Ruling

00701-23 McAllister v theboltonnews.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      24th August 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00701-23 McAllister v The Bolton News

 

Summary of Complaint

1. Rebecca McAllister complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Bolton News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Mum conned people into taking beauty courses”, published on 21 December 2022.

2. The article reported on a court case in which the complainant had “admit[ed] two counts of unfair commercial practices and three breaches of EU cosmetic regulations”. It reported: “a woman who took over the family business sold teeth whitener in breach of regulations and conned people into taking qualifications she was not approved to deliver”. It went on to state the complainant “took over the family business and was director of [two businesses] from July, 2017 until they were dissolved in October, 2019.” It said the court had heard the complainant “had been visited in previous enterprises by [a local council] and told not to sell teeth whitener with more than 0.1 per cent hydrogen peroxide in it” but that “when [local council] staff visited her premises […] in June and July, 2018 they found products in breach of this rule.” The court also heard “in October, 2017 she sold two women courses in beauty which she claimed were National Vocational Qualifications [NVQS] but she was not certified to deliver these” and that “the first woman paid £1,500 for this and the second paid £2,800”.

3. The article said the complainant’s lawyer had stated “she had no means and was the carer for four children including one who was seriously unwell”. It also reported that the judge had said the complainant had “no means whatsoever” and so they would not “make an order for payment of costs.” The judge, according to the article, instead “imposed a community order to run for three years and ordered her to attend at 45 rehabilitation activity requirement days.”

4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “Bolton: Mum taken to court over courses and teeth products”.

5. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as she denied she had “conned” anyone. She accepted that she had pleaded guilty, but said she had only put forward a guilty plea because of a deal made with the council. She said that, despite the terms of the plea, she had been qualified to deliver the NVQs.

6. The complainant also said the article was inaccurate because the two former clients had actually paid £500 and £400 for their NVQs; she said the article’s figure of £2,800 was actually the total amount paid by both clients, rather than what one client had paid – which was what the article claimed. The complainant then said the article was inaccurate because the “[visit] in previous enterprises by Salford Council” took place in 2013 not 2017/8, as reported by the article.

7. She also said the article was inaccurate because her business was not a “family business” and because the judge had not required her to go to rehab. She also said that the article was not balanced; focused too much on the prosecution’s arguments; and omitted information which she considered important to the article – such as her reasons for pleading guilty and the positives that had come out of the case.

8. The complainant also said the article was in breach of Clause 2 because the article included her partial address and information about her child’s health. She also said that the article identified her child in breach of Clause 9.

9. The publication did not accept it breached Clause 1 by reporting that the complainant had “conned” people. It said that, according to the court, the complainant had sold a course which she was not qualified to deliver, and that people paid money for her course expecting a qualification which they did not obtain.

10. The publication did not accept the figure of £2,800 was inaccurate. It said this figure had been heard in court and supplied the reporter’s notes to support its position, which it said had been taken during court proceedings; these notes included the disputed figures. It also denied it was inaccurate to refer to the business as a “family business”, and cited the notes which said “she took over a sole directorship from her father”.

11. The publication said the article did not state the complainant had gone to rehab. It had reported she had been ordered to attend 45 rehabilitation activity requirement days, which did not appear to be in dispute. It also did not accept the article had omitted information that would have made the article balanced  – it said the article covered the complainant’s mitigating circumstances such as her lack of means.

12. The publication did not accept it had breached Clause 2 by reporting the address of the complainant or her child’s medical condition. It said this information had been heard in an open court and used as mitigation by the defence.

13. Where all the information about the complainant’s child included in the article had been heard in open court, the publication argued it was therefore of genuine relevance. It did not accept, therefore, that referring to the complainant’s child breached the terms of Clause 9.

Relevant Clause 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 9 (Reporting of Crime)*

i) Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.

ii) Particular regard should be paid to the potentially vulnerable position of children under the age of 18 who witness, or are victims of, crime. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

iii) Editors should generally avoid naming children under the age of 18 after arrest for a criminal offence but before they appear in a youth court unless they can show that the individual’s name is already in the public domain, or that the individual (or, if they are under 16, a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult) has given their consent. This does not restrict the right to name juveniles who appear in a crown court, or whose anonymity is lifted.

Findings of the Committee

14. The Committee firstly noted the role of the newspaper was to report accurately on court proceedings; it was not responsible for the accuracy of the allegations themselves. 

15. The Committee considered whether it was inaccurate to report the complainant had “conned” people. The Committee noted that conned is to an extent a subjective term. However, this did not mean that there was no obligation for the publication to demonstrate that there was a factual basis for this description of the legal finding against the complainant. In addition, a headline claim should be supported by the text of the article, in line with the publication’s obligation under Clause 1.

16. The complainant did not dispute that she had pleaded guilty to charges of “two counts of unfair commercial practices and three breaches of EU cosmetic regulations in court”. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position – that she pleaded guilty because she was offered a plea deal by the council – this did not change the fact that she had been found guilty of these charges, the nature of which was made clear by the article’s reference to her “admitting two counts of unfair commercial practices and three breaches of EU cosmetic regulations”. Where the charges she had pleaded guilty to pertained to breaching commercial regulations, and the complainant did not dispute she had profited from these breaches, the Committee did not consider it unreasonable to characterise this as the complainant having “conned” people. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The Committee then considered whether the article had inaccurately reported on the court case against the complainant by reporting the amount the two women had paid for their NVQs: “the first woman paid £1,500 for this and the second paid £2,800”. As the publication was able to supply the reporter’s notes to support its position that this figure had been heard in court, the Committee was satisfied the publication had taken care not to report inaccurate information on this point, and that the article did not report on the court case in a significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted way. There was therefore no breach of Clause 1.

18. Likewise, there were notes from the court reporter that stated the complainant “took over a sole directorship from her father”, and the complainant did not dispute that this was the case, and as such the Committee did not consider it inaccurate to refer to the complainant’s business as being a “family business”. Furthermore, as the article did not report the complainant had attended rehab and had instead stated she had been ordered “to attend at 45 rehabilitation activity requirement days” – which she did not dispute – the Committee did not consider the article to be inaccurate on this point in the manner suggested by the complainant. Regarding the complainant’s point that the previous visits from the council had not taken place in 2017 or 18, but 2013, the Committee noted the article at no point stated the visits had taken place in 2017 or 2018, but that she had been visited “at previous premises”, at some point before June and July, 2018, and this point was therefore also not inaccurate in the manner suggested by the complainant.  There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

19. The Committee then considered the complainant’s concerns the article was not balanced, focused too much on the prosecution’s arguments, and omitted information which she considered important to the article – such as her reasons for pleading guilty and the positives that had come out of the case. Under the Editors’ Code, articles do not have to be balanced, and newspapers have the right to choose which pieces of information they publish, as long as the information within the article does not breach the Code. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

20. The Committee turned to the question of whether the article breached Clause 2. It noted that neither party disputed that the information about the complainant’s address and child had been disclosed in open court. Unless a court puts restrictions on reporting, newspapers are allowed to publish information that has been made public in open court; as the information has therefore entered the public domain, publishing it did not intrude into the private life of the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 2.

21. The Committee finally considered whether Clause 9 had been breached. Clause 9 states that friends and relative of those convicted or accused of crime should generally not be identified, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story. Where the complainant’s child had been mentioned in the complainant’s defence in court, they were clearly relevant to the story of the article, which was a report of court proceedings against the complainant. The Committee also noted that, no identifying information, such as the name or age of the child, was included in the article. There was no breach of the Clause on this point.

Conclusions

22. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

23. N/A

 

Date complaint received:  03/01/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  04/08/2023