Ruling

00996-20 A Woman v thesun.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      15th October 2020

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00996-20 A Woman v thesun.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thesun.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “GRAVE CONCERN Celebrity Big Brother psychic [name] will contact us from beyond the grave after his sudden death, pals claim”, published on 5 January 2020.

2. The article reported claims that a recently deceased high-profile psychic would be shortly contacting his friends and family via the spirit world. The article went on to include a quote from the psychic’s widow, who said that the last days of her husband were “blighted” by a “vile couple” who “wanted his status”. She said that she thought that the couple probably did not know that her husband was unwell, but that the couple should be “ashamed” of themselves, “especially as they sent messages while he was in intensive care”. The article reported that the woman had also posted on Facebook: “To the vile couple who hounded him for responses to their ridiculous campaign whilst he was in Intensive Care in a coma, I hope you have the decency to hang your heads in shame”. The couple were not named by the widow, but the article reported that it was “believed that she was referring to [named woman] and her husband [name]”.

3. The complainant was the woman named in the article as one half of the couple that was “believed” to have been responsible for sending messages to the man. She said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said that she had not directly messaged the man personally, instead, her husband ran an awareness campaign on Facebook against the man and other psychics whom they criticised for allegedly using chatbots to communicate with clients on psychic matters. She said that the Facebook page which ran the campaign was a business account managed by her husband, although she acknowledged that it was in her name, and that she and her husband spoke jointly on business matters. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to say that messages were sent by either her or her husband to the man. She said that instead, the campaign consisted of posts on the Facebook business page. One of these posts said “[Named man] please stop your messages it’s causing people immense distress.” The complainant also said that she was not given a right of reply in the article in regards to these allegations. Furthermore, the complainant said that the article breached Clause 2, because she considered that naming her in conjunction with the allegations without her consent represented an intrusion into her privacy and had led to her receiving online abuse.

4. The publication did not accept that the Code had been breached. It said it was entitled to report the widow’s claims about the couple, which were clearly presented as quotations attributed to her. It said that it did not report as fact that the complainant was responsible for sending messages to the man – instead the article reported that it was “believed” to be the case that the accusation referred to her and her husband. It said that although it may have been the case that the Facebook business page which ran the campaign was managed by the complainant’s husband, it was in her name and represented her business. Furthermore, it provided posts from the Facebook page which appeared prior to publication of the article, which appeared to speak jointly in response to the allegations: “For people to try and blame his [the man’s] passing on us is vile” and  “Think people are failing to see we were campaigning about chat bots not people personally and we maintain it”. As such, it was not misleading to say that it was “believed” to be the case that the man’s widow was referring to both the complainant and her husband.

5. The newspaper said that it was not in dispute that the business page had ran a campaign against the man, and that this had caused the man and his widow distress. In relation to whether this had included sending the man direct messages – which it noted was clearly presented in the article as the widow’s own claim – it provided transcribed notes of a phone conversation between the complainant and her husband and a reporter in preparation of an article which was not published. According to these notes and the subsequent copy, the couple acknowledged that they had been accused by the man’s widow of trolling and said: “We advised him not to deceive people in a series of messages but we didn’t know he was unwell”. The publication said that as such it was clear that the complainant had acknowledged sending the man messages. For this reason, the newspaper did not consider that there was any significant inaccuracy which required correction in reporting the widow’s claims.

6. The complainant disputed that she had told the freelance reporter that she had sent any messages to the man. She said that her husband had also spoken with the reporter, but she could confirm that he did not tell the reporter this either. She provided screenshots of automated direct messages sent by the man following posts made by her husband on the man’s Facebook page – she said that this showed that her and her husband did not directly message him. Finally, the complainant also provided screenshots of the messages she sent to the reporter following the interview but prior to the article under complaint being published which said that: “Your [sic] not permitted to write any story you don’t have the facts. The [other newspaper] has in due course” and “Unless it’s facts no one is permitted to write our account”.

Relevant Code Provisions

7. 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 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

8. The article had reported that it was “believed” to be the case that the woman was referring to the complainant and her husband as the subject of her allegations. Although the complainant said that it was her husband who was responsible for the anti-chatbot campaign, she did not dispute that the posts had been made in her name and on her business page. Furthermore, prior to publication, the page responded jointly to the allegations – the posts referred to “we” and “us” and the complainant and her husband gave a joint interview to a reporter on the allegations. As such, the newspaper had demonstrated sufficient basis for this claim and there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of this statement. Reporting this did not represent a significant inaccuracy which required correction under Clause 1 (ii). 

9. The claim that the man had received messages whilst he was unwell and that the complainant and her husband were jealous of him and wanted his status had been made by his widow and had been presented as quotes attributed to her. The article then explained that it was believed to be the case that the allegations referred to the complainant and her husband. The publication was entitled to report these claims from the widow and had taken care to distinguish these from points of fact, in line with its obligations under Clause 1. There was a dispute as to whether the complainant had told the reporter that she had sent messages to the man as part of the anti-chatbot campaign. The Committee noted that the complainant’s business page had organised a campaign which was critical of the man and included a post which named him and called upon him to “please stop your messages”. The complainant had also provided screenshots which appeared to suggest that the campaign had posted directly on the man’s Facebook page, which had led to them receiving the automated messages. Furthermore, the complainant was not in a position to dispute whether this campaign had caused the man distress, or whether the man and his widow considered that it was motivated by jealously – the Committee also noted that the widow’s claim on this point did not contradict the complainant and her husband’s stated anti-chatbot aims. In these circumstances, naming the complainant and her husband in conjunction with the widow’s claims on these points did not represent a significant inaccuracy and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

10. Furthermore, the Code does not contain a standalone obligation for publications to contact each individual referred to in coverage. In this instance, the newspaper had accurately reported the claims of the widow and made clear that it was its belief that they referred to the complainant and her husband. It had relied upon comments posted in the complainant’s name on social media and previous comments it said the complainant had given to a journalist and there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. As such omitting comments from the complainant did not render the article significantly inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1.

11. The complainant said that naming her in relation to the widow’s allegations constituted an intrusion into her privacy. In this case, the allegations had originally been made publicly by the man’s widow on Facebook, and the complainant’s public professional Facebook page which operated under her name and with her consent had responded to these claims. As such, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to her name being used in conjunction with these allegations, and there was no obligation for the publication to obtain the complainant’s consent in order to name her. As such, there was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusion

12. The complaint was not upheld

Remedial action

13. N/A

Date complaint received: 18/02/20

Date complaint concluded: 25/09/20