Ruling

00876-16 Coutts v The Sunday Post

    • Date complaint received

      1st September 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00876-16 Coutts v The Sunday Post

Summary of complaint

1. Graham Coutts complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Post breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Killer sues over jail ‘anxiety attack’”, published in print on 13 December 2015, and “Killer sues over jail ‘anxiety attack’ and claim could be costly for taxpayers” published online on 13 December 2015.

2. The article reported that the complainant, who was convicted of murder for killing a teacher, was seeking compensation after suffering a suspected anxiety attack in prison. It said that the complainant had claimed that prison staff caused him to suffer by delaying his journey to hospital, and quoted a lawyer saying that the lawsuit could cost taxpayers £40,000. The article said that after the complainant had woken up in his cell with chest pains, he was told to wait in line to see a nurse, who diagnosed him with anxiety. It said that ten minutes later he saw a cardiac specialist and an ambulance arrived ten minutes later; however, he was told to change into his prison clothes before he was allowed to go to hospital.

3. The article said that bosses at the prison had been forced to issue a “grovelling” apology. It also quoted the following from complainant’s blog: “The MoJ will be stuck with a bill for exorbitant costs on top of what will in all probability be a higher amount of damages.” It quoted comments from the mother of the complainant’s victim, who said it was “absolutely appalling that he is trying to get this money”. It also said that the complainant, who it said was originally from Leven, Fife, was “obsessed with violent and perverted websites”.

4. Aside from the headlines, the print and online versions of the article were identical.

5. The complainant said that the headline was inaccurate as he suffered a heart attack, and not an anxiety attack. He said that while it was accurate to report that he was initially diagnosed with anxiety, the article was misleading because it did not clarify that that this was a misdiagnosis; he provided evidence that he had in fact suffered a heart attack.  He also said that he had sued over the delay in getting to hospital, not because of the medical condition he had suffered, or any distress caused.

6. The complainant said that the article had manipulated the timeline of his treatment to suggest that he only had to wait 20 minutes to be taken to hospital. He also said that the use of a quote from his letter to Inside Time, a national newspaper for prisoners, had misleadingly suggested that he had been trying to deliberately push up the costs in the case. He said that he was not from Leven, Fife, and provided evidence that he was born in Glenrothes, Fife. He said it was inaccurate to report that he was obsessed with violent and perverted websites; he said that while he had occasionally visited legal pornographic websites which cater for “certain interests”, there was never any evidence presented at trial that this was an obsession. He also said that the apology he received from the Deputy Governor of prison, was not “grovelling”.

7. The newspaper denied the headline was misleading. It said that the information about the “anxiety attack” was taken from the complainant’s Inside Time letter and had appeared in quotation marks in the headline.  It said that the article had also reported that the complainant had suffered a heart attack and in the context of the article as a whole, the headline was not misleading. It said that it was not misleading to report that the complainant was suing for “distress”, as according to his Inside Time letter, he had suffered “distress” during the delay in transporting him to hospital. It also denied that the article deliberately manipulated the timeline of the morning of his heart attack, did not consider that the direct quote from him about costs was misleading, and did not believe it was inaccurate to characterise the Deputy Governor’s apology as “grovelling”.

8. The newspaper said that at the complainant’s re-trial, the prosecutor said that the complainant had a “long-standing perverted sexual interest in violence towards women”, and that it had been fuelled by websites dedicated to asphyxiation and strangulation. The prosecutor also said that even after the murder, the complainant logged on to these pornographic websites. In this context, it said it was not misleading or inaccurate to report that he was “obsessed with violent, perverted websites”. Nonetheless, the newspaper offered to publish the following clarification on page 2 of the newspaper, as well as a footnote on the online article:

In a story on December 13, it was stated that convicted murdered Graham Coutts was seeking compensation “over a jail ‘anxiety attack’”. Mr Coutts has asked us to point out that while he was initially diagnosed with anxiety while awaiting an ambulance in prison, he was later advised by hospital doctors that he had, in fact, suffered a heart attack. He has also asked us to clarify that he is suing over a delay in providing him access to emergency treatment and not over his ill health, and he is originally from Glenrothes and not Leven. We are happy to set the record straight.

Relevant Code Provisions

9. 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.

Findings of the Committee

10. While the article did report that the complainant had written in his blog that he had suffered “chest pains”, the sub-headline and first line of the article said the complainant was suing after suffering an “anxiety attack”. Overall, this suggested that the complainant had suffered a less serious illness than he was actually diagnosed with; this in turn gave the significantly misleading impression that the complainant was suing over a relatively minor medical matter. While the newspaper had attempted to clarify with the MoJ whether or not the complainant had suffered a heart attack during the incident, the main source for the article was the complainant’s letter to Inside Times; given that the letter said that he had suffered a heart attack, the failure to make this clear in the article represented a breach of Clause 1(i). A correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

11. The article’s headline said the complainant was suing over his medical condition, while the sub-headline said he was claiming for “distress”. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that he was suing for the delay in being transported to hospital, in circumstances where this was mentioned in the article, and his medical condition and any distress he suffered were directly related to his legal claim, it did not consider that the headline or sub-headline were significantly inaccurate on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.

12. The timeline reported in the article of the incident involving the complainant mirrored the timeline as outlined by the complainant in his Inside Time letter; it was not written in a misleading manner. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. In circumstances where it had been said at the complainant’s trial that he visited websites relating to asphyxiation and strangulation, and the complainant conceded that he had visited legal pornographic sites which catered for “certain interests”, it was not inaccurate for the newspaper to characterise this as an obsession. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

14. The word “grovelling” was the newspaper’s characterisation of the Deputy Governor’s apology to the complainant. While the Committee noted the newspaper were not in a position to know the nature of the apology, in circumstances where an apology had been issued, it did not consider that any inaccuracy as to its nature was significant in the context of the article as a whole. Similarly, the Committee did not consider that any inaccuracy as to the town in Fife where the complainant was from was significant in the context of an article that focused on the complainant’s legal claim; this was particularly the case where there was less than 10 miles between the town reported in the article, and where the complainant was born. There was no breach of Clause 1 on either point.

15. Once provided with the complainant’s medical records, the newspaper offered to publish a correction on page 2 of the newspaper, as well as a footnote online, on this point. The correction in relation to this particular point addressed the misleading impression that the complainant had sued having suffered an anxiety attack, and was to be published on a page further forward than the original article appeared. This met the requirements of Clause 1(ii) and should now be published.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

17. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1(i), the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The newspaper offered to publish a correction on page 2 of the newspaper, as well as a footnote online, the wording of which addressed the misleading impression that the complainant had sued having suffered an anxiety attack, and was to be published further forward in the newspaper than the original article appeared. In light of the Committee’s decision, it should now be published promptly both in print and online.

Date complaint received: 19/02/2016
Date decision issued: 02/08/2016