claim. It added that Mr Kerton corroborated Louise’s sister’s statement and told the newspaper that he remembered learning about the death of Peter Simon’s brother, and that “[t]here was no other explanation offered for his death than that it was a consequence of suicide”.

15. The publication said that the quote: “[t]he only treatment he [Michael Simon] had was when his mother would give him something to calm him down if he got overwrought” was recognisable as Mr Kerton’s recollection of the events. The publication said that Mr Kerton had said that the family’s mistrust of authority became worse following Michael Simon’s court case and that medical professionals were not allowed in the house. He had said that, as a result, Michael Simon was not able to receive medication or treatment and that, as Mrs Simon had been a nurse previously, she was happy to administer medication herself if she had it. While the publication did not consider there had been a breach of Clause 1 in regard to these points, it said that it would be willing to remove the reference to the death of Peter Simon’s brother from the article, and to publish the following clarification as a footnote:

This article originally quoted Mr Kerton as saying that Peter Simon's brother, Frank, died by suicide. That was his memory of what the family had been told, and reflects a witness statement given to police by Louise's sister Angela, in which she stated that Mr Simon told her Frank had killed himself. We have been asked to state that Frank Simon's death certificate lists 'acute peritonitis' and 'perforated duodenal ulcer' as the cause of death following a postmortem without inquest. Mr Simon further states that his brother Michael Simon was too ill to receive further medication after being cleared of a murder charge and that he was not denied access to doctors by his mother.

16. In relation to the complainant’s concerns about the phrase “cold case”, the publication said that this meant an unsolved mystery, which was not inaccurate. It added that the phrase appeared in a tag that preceded the headline and was a shorthand summary. The publication said that the complainant’s concerns about the word “revelation” in regard to Louise’s family finding out Peter Simon’s brother had once stood trial for murder; whether or not Peter Simon and Louise had met when Louise was 16 or 17, and the specific flat that Louise had lived in were not significant within the meaning of Clause 1.

17. The publication said that the statements that there were “no witnesses” and a “lack of independent witnesses” and the statements that Mrs Simon had not seen Louise buy a ticket were clearly the opinions of Mr Kerton and his understanding of the position. It added that it considered any possible inaccuracy arising from these statements was trivial in the context of the article. In addition, the publication said that the complainant’s concerns regarding the quote “it appear[ed] her [Louise] health and state of mind deteriorated”, did not establish an inaccuracy.

18. In regard to the quotes given by Mr Kerton, which the complainants said were inaccurate, the publication said that these were plainly recognisable as Mr Kerton’s opinion, and his conjecture as to what had occurred. In regard to Mr Kerton’s claim about the antibiotics, the publication said that the difference between Mr Kerton’s account and the complainants was trivial. The publication added that the complainant’s concerns about the quote “the Simons didn’t want to speak to police and criticized Louise’s family for publicizing the search” and the description of Mrs Simon as “domineering” were also sections that were clearly the opinions of Mr Kerton and his recollection of events. It further said that the claim that “Michael was mentally unwell and had been accused of killing a woman” made no reference to when Michael Simon had been “mentally unwell” and did not relate to a specific occasion.

19. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 2. It said that the photograph in question was taken by a staff photographer at the newspaper, and that its records showed that it was taken in August 2001. It added that as the complainants had willingly posed for the photograph, they had no reasonable expectation of privacy in regard to it. In regard to the inclusion of the information that Peter Simon was now thought to be living in Switzerland, the publication said that the reporter discovered this through publicly available information. In addition, the publication said that the terms of Clause 4 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 their 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 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Findings of the Committee

20. The Committee accepted the publication’s position that the factual disputes over elements of the article should be considered within their context: an article that presented the interviewee’s recollections and perspective about the disappearance of his daughter. Nonetheless, the publication was obliged to ensure that it took care not to publish inaccurate material and to clearly distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact.

