Ruling

01139-22 Mehson v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      13th October 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01139-22 Mehson v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint

1. Nadia Mehson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment), and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “’Obsessed’ boyfriend, 54, admits hurling a rock at his company director ex-girlfriend's Porsche outside her £1.5m Sandbanks mansion and bombarding her with messages”, published on 25th January 2022.

2. The article reported on court proceedings. It said that the defendant “hurled a boulder-sized rock at ex-girlfriend [the complainant’s] Porsche Boxster that was parked on the driveway of her £1.5m detached house overlooking Poole Harbour, Dorset”. It also reported that the defendant had “bombarded” the complainant with texts “after their relationship deteriorated last year and demanded she hand over £20,000 owed to him” and that he left multiple public messages on her Facebook page “accusing her of sleeping with another man”. The article reported that, after her car window was smashed, the complainant “said she was left traumatised by the attack and feared he would hurt her elderly parents who lived next door”. The article stated that the prosecution had said “’[t]he victim and the defendant had been in a relationship for a decade. It broke down because the defendant suspected that the victim was cheating […] On September 21 the victim received a text saying, ‘I know you slept with [named man] […] This is an obsession which has been going on for two and a half years’”. The article included an image of the complainant’s car in the driveway. It also included two images of the complainant: one on her own and one with the defendant.

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because it reported that the defendant suspected she was cheating on him with another man. She said the article did not make clear that, during court proceedings, the defence had confirmed the defendant’s allegation was incorrect. She said this gave the inaccurate impression that she was promiscuous and had cheated on her former partner. The complainant said the article was also inaccurate because it gave the value of her house as £1.5 million but this was based on a property that was not hers.

4. The complainant said the article also breached Clause 2 because it published her name without her consent. She said she was the victim of the attack and wanted to remain anonymous as she had not told anyone beyond her immediate family about the offence but now many people were aware. She also said the article breached Clause 2 because it included images of her that further identified her. She said these images were on her Facebook page - but had not been her profile picture at any time - which had been closed since September 2021, and her privacy settings had previously been “friends of friends”. She said that the photograph that showed just her was taken inside and so showed the interior of her home. The complainant said the article also breached Clause 2 because her occupation, her address, and the value of her house were given without her consent and these details were not relevant to the report. The complainant said the article further breached Clause 2 because she said photographs of her car might have been taken on private land without consent. She said the car was a one-off edition and people would now be aware of who owned the car or would connect her to the article if they saw her with it.

5. The complainant said the article also breached Clause 3 (Harassment) because the reporter attended her family’s property without forewarning and spoke to her parents without identifying himself. He explained to her parents that he was looking for the complainant and when he was informed she was not present, he asked the complainant’s parents for comment. The complainant said the reporter would not give his name or reveal how he knew where she lived. She said her father had spoken to the reporter through an open window and asked his purpose for visiting. The reporter replied and stated he was looking for the complainant and that he was a reporter looking for a comment regarding the recent court hearing but did not give his name. She said her parents were unaware that there had been a recent hearing and told the journalist to leave them alone and go away. The journalist then asked for her parents to comment on the incident and the result of the hearing. The complainant said her father had replied to the journalist by saying he was not sure what the journalist was talking about and said he had nothing to say. The complainant said the reporter explained the defendant had pleaded guilty and again asked for comment. She said her father again asked the reporter to go away and then he shut the window to stop the journalist from asking anything further.

6. The complainant said the journalist’s conduct also breached Clause 4. She said she was not aware the court proceedings had occurred at the point the journalist visited her home. She said the journalist attended her address before she had been informed by police about the hearing or the defendant’s plea. She stated that it was intrusive of the journalist to request an interview and take pictures when she was in a state of shock.

7. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It said the article had quoted what had been said by the prosecutor in open court and that the defendant had accused her of cheating on him. The publication also said it had used the words “accusing” and “suspected” to indicate these were allegations rather than claims of fact. Where it was made clear that this had been said by the prosecution, the publication stated it had distinguished between comment and fact. It also stated that the article had reported that the defendant had had a “two and a half year obsession”, which implied that the allegations were part of his obsession rather than fact. Regarding whether the publication had based the value of the complainant’s property on the wrong house, it said it had used the address stated on the court list. It said Land Registry records showed the house last sold for £1,395,950, and said £1.5 million was not significantly inaccurate, but offered to change the article to say the house was worth £1.4 million.

8. The publication also did not accept a breach of Clause 2. It said the information included had been heard in open court, and so was in the public domain, or was a matter of public record. The complainant’s name had been heard during proceedings and so the publication said it did not need to ask her permission to include it. It also said the photographs of her car had been taken from a public street meaning that any passer-by would have been able to see it and so there was no intrusion into her privacy. In addition, it said the complainant’s position as a company director as well as the value of her house were matters of public record and so there was no realistic expectation of privacy regarding this information. Regarding the images of the complainant, the publication said these were taken from her Facebook page that was public at the time the article was written. It also said that these images did not reveal private information about the complainant.

9. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 3. It said it had obtained the article from an agency. The agency reporter said he had obtained the complainant’s address from the court list and when he had attended the property, he saw her car in the driveway next door. He said he was aware that she lived near her parents as it had been heard in court and so assumed she was visiting them. He also thought he could see the complainant sitting on the porch through a large window. The reporter said he went to this property, checked he had the right address, and then knocked on the door. He said an elderly gentleman opened the door and the reporter asked to speak to the complainant. The man looked like he was going to get her but then stopped and asked what the visit was about. The reporter said he was transparent about the fact he was a reporter, although he had not had the opportunity to provide his name. The reporter had said he was told by the complainant’s father that he and his wife did not wish to comment, and he then left the property and that the interaction had lasted less than two minutes.

10. The publication said Clause 4 was not engaged. It stated the Clause is designed to prevent insensitive publication and to ensure that approaches made by reporters are handled with sympathy and discretion.

11. The complainant disputed the reporter’s account of his approach. She said she had not been at her parents’ home at the time, and so it was not her the reporter had seen through the window, but her mother. She also said he could not have knocked on the door as the door was up a flight of stairs and her father had spoken to him out of the window. The complainant said that, as she was not there and as her father was aware of her desire for privacy, he would not have gone to fetch her before finding out why the reporter was there.

12. The complainant also disputed the publication’s explanation regarding the photos from her social media. She said she had closed down her Facebook account in September of the previous year and so the publication could not have taken them from there.

13.  The publication said that it did appear as though the complainant’s father had opened the window just before the reporter could knock on the door but denied that this was a significant point of divergence. Regarding the complainant’s Facebook page, the publication said it had not taken screenshots showing it was public when it accessed the images but stated that her page was accessible to the public at the time.

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.

Clause 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

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

Clause 3 (Harassment)*

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii)  Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

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.

Findings of the Committee

14. The Committee first considered the points of complaint under Clause 1. The complainant’s first concern was that the article was inaccurate because it reported that the defendant’s behaviour had been motivated by the suspicion that the complainant was “cheating” on him with another man, because the defence had subsequently accepted that she had not been cheating. However, the Committee considered that it was clear from the article that this was the summary of the situation as put forward by the prosecution as to the reasons for his behaviour at the time. Where it was not in dispute that this was heard in court, and where the article did not state as fact that the complainant had cheated on the defendant, it was not inaccurate or misleading for the article to report it. In relation to the complainant’s address, whilst the Committee noted the dispute that occurred during the investigation regarding the complainant’s actual address, it was not in dispute that her home was worth £1.5 million as reported in the article. Where the complaint about the article was whether it was relevant to include the price of her house, it was not inaccurate to report the value. There was no breach of Clause 1 in relation to any of these points.

15. The Committee then turned to the complaint under Clause 2 (Privacy). Regarding the publication of the complainant’s name in connection to the offence of which she was a victim; this information was heard in court. In accordance with the principle of open justice, newspapers are entitled to report what is heard in court, provided no reporting restrictions are in place, and once something is heard in court it is effectively in the public domain. Therefore, whilst the Committee extended its sympathies to the complainant in light of what she had experienced, the publication of her name in connection to court proceedings did not breach Clause 2. Similarly, the complainant’s occupation as a company director and the value of the residence given as her address at court were matters of public record and was not information over which there was a reasonable expectation of privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

16. The Committee then considered the photographs within the article. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant said her car was a limited edition but considered that the fact that she owned a particular car was not, in and of itself, something that could be considered private. Equally, the Committee noted there was a dispute about how the publication had sourced the images of the complainant but noted that it was not in a position to reconcile these accounts or discern the true position. It also expressed concern that the publication had not retained screenshots of the complainant’s profile page to show that it was accessible at the time of compiling the article. However, the complainant accepted that the photos in question had been shared by her on Facebook and that they would, on account of being shared with “friends of friends” have been viewable by a potentially significant audience beyond her immediate approved contacts. In addition, the Committee noted that the image of the complainant on her own remained on a publicly accessible Instagram page and so there was not a reasonable expectation of privacy over it. Regarding the image of the complainant and the defendant, the Committee considered this only revealed the complainant’s relationship with the defendant, which was already public knowledge. For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

17. The Committee then considered the concerns raised under Clause 3. The Committee noted that there was a dispute between the complainant and the publication as to the exact nature of the events when the journalist had visited the complainant’s family home. There were no notes or recordings that the Committee could assess to assist its consideration. However, it was common ground that the journalist had visited on one occasion, had asked no more than three questions, did not engage in aggression or intimidation, and, having been asked to leave, did do so after a short period of time and then did not return. Given that it was not in dispute that this was the only approach and that it was brief, the Committee considered the reporter appeared to have engaged in behaviour within the reasonable scope of newsgathering. This did not constitute harassment under the terms of Clause 3 and there was no breach.

18. Finally, the Committee considered the complaint under Clause 4. The Committee noted that the complainant had not been informed of the recent court proceedings and had become aware of them via contact with the reporter. The terms of Clause 4 do not prohibit approaches but require that they are handled with sensitivity and discretion. Whilst the Committee acknowledged that finding out the information this way was distressing, her account did not indicate that the journalist had been insensitive when attempting to approach her for comment. There was no breach of Clause 4.

Conclusion(s)

19. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

20. N/A


Date complaint received: 27/01/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 21/09/2022