Ruling

00879-16 Coutts v Daily Mail

    • Date complaint received

      1st September 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00879-16 Coutts v Daily Mail

Summary of complaint

1. Graham Coutts complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Sickening”, published in print on 14 December 2015, and “Murderer who strangled young special needs teacher to death demands £40,000 compensation over prison ‘panic attack’” published online on 13 December 2015.

2. The article reported that the complainant, who was convicted of murder for killing a teacher and who it described as “obsessed with violent pornography” and a “sadist”, was seeking up to £40,000 compensation for an anxiety attack he suffered in prison. It said that the complainant had made his claim after prison guards delayed his journey to hospital after he complained of chest pains. The article contained comment from the mother of the complainant’s victim, and from a criminologist who said that the complainant did not have to wait any longer for hospital treatment that law-abiding citizens and that convicted criminals “make a mockery of the justice system by inventing injuries with the and then playing games with the system”. It reported that the complainant had said in his blog that he suffered a heart attack during the incident, and that it had been reported during his trial that he had told a doctor he would “one day kill a woman because of his perverted desires”. The sub-headline read “Porn addict who strangled young teacher is demanding a £40,000 payout from the taxpayer – after having a panic attack in jail”.  

3. The online article was an edited version of the print article. However, it contained most of the substantive points that the complainant had complained about, although the first line of the article did not repeat the claim in the healdine that he was suing over a “panic attack”.

4. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to report in the sub-headline that he suffered a panic attack, as he actually suffered a heart 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 this was a misdiagnosis; he provided evidence that he had in fact suffered a heart attack. He said that the use of the quote about costs from the Inside Time letter had misleadingly suggested that he had been trying to deliberately push up the costs in the case. He also said that the quote from the criminologist misleadingly suggested that he had invented his injuries, and was “playing games with the system”.

5. The complainant said that he had never told a doctor he would one day kill a woman. He said that while he did see a trainee psychiatrist in 1991, the psychiatrist interpreted his dreams and interest in sexual asphyxiation as ‘murderous thoughts’; he did not admit to a psychiatrist that he had such thoughts. He said it was inaccurate to report that he was obsessed with violent pornography; he said that while he had occasionally visited legal pornographic websites which cater for “certain interests”, there was never any evidence presented that this was an obsession. He said that he was not from Leven, Fife, and provided evidence that he was born in Glenrothes, Fife.

6. The newspaper said that its article provided a balanced account of the illness the complainant had suffered; it said that while it had referred to the complainant having suffered a panic attack, which was diagnosed by the prison nurse, it also reported that he considered he had suffered a heart attack. However, on receiving evidence that the complainant had suffered a heart attack, it offered to publish the following correction on page 2 of the newspaper, as well as a footnote to the online article:

In common with other newspapers, an article published on 14 December reported that convicted murderer Graham Coutts was seeking compensation from taxpayers for the delay in his journey to hospital after he suffered an anxiety attack in jail. We are happy to clarify that, while Mr Coutts was initially believed to have suffered an anxiety attack, it was later diagnosed as a heart attack. 

7.  It said that the £40,000 figure quoted in the article was prefaced by the words “up to”, which indicated that this was a ceiling figure, and that the final figure could well be lower than that. It said that given that a former girlfriend of the complainant had given evidence at trial that he liked to tie her up and apply pressure to her neck, and that the court heard that he had stored the body of his victim in a storage unit and visited it for a “sexual thrill”, it was not inaccurate to describe him as a “sadist”. Neither was it misleading to describe the complainant as being “obsessed” with violent pornography, as it had been heard at his trial that he was a frequent viewer of pornography, and pictures and video clips of women being strangled and stripped naked were found on the hard-drives of two computers at his home.

8. It said the views quoted of the criminologist were clearly presented as his views, which he was entitled to express; it also pointed out that his views on the delay in receiving treatment were accurate, as a Google search would show hundreds of complaints from ordinary people who were not seen by a doctor within two hours. It also said that as the complainant had admitted to murderous thoughts during his trial, and had told a psychiatrist in 1991 that he feared his thoughts would lead to criminal actions, it was not significantly inaccurate to report that he had told a doctor he would one day murder a woman. It noted the complainant’s position that he was not from Leven, Fife, and had amended the online article to reflect this. 

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 suffered a heart attack during the incident, the sub-headline and first line of the article, as well as the headline of the online article, variously said the complainant was suing after suffering a “panic attack” and “anxiety attack”. Overall, the article and the headline 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 Prison Service whether or not the complainant had suffered a heart attack during the incident, the main source for the article was the complainant’s blog; given that he had written throughout 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. 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”. Neither was it inaccurate for the newspaper to describe the complainant as a “sadist” when the court had heard evidence from an ex-girlfriend of his during his trial that he enjoyed tying her up and applying pressure to her neck. There was no breach of Clause 1 on either point.

12. The Committee did not consider that any inaccuracy as to 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 when there was less than 10 miles between the town reported in the article, and where the complainant was actually born. There was no breach of Clause 1 on either point.

13. The quotes of the criminologist used in the article were clearly presented as his views. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that he had not invented an illness, and he was not “playing the system”, the criminologist had been making a general point about convicted criminals, which the newspaper was entitled to report. There was no breach of Clause 1.

14. While the sub-headline said that the complainant was “demanding” £40,000, the article clarified that he was seeking “up to £40,000 compensation”. In circumstances where the article clarified that this was a ceiling figure, and the true value of the claim was unknown, this was not significantly inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1.

15. The complainant denied he ever told a doctor that he would “one day kill a woman because of his perverted desires”. However, in circumstances where the complainant conceded that a psychiatrist had interpreted his dreams to mean that he had ‘murderous thoughts’, the Committee did not consider that any inaccuracy on this point was significant in the context of the article as a whole. There was no breach of Clause 1.

16. 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 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

17. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

18. 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 where 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