21. The Committee first considered the complainants’ concerns that the article had included inaccurate claims, attributed to Mr Kerton, that “[o]ne of [Peter Simon’s] brothers had taken his life” and that “[t]he only treatment he [Michael Simon] had was when his mother would give him something to calm him down if he got overwrought”. Whilst included in quotes attributed to Mr Kerton, these were significant factual claims which related to the cause of death of Peter Simon’s elder brother and the propriety of medical treatment administered by Ramana Simon in response to a serious condition suffered by Michael Simon.  As such, Clause 1 (i) required the publication to take care over the accuracy of this information. In regard to the reported cause of death of Peter Simon’s elder brother, the publication had provided an article which had been published in 2002 by another newspaper. This article reported a claim which had been made by Louise’s sister in a statement she had given to the police, in which she said that Peter Simon had mentioned that his brother had taken his own life. The publication also said that Mr Kerton shared this recollection. In relation to the claim regarding the treatment administered by Ramana Simon the publication’s position was that this was recognisable as Mr Kerton’s recollection of events. The Committee acknowledged that the publication had made some efforts to contact Peter Simon prior to the article’s publication, but it had not been able to trace him. The Committee was of the view that relying upon one individual’s recollection and one newspaper article did not amount to taking sufficient care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information given the serious nature of the claims being reported. There was, therefore, a breach of Clause 1 (i). The reported claims were significant, as they concerned the cause of death of a member of the complainants’ family and the appropriateness of medical treatment administered by Ramana Simon and required clarification under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

22. The Committee turned next to the question of whether the action undertaken by the publication was sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). During IPSO’s investigation, the publication said that it would be willing to remove the reference to the death of Peter Simon’s brother from the article and to publish a footnote clarification confirming the official cause of Peter Simon’s brother’s death and Peter Simon’s position that his brother Michael Simon was not denied access to doctors by his mother. The Committee was satisfied that the proposed clarification made the correct position clear in regard to Peter Simon’s brother’s death and made his position clear in regard to his brother’s medical treatment. The clarification had been offered promptly and the proposed placement of the clarification as a footnote to the online article was sufficiently prominent. In the view of the Committee, the requirements of Clause 1 (ii) were met.

23. The complainants had said that it was inaccurate to refer to the story as a “cold case” as they felt that it was instead a “complicated drama”, and that the article omitted to mention other incidents which had occurred in the Simon family. Where the case remained unsolved after 20 years, it was not inaccurate to describe it as a “cold case”. In addition, the article did not need to refer to other incidents which had occurred in the Simon family and which the complainants considered amounted to a complicated drama, where the article presented Mr Kerton’s account and perceptions about the disappearance. The Committee noted that newspapers have the right to choose which pieces of information they publish, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. Where Louise’s family had found out that Simon’s brother had once stood trial for murder, it was not inaccurate to state that it was a “revelation”. The Committee noted that the article made no comment on when this information had been revealed to the family, and the complainants’ claim as to whom Louise’s mother might have told was conjecture. In addition, the difference between reporting that Louise had met Peter Simon when she was 16 or 17 years old, or whether Louise had lived in Peter Simon’s flat, or the flat next door, did not amount to significant inaccuracies in the context of the overall article. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

25. The Committee noted that the complainants disputed the claims that there were “no witnesses” and a “lack of independent witnesses” because there had been several sightings of Louise in Aachen. In any case, the Committee considered that the references to an absence of witnesses and particularly the reference to a lack of “independent witnesses” suggested that no one had come forward with significant information about what had happened to Louise – for example who might have seen her after she had been reported missing – and the Committee noted that was not in dispute. The Committee did not consider that those references went so far as to suggest that there was a complete absence of even minor witnesses at any point in the overall timeline around her disappearance. For those reasons the Committee did not establish that this was a significant inaccuracy in the way suggested by the complainants.

26. In addition, the complainants had also said that it was inaccurate to state that Mrs Simon “left without seeing if Louise bought a [train] ticket” and that “it was never established… whether Louise even bought a train ticket”. The Committee noted that an earlier article from 2002 also stated that a ticket was never purchased. Given this, and the absence of material to contradict this version of events, the Committee did not find a significant inaccuracy in relation to this point. Further, in relation to whether Louise’s health and state of mind deteriorated while she was in Germany, the Committee noted that the article made clear that this was conjecture by stating that it “appeared” this was the case. The sentence that followed included a quote from Mr Kerton who had said: “Neighbours said she appeared very miserable. It must have been really boring for her — the village was very small.” It was therefore clear that this reflected Mr Kerton’s understanding of his daughter’s state of mind. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

27. The complainants also considered that several other comments attributed to Mr Kerton were inaccurate. In relation to the quotes: “Mrs. Simon didn’t trust anyone in authority, police, doctors or dentists”; “[Peter Simon] never seemed to work and we couldn’t help thinking, what has he been living on?”; and “I have always wanted the authorities to explore every possible avenue to find out what happened to my daughter, any dad would”, the Committee noted that these were clearly distinguished as Mr Kerton’s recollection of events, and his personal perceptions, opinions and questions about people in the Simon family. The quotes were clearly distinguished as comment, and the publication was entitled to report Mr Kerton’s own recollections and experiences; there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

