Ruling

01676-17 Coombs v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      9th November 2017

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01676-17 Coombs v The Sun 

Summary of Complaint

1.    David Coombs complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'DATER' IS £57k FLEECER” on 16 February 2017, and “Fake heart attacks, 'broken' cashpoints… how Romeo conned women for 20 years”, published 18 February 2017. 

2.    The article reported on the complainant’s conviction for nine counts of fraud and described him as a “predator”, who had claimed to be a wealthy businessman in order to “fleece” women out of £57,000. The articles said that the complainant had targeted vulnerable men and women in mental health units, hospitals and on dating sites, and contained the accounts of a number of his victims. The articles detailed that on one occasion the complainant had taken a woman to an exclusive hotel in London, where she “unwittingly paid £4200 for their lunch and his hotel bill” after he said he had left his wallet at work. 

3.    The 18 February article reported that the newspaper had previously revealed the complainant to be a “pathological liar”, who “boasted of bedding 227 girls and tricking them out of a fortune”. The article was illustrated by a small image of a previous front page splash, published in April 1998, which was headlined: “I’ve bedded 227 girls”: this article had been based on an interview which the complainant had given to the newspaper at that time. Underneath this image, the article reported that “in April 1998, the Sun told how Coombs boasted of bedding 227 girls and tricking them out of a fortune”. It said that “Coombs had sex with lonely women while living in Bergen, before fleecing them of cash and jewellery worth a total of £100,000”. The article further said that “Coombs had been booted out of Norway four times as cops had 63 complaints from tricked lovers” and that he had been “wanted in Finland”. 

4.    The 18 February article reported that the complainant had now employed “new tactics” in order to defraud women: he “often went to hospital claiming to be suffering a heart attack- so that he could target women visiting sick relatives.” It said that in doing so and “allegedly faking his symptoms, he would also get a nice free bed for a night or two”. It said that “one notable con” saw the complainant “fleece a woman of her savings after taking her to lunch at London’s swanky Claridge’s hotel”, it said that “after claiming he had left his wallet in his office he persuaded his date to let the hotel swipe her credit card”. 

5.    The article contained the testimony of two women. The first woman said that she had met the complainant after she had been visiting her “seriously ill father in hospital”. She said that the complainant had gone on to “[steal] £6000 in jewellery and cash” after he stayed at her home. The second woman said that she had met the complainant when she was visiting a friend in hospital: the article said “again the devious conman claimed to be suffering from a heart attack”. The woman had told the newspaper that the complainant had left her and her children “homeless” after he had claimed that they could rent a property which he owned. The article said that the woman had “reported Coombs to police a week before becoming homeless, and they confirmed they were already investigating the conman”.

6.    The 16 February article appeared online, headlined “DATING APP FRAUDSTER: Homeless conman posed as wealthy businessman to dupe lonely heart ladies into sending him ‘thousands’”. The 18 February article appeared online, headlined “'HE MADE US HOMELESS' Conman first unmasked in the 90s is jailed again after duping vulnerable women online using fake heart attacks and ‘broken’ cashpoints” and was published on 17 February 2017. 

7.    The complainant said that the republication of the image of the newspaper’s front page from 1998, as well as the information contained within that article, gave the inaccurate and misleading impression that he had “conned women for 20 years”, “bedded” 200 hundred women in Norway, “fleeced” them out of £100,000 and that he had been “wanted” in Finland. 

8.    The complainant said that the article had inaccurately reported that the frauds had totalled £57,000: he had pleaded guilty to 9 counts of fraud totalling £37,000. The complainant denied that he was a “fleecer” or that the judge had called him “predator”: the judge had called him a “menace”. He said that he had been charged in relation to an unpaid hotel bill of £4770.39, after he had taken a woman he met on a dating site on a date there. While he did not dispute that he had told the woman he had left his wallet in his office and had asked her to use her credit card to secure the room, he said that the loss had ultimately been on the part of the hotel: he had not “fleeced” a woman of her savings. He also denied that any woman had sent him “thousands”, as reported in the 16 February online article. 

9.    The complainant said that he had never “faked” a heart attack in order to defraud women. The complainant further disputed the accuracy of the testimony of the first woman: her father had not been seriously ill and he had not stolen £6,000 in jewellery and cash. He further said that he had not made the second woman homeless. 

10. The newspaper defended the accuracy of the article, with the single exception of the total value of the frauds (see below). 

11. The newspaper provided a copy of the article from 1998, which had included an interview which the complaint had given to the newspaper. The complainant had told the newspaper: “my favourite con is getting a woman to agree to a date but then convincing her I’ve left my suit somewhere. It never ceases to amaze me how many hand over their money or credit card so I can buy some new clothes”. The complainant had told the newspaper that Norwegian girls are “fairly stupid- and the police aren’t too bright either. That’s why I’ve managed to get away with it for so long”. The article said that the complainant had “loved and left 227 Norwegian women” and that “police in his main hunting ground of Bergen have managed to expel him from Norway four times”. The 1998 article also said that the complainant was “wanted” in Finland. The newspaper said that it had been entitled to rely on information that had been in the public domain for nearly two decades and had remained unchallenged during that time. It further noted that the complainant had spoken to the newspaper at that time, freely. 

