Ruling

01053-18 Miller v The Scottish Sun

    • Date complaint received

      26th July 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01053-18 Miller v The Scottish Sun

Summary of complaint

1. Margaret Miller complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Scottish Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “1yr after randy rev suicide, wife told…WEE ARE SORRY”, published on 28 January 2018.

2. The article, which was featured on the front page and continued on pages 4 and 5, reported that the Free Church of Scotland (known colloquially as the ‘Wee Frees’) had apologised to “the widow of a love-rat minister who killed himself” after “members of hubby [the reverend’s] flock blamed her for trashing his reputation”. It said that the minister’s wife had fled the island where she lived amid the “fallout after cheating [reverend’s] seven affairs were exposed”, and went on to state that “[the woman’s] world was blown apart 12 months ago today when popular and high profile [reverend’s name] hanged himself days after she discovered he’d bedded members of his flock”. It said that the reverend had admitted these affairs to his wife and children, and left a confession on his computer, and went on to describe how he “was rushed to hospital after pretending to collapse at home”. It said that “a nurse found him hanging but still clinging to life”, but said that he died in the early hours of the morning.

3. The article said that a Church enquiry into the matter had found that “his ‘moral conduct’ was ‘contrary to the word of God’”, and said that these findings “reinforced the claims the reverend had seven affairs with several women – including some not in the church”. It stated that many Church members had originally sided with the reverend, but had welcomed his wife back after details of the emails between the reverend and “some of his lovers” were leaked to an American Christian website, including “details of secret trysts”. It quoted a Reverend of the Church as stating “For [the woman] and the family, this must have been an unimaginably difficult time. Where we have failed to provide adequate pastoral support, we sincerely apologise”. The article went on to quote the author of the American website, who said that figures in the Church had contacted her to ask how she had obtained the information and emails published on her blog; she added “they were not at all interested in claiming that they were not true. They were insistent that I tell them who released them to me.”

4. The article appeared in substantially the same format online, under the headline “WEE ARE SORRY: Isle of Lewis church bosses apologise to widow of love-rat minister who killed himself”.

5. The complainant - who was the reverend’s sister - said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that the reverend had “pretended to collapse”. She said that her brother’s hospital admission notes, and the ambulance report of the incident, indicated that he was suffering from symptoms which necessitated his admission to hospital. She said this was supported by the notes of the Procurator Fiscal, which listed symptoms observed by the ambulance staff, and by her brother’s death certificate, which gave a secondary cause of death other than suicide. The complainant questioned the publication’s reliance on the American blog, which she said was unverified and sensationalist. The complainant also said that the article gave a speculative account of the reasons for her brother’s suicide.

6. The complainant said that no evidence had been presented to show that the reverend had engaged in “seven affairs”, or any physical adulterous relationships; the use of terms such as “randy rev” and “love rat” was also therefore inaccurate. Only one woman had confessed during the Church investigation, and this was to social media interactions, not a physical relationship, and the Church’s statement on its investigation made no mention of physical affairs. The emails found in the American blog appeared to relate only to this one woman, and no others. In addition, a letter the complainant provided from a member of the investigation clarified that it had examined allegations pertinent to three women. This individual had also stated that “many assertions in the tabloid press were unfounded and misrepresentative of both his and the women’s actions, as well as the numbers mentioned in the allegations”.

7. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to state that “Isle of Lewis church bosses” or the ‘Wee Frees’ had apologised to the reverend’s wife. In fact, a Church source had confirmed to her that the apology had been directed towards any person who might feel the Church had failed to provide adequate pastoral support, and was not written for any particular individual. She said the article gave the impression that the Church had conceded failings in relation to its treatment of the reverend’s wife, when this was not the case. In addition, no members of the Church’s leadership on the Isle of Lewis had been aware of the apology being issued.

8. The complainant said that the article was intrusive, in breach of Clause 2 (Privacy), especially when it was published on the anniversary of her brother’s death, and that publishing the article on this date, and using ‘tabloid’ terminology such as “love rat”, represented a breach of Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), because it showed a lack of sympathy and sensitivity. This language was particularly inappropriate because the basis for it – the claims regarding her brother’s affairs – was not corroborated.

9. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) because the references to her brother’s religion were not relevant to the story, and because the term ‘Wee Frees’ was pejorative. She also raised concerns relating to the article discriminating against those with mental health conditions.

10. The publication expressed its sympathies to the complainant, but denied that it had breached the Code. It said that the reverend’s wife was entitled to tell her story, and that the article had been based on this story (as provided to a source), and on information found on the American blog, which was based on information and emails which had been verified as genuine by the reverend’s wife. In respect of the claim that the reverend had “pretended to collapse”, the publication said that this was based on his wife’s interpretation of the incident: she had initially believed that he had been genuinely ill, but had later changed her mind based on his state of mind and the fact that he had seemed fine when checked at the hospital. The publication said it was not in dispute that the reverend had died as a result of suicide, and its article had not included details of the method used.

11. The publication said that the claim that the reverend had “seven affairs” had been based again on his wife’s views as provided to its source. The publication said that the reverend had left a full and detailed confession on his computer. Based on this confession, and other information she found on his computer, his wife believed that seven was a conservative estimate of the number of affairs her husband had engaged in. The emails contained in the blog, which proved a physical element to the affairs, had been seen by the reverend’s wife, and she had said they were genuine. The figure of seven affairs had also been widely reported in other publications, and the article made clear that not all these affairs had been conducted with members of the Church. Based on this information, and the fact that these affairs were conducted behind his wife’s back, the use of the terms “love rat” and “randy rev” was not misleading.