28. In regard to Mr Kerton’s recollection that Ramana Simon had said that she had medicated Louise with antibiotics she had bought from a pharmacist, the Committee noted that the complainants had accepted that Mrs Simon had bought Louise penicillin as she had requested it and for that reason this quote was not significantly inaccurate or misleading. In addition, the complainants expressed concern that the article had described Michael Simon as “mentally unwell”, as they maintained that Michael Simon was assessed as fit to be interviewed at the time of his arrest on the charge of murder. The Committee noted that the complainants did not dispute that Michael Simon suffered from problems with his mental health, and they had stated that he had been on medication and previously been under psychiatric care. The Committee noted that the article made no comment on when Michael Simon had been “mentally unwell”. Taking all of this into consideration, the Committee did not consider that this constituted an inaccuracy. Furthermore, the complainants had said that Mr Kerton’s account of their view “that Louise had run away because she was unhappy due to the way we had brought her up” was inaccurate, as their view was that Louise may not have wanted to burden her family due to their misunderstanding of her and that Louise had described difficulties she was facing. The Committee noted that the complainants had said that Louise had explained her unhappiness and told Peter Simon she would like to run away from home. Where Louise had told Peter Simon that she would like to run away from home, the Committee did not consider this was inaccurate or misleading in the way the complainants described. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

29. In regard to whether or not the Simon family had wanted to speak to the police or whether they had criticised Louise’s family for publicising the search, the publication had said that this section was clearly based on the opinion of Mr Kerton. The Committee noted that Mr Kerton had stated that “They said we shouldn’t make a fuss because that would frighten her and she would never come back”. The Committee noted that the article did not state that the Simon family had not spoken to the police, or that they had not been compliant; it stated that they “didn’t want to speak to police”, which the complainants did not appear to dispute. Further, the complainants were concerned with the description of Mrs Simon as “domineering”, as they said this was inaccurate. The Committee acknowledged that the complainants disputed this description but considered that this description of her personality was clearly the publication’s characterisation of Mrs Simon based on Mr Kerton’s opinion of Mrs Simon in the surrounding interview, for example, where he gave his view that “Mrs Simon didn’t trust anyone in authority”. There was no breach of Clause 1 regarding these points.

30. The complainants also said that the article had breached Clause 2 by stating that “Peter is now thought to be living in Switzerland” and by including a picture of Peter and Ramana Simon, which they had not given their consent to be used, as they were unaware of its existence. The Committee first noted that an individual would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the country that they live in; it noted the publication’s position that the reporter had discovered this through publicly available information. Given this, publishing the country where the complainant was “thought” to be residing did not represent an intrusion into Peter Simon’s private life. Further, the Committee noted that the publication said that the complainants had willingly posed for the photograph, which had been taken by a photographer on behalf of the same publication and kept in its archives. The photograph did not reveal anything private about the complainants; it merely showed their likenesses. In such circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the complainants had a reasonable expectation of privacy over the photograph. There was no breach of Clause 2.

31. The complainants also considered that there had been a breach of Clause 4 as the article had described Peter Simon as being in “tears”, his behaviour as “odd”, and by incorrectly stating that “[o]ne of his brothers had taken his [own] life”, as this was insensitive, offensive, and shocking for their family. Clause 4 requires that publication is handled sensitively in cases involving grief or shock and that enquiries and approaches are made with sympathy and discretion. The Committee noted that describing an individual as crying, where this was accurate, was not insensitive and was merely a factual description of what had occurred. Further, while publication should be handled sensitively in cases of grief or shock, this does not prevent publications from describing someone’s behaviour negatively, such as the description of the family as “odd”, and this did not amount to insensitive publication that constituted an intrusion into the complainants’ grief or shock. In regard to the alleged suicide of the complainants’ family member, the Committee noted the complainants’ position that it considered this breached Clause 4. Although reporting on the death of family members can be very upsetting to family and friends, deaths affect whole communities, and the requirements publication to handle publication sensitively does not restrict the right to report on deaths. The Committee had addressed the complainants’ concerns over the accuracy of the reference to the death earlier in its decision, and the question under Clause 4 was for the Committee to consider whether the reference to the death was insensitive. While the complainants maintained that he had not taken his own life, the Committee did not consider the article reported on the death in a way that was insensitive. There was no breach of this Clause.

Conclusion(s)

32. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

33. The clarification which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.


Date complaint received: 20/01/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 17/10/2022