Ruling

00849-16 HRH Prince Henry of Wales v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      20th May 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00849-16 HRH Prince Henry of Wales v Mail Online

Summary of complaint

1. HRH Prince Henry of Wales complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) and Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “American tabloid OK! claims ‘Prince Harry and Pippa Middleton are enjoying a secret romance’ after ‘snogging in a bathroom at the royal wedding in 2011’”, published on 9 December 2015.

2. The article reported that a US magazine had claimed to have “exclusive knowledge” that the complainant and Pippa Middleton were “romantically involved”. It reported a number of claims from the US magazine, including that Ms Middleton had “spent the night several times”; that Prince William had “found the pair in a compromising position”; and that the complainant had played “Adele, Ellie Golding, and Bruno Mars” during their first date, and served pasta carbonara which he had prepared himself.

3. The article noted that the US magazine claimed that this relationship had begun at the time of the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, but that “it is only now that OK! has managed to get the ‘scoop’”. It concluded with examples of other stories the magazine had published, including one that claimed that Kate Middleton was pregnant with twins, in which the magazine had “even [gone] so far as to say the palace has confirmed the news, despite the fact that no other confirmation has been given to any other media outlet”.

4. The complainant said that the publication had repeated claims made in a US magazine about his private life that were “completely untrue”. He argued that the newspaper could not justify the publication of inaccurate information simply by attributing it to a third party.

5. He said that the publication had requested Kensington Palace’s response to the claims at 3.30pm on 9 December. At 4.48pm, the Palace responded and clarified that the claims were a “complete fiction”, and that they should not be repeated. The publication published the article at 4.41pm, before it had received the Palace’s comments. As such, the complainant considered that the approach for comment had been “entirely perfunctory”. He also considered that this represented a failure to provide a fair opportunity to reply.

6. The complainant said that the magazine was not considered to be a reliable source of information in the US, and so its claims should not have been republished. He considered that by repeating the claims, the publication had given weight to them and had aided their circulation. In addition, it had republished the magazine’s front page, which showed an image of him that had been doctored to give the appearance that he had been partially clothed on a beach with Ms Middleton; there was no mention of the fact that the image had been altered.

7. The complainant said that despite the falsity of the claims, the story had concerned private – sexual – information about which he had a reasonable expectation of privacy. He did not accept that this expectation had been reduced because the claims had already been published by the magazine. Publication by Mail Online had circulated the claims in the UK and worldwide, and numerous other publications had followed suit.

8. The publication said that the article had been commissioned and written by its US editorial team following the publication of the article in the US magazine. The claims made by the magazine had been published to a wide audience, including online, and the story was followed up by many news outlets globally. It said it was “perverse” for the complainant to argue that its readers should not be informed that a prominent magazine had made such claims to its readers.

9. It did not accept that the article was misleading: the article had given clear reasons for doubting the allegations. None of its readers could have thought that it was endorsing or adopting the claims.

10. The publication said that its US office had contacted Kensington Palace for comment before the article was published, but said it was not obliged to wait for a response before publishing the piece. The Palace’s initial response had not described the claims as “a complete fiction”; it had said that the US magazine “regularly reports complete fiction like this”, and that the Palace had not read the article. It said that the Palace had also acknowledged that the claims would not be reported as fact: the Palace had said “I realise you’re not reporting it as fact, but by [sic] you would be indirectly reporting an article that is completely made up”.

11. The publication said that its US office had emailed the Palace a second time, 29 minutes after publication, had provided a link to the article and asked again for comment. The response received stated that there were “no circumstances where we would provide a comment for a story like that”. The publication said that the Palace could not determine what it could report. It said it was inappropriate for the Palace to respond to claims by issuing denials with a refusal to confirm them on the record. It asked why the public should be prevented from being informed that the claims made in the magazine were wrong.

12. The publication said that Clause 2 of the Code was not engaged pre-publication. However, the publication had offered to add the Palace’s comment to the article as a bulleted subheading and as a footnote. It also offered to publish a follow-up piece linking to the original item. It would not remove the article, as requested.

13. With regards to the publication of the “doctored” image, the publication said that it had merely republished the front cover of the US magazine.

14. The publication said that the claims about the complainant’s private life were already in the public domain: they had been published by the magazine and followed up globally. In addition, it said that the fact of a relationship was not private, and the article had not included any unnecessarily graphic information or sexual content. The publication also considered that there was a public interest in reporting on what was being said about the royal family abroad.

Relevant Code provisions

15. 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. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply)

A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for.

Clause 3 (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.

Findings of the Committee

16. The publication had clearly attributed the claims about the complainant to the US magazine; and, on balance, the Committee considered that the article’s tone had cast doubt over the claims. The publication had asked pointed questions about how such a sensational story had become known only to a tabloid magazine in the US; it had referred to the claims as a “scoop” in inverted commas; and described the alleged first “date” in a tongue-in-cheek manner. The article concluded with a summary of other unlikely stories that the magazine had published, indicating that the claims in question were to be placed in the same category.

17. The publication had contacted the complainant’s representatives for their comments on the claims, but had published the article before receiving a response. In circumstances in which the claims had not been adopted as fact, and where reasons had been given for doubting them, this did not represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i). There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. It was clear that the “doctored” image formed part of the cover of the US magazine, and where doubt was cast on the truth of its claims, the republication of the cover was not significantly misleading. The complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld.

19. The claims made about the complainant and Ms Middleton had the potential to intrude into his private life. The terms of Clause 3 were engaged, regardless of the accuracy of the allegations.

20. However, the tone of the article had given the impression that the claims were not to be believed, which diminished any intrusive effect that they may have had. Furthermore, the claims had already been published by a magazine with a circulation of 4.4 million readers. The level of intrusion did not amount to a breach of Clause 3. The complaint under Clause 3 was not upheld.

21. The terms of Clause 2 provide people with the opportunity to reply to published inaccuracies. No inaccuracies had been established by the Committee, and the complainant had not requested an opportunity to reply. There was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusions

22. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 11/12/2015
Date decision issued: 25/04/2016