12. The publication provided an email from the public relations firm which had acted for the Church, which included a quotation provided on behalf of the church: “The circumstances surrounding [the reverend’s] death were both shocking and unprecedented. For [the reverend’s wife] and the family this must have been an unimaginably difficult time. Where we have failed to provide adequate pastoral support, we sincerely apologise”. The publication said it was entitled to rely on the statement from the public relations firm as being provided on behalf of the Church, and presenting it in this way was not misleading.

13. The publication denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy): the article had presented the reverend’s wife’s account of events, which she was entitled to share. The events surrounding the death of her husband were not private, and in any case, he was a public figure in a position of trust, and there was a public interest in describing his actions as a minister of the Church. The language used did not breach Clause 4: this was standard tabloid terminology as used to describe an individual who – on his wife’s account - had engaged in a string of affairs. The timing of the article related to the publication’s request for an apology from the Church for the reverend’s wife; when this apology was received, the publication had to run the story to avoid another publication getting hold of it. In any event, the article’s purpose was to highlight the distress suffered by the complainant’s wife; she was the person most affected by her late husband’s behaviour.

14. The publication denied any breach of Clause 12 (Discrimination); the term “Wee Frees” had not been used in a pejorative manner. This was a common term used to refer to members of the Church around the world. Referring to the Church throughout the article was relevant when the subject matter was concerned with the actions of members of its congregation.

Relevant Code 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.

v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.

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.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

15. The Committee expressed its condolences to the complainant, and acknowledged that the events the article reported on were deeply distressing.

16. The publication had based its article largely on the account of a source close to the reverend’s wife. She was entitled to tell her story, and in many respects the publication was entitled to rely on her account, as the person who was present as the events transpired. The claim that the reverend had “pretended to collapse” was based on her interpretation of these events. Medical documents had recorded symptoms being presented, and the reverend’s wife had initially believed these to be genuine; however, she had changed her mind after his admission to hospital, and believed that they had been ‘faked’. Given that the reverend’s wife was present during these events, the publication was entitled to rely on her account and interpretation. Doing so did not represent a failure to take care in breach of Clause 1(i). Because the reverend’s wife had given a first-hand account of her belief that her husband had been “pretending”, and as this was mentioned only in passing, and not as a central point of the article, the Committee could not find that stating this was significantly misleading such as to require correction under Clause 1(ii).

17. The article had stated that the complainant’s brother had engaged in “seven affairs”, and on this basis had characterised him as a “randy rev” and “love rat”. The blog had not specified a number of physical affairs, and the Church statement had made no mention of physical affairs; the Church had clarified that its investigations had been in relation to three women. However, the article had made clear that the affairs were not limited to the congregation. The publication had based the figure of seven on the account of the reverend’s wife, as provided to its source; because the figure was not likely to be publicly established or available, the publication was entitled to rely on this account, and doing so did not represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of this point. Similarly, where it would not be possible to establish the veracity of this figure on the basis of the complainant’s knowledge alone, the Committee could not find that the article contained a significant inaccuracy such as would require correction under Clause 1(ii). In these circumstances, characterising the complainant’s brother as a “randy rev” and “love rat” was not misleading, and did not breach Clause 1.

18. The publication had contacted the public relations representatives of the Church for comment, and had received a quotation which was attributed to a reverend of the Church. The publication was entitled to consider that this apology had been issued on behalf of Church leaders generally, and the wording of the apology suggested that it was largely directed toward the reverend’s wife and family – the only individuals it mentioned. There was no failure to take care over the claim that “Isle of Lewis church bosses” had apologised to the reverend’s wife; and this was not inaccurate such as to require correction under Clause 1(ii).

19. The Committee understood the complainant’s concerns that the article was intrusive. However, the article did not contain any information about the complainant herself, and therefore there was no intrusion into her private life in breach of Clause 2. The Committee was also sympathetic to the complainant’s concerns regarding the use of terms such as “love rat” and “randy rev” to describe her brother. However, the terms had been used in relation not to her brother’s death, but to his actions in life. There was no attempt to ridicule, make light of or belittle the manner of his passing. The terminology used to describe the complainant’s brother’s actions was based on his wife’s account of his actions, which the publication was entitled to cast in a negative light. Doing so twelve months after his death, and after the allegations and these characterisations had previously been presented in other publications and articles, was not a breach of Clause 4.

20. Because the complainant’s brother had been a minister of the Church, and his actions had been found by this Church to be contrary to its teachings, his religion was relevant to the article. The article did not contain any pejorative or prejudicial reference to the complainant’s religion, so it did not breach Clause 12 (Discrimination) with respect to her. The reference to the ‘Wee Frees’ did not refer to an individual, but to a group; it did not therefore engage the terms of this Clause. The article did not contain any suggestion that the complainant’s brother’s death had been a result of a mental health condition, and the article did not make any pejorative or prejudicial reference to an individual based on their mental health. This aspect of the complaint did not engage the terms of Clause 12.

Conclusions

21.  The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

22.  N/A

Date complaint received: 05/02/2018

Date decision issued: 05/07/2018