12. The newspaper said that the testimony of the women contained in the article had been accurately reported. It further said that the first woman had been adamant that the complainant had been admitted to hospital after feigning a heart attack and said that the second woman had told the newspaper that she had met the complainant when he was in hospital, complaining of a heart problem. 

13. The newspaper provided a transcript of the reporter’s notes, which recorded that the judge had told the complainant: “you were like a predator waiting for those individuals, your prey, to come. You systematically and ruthlessly took advantage of their good nature and honesty”. It said that the information that the complainant had met his victims on dating sites reflected comments from the judge during his sentencing hearing, as well as the testimony of women who had spoken to the newspaper. The newspaper said that the above information justified the characterisation of the complainant as a “fleecer”. 

14. The newspaper accepted that it had inaccurately reported the total value of the complainant’s frauds; it said that it had received the value of £57,000 from a freelance agency. As soon as it was made aware of the error from the agency, it offered to amend the online article, add a footnote and publish the following correction, which also made clear that it was not alleged in court that Mr Coombs had faked heart attacks in order to defraud women: 

In two articles, dated 16 February and 18 February 2017, we reported that Mr David Coombs had been convicted for 9 counts of fraud totalling £57,000. In the 18 February article we also reported that Mr Coombs often went to hospital claiming to be suffering a heart attack so that he could target women visiting sick relatives.  We are happy to make clear that, in fact, the offences totalled a sum of £37,000 and that it was not alleged in court that Mr Coombs had faked a heart attack in order to defraud women. 

Relevant Code Provisions 

15. 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. 

Findings of the Committee

16. In reporting on the complainant’s conviction for fraud, the article had included an image of the front page of an article which the newspaper had published in 1998. It had also repeated the claims which had been made within that article, namely that the complainant had “bedded” 200 hundred women in Norway, “fleeced” them out of £100,000 and had been “wanted” in Finland. It was not in dispute that the 1998 article had been based upon an interview which the complainant had given freely to the newspaper. While the Committee noted that the complainant disputed the claims which that article had made, he had not raised these concerns with the newspaper at the time, or since. The newspaper was entitled to rely upon information which the complainant had freely given to it and had remained unchallenged, for almost 20 years. The Committee did not consider that repeating this information, in the context of an article which reported on the complainant’s conviction for fraud, represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i). 

17. The article had stated that the complainant had “often” visited hospitals, claiming to be suffering from a heart attack in order to defraud women and had said that “by allegedly faking his symptoms”, he would also get a “free” hospital bed. In support of this, the newspaper had relied on the testimony of two women, one of which the newspaper said had been “adamant” that the complainant had been feigning his symptoms. The Committee was concerned that this allegation was not clearly presented as the accounts of the two women. However on balance, where the women’s testimony in relation to this issue had been clearly presented as their opinion elsewhere in the article and where the article had stated that the complainant had been “allegedly” faking his symptoms, the Committee did not conclude that there had been a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. However, the Committee welcomed the newspaper's offer of a correction which made clear that this was an allegation which had not been heard in court. 

18. The Committee emphasised the importance of accurately reporting court proceedings and noted that the complainant had been convicted of frauds totalling £37,000. However, it did not conclude that a discrepancy of £20,000 was significant, in circumstances where the complainant had been convicted of nine counts of frauds which had amounted to a total figure involving tens of thousands of pounds. However, the Committee welcomed the newspapers offer to publish a correction to address this point. 

19. Further, it was not misleading for the online article’s headline to report that the complainant had been sent “thousands” by women, given that the complainant had been convicted of defrauding a number of women, which had, in total, resulted in him receiving a figure involving thousands of pounds. 

20. The complainant had accepted that he had been charged in relation to an unpaid hotel bill of £4770.39, after he had taken a woman he had met on a dating site on a date there. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the hotel had ultimately borne the cost of the unpaid bill. However, it was not in dispute that the complainant had told the woman he had left his wallet in his office and had asked her to use her credit card to secure the room; in those circumstances, it was not inaccurate to report that he had “fleeced” the woman he had taken there. 

21. While the complainant disputed the claims of the women which were reported in the article, the newspaper had been entitled to report their positions. The Committee was concerned that the allegation that the complainant had stolen £6,000 in jewellery and cash from one of the women was not expressly presented as her account, however, where this allegation had been presented as part of her testimony, the Committee did not conclude that there had been a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. 

22. The newspaper had provided a transcript of the reporter’s notes, which recorded that the judge had referred to the complainant as a “predator”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point and the Committee did not conclude that the article contained significantly inaccurate information, such as to warrant a correction. Furthermore, in circumstances where the complainant had been convicted of nine counts of fraud and the article had detailed at length the circumstances which had led up to this, the Committee did not conclude that the characterisation of the complainant as a “fleecer” was inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of the Code.

Conclusion

22. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial action required 

23. N/A

Review

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.  

Date complaint received: 03/03/2017
Date decision issued: 30/08/2017