Ruling

01780-14 Turner v The Sun on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      19th March 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

   Decision of the Complaints Committee 01780-14 Turner v The Sun on Sunday

Summary of complaint 

1. Richard Turner complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun on Sunday had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Milly killer tormented Sarah’s dad”, published on 2 November 2014.

2. The complainant is the brother of convicted multiple murderer Levi Bellfield. The article reported that, before his crimes had been exposed, Mr Bellfield had been a neighbour of Michael Payne, the father of murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne, and had deliberately befriended him. It said that Mr Bellfield had “targeted” Mr Payne during weekly drinking sessions in their local pub, and that Mr Payne had been “devastated” and “tormented” when Mr Bellfield was arrested, and he realised by whom he had been befriended. It was accompanied by a short article written by former Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton, the police officer who led the investigation which ultimately led to Mr Bellfield’s convictions. He stated that police had found newspaper cuttings about Sarah Payne’s murder in Mr Bellfield’s house.

3. The complainant said that his brother had never met, socialised with or been a neighbour of Mr Payne; it followed that he had not “targeted” or “stalked” him, as the article claimed. While both men had at one time lived in Collingwood Place in Walton, his brother had left in March 2002, and Mr Payne had not moved in until 2004. The complainant provided an article published in The Sun, the newspaper's sister publication, in 2008, which had stated that Mr Bellfield had left his flat in Collingwood Place in 2002 “and never returned”. Further, his brother had not drunk in the pub where the meetings had allegedly taken place. The newspaper had reported that the pair had met in 2003, but neither man was living in the street at that time.

4. The complainant said that no newspaper cuttings about Sarah Payne had been found in his brother’s flat in Collingwood Place or in the house to which he subsequently moved, where he had been living at the time of his arrest. His brother had moved out of Collingwood Place years before it was searched by police, and no personal effects had been found there. The complainant provided a witness statement from a police officer which said that there was only one newspaper cutting, which related to Amelie Delagrange, one of his victims. This was contradicted, however, by another part of the witness statement: a list of items which had been taken as evidence, which included two newspaper cuttings. The complainant stated that the additional cutting related to car clamping. His brother had not been questioned about cuttings relating to Sarah Payne during the police interview with Det Ch Insp Sutton, and there had been no mention of them during the trial.

5. The newspaper said that its report was based on the recollections by Keith Payne, the late Mr Payne’s brother, and Cynthia Payne, his mother; they had been quoted at length. While it accepted that the dates of the two men’s residencies in Collingwood Place had been incorrect, it maintained that the two men had been drinking companions, and noted that the complainant had provided no evidence to prove otherwise. Both men had lived in Collingwood Place; if it was not at the same time, this was not a significant error. Mr Bellfield’s new residence was less than 15 miles away, and it was not impossible that he had continued to drink at the pub. It noted that it had published a report in 2009 claiming that Mr Bellfield had said that he would attack Sarah Payne’s killer because he knew the family; it had received no complaint about that article.

6. The newspaper provided an email from Det Ch Insp Sutton, in which he had confirmed that at least one cutting or newspaper relating to Sarah Payne was found at a property to which Mr Bellfield had had access. He did not recall if the cutting had been retained by the police, as it had little evidential value.

7. Nonetheless, in light of the complainant’s position that Mr Bellfield and Mr Payne had not lived in the block of flats at the same time, the newspaper offered to publish the following correction on page 2 of a forthcoming edition:

In a story “Milly killer tormented Sarah’s dad”, 2 November 2014, we stated that the late Michael Payne, father of Sarah Payne, drank in the same pub and “lived next door” to serial killer Levi Bellfield. Mr Bellfield’s family, who dispute that Bellfield and Michael Payne knew each other, would like us to clarify that the two men did not live in the same block of flats at the same time.

8. The complainant said that the proposed correction only addressed a small part of the complaint. He considered that its placement on page 2 was insufficient to remedy a factually inaccurate front-page article.

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.

Findings of the Committee

10. The article’s central claim rested heavily on the assertion that Michael Payne and Mr Bellfield had been neighbours in Collingwood Place. The newspaper's sister publication had reported in 2008 that Mr Bellfield had left Collingwood Place in 2002, and it was aware – and had reported in the article under complaint – that Mr Payne had not arrived until 2004. In these circumstances, the newspaper’s prominent report that the two men “lived next door” to one another and were “neighbours” – a central part of its account of how the two men had met – constituted a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information.

11. The Committee did not agree with the complainant’s position, however, that the inaccuracy on this point effectively disproved the account of events set out by the Payne family, and in particular, Keith Payne. Keith Payne had confirmed, on the record, that Mr Payne and Mr Bellfield had drunk together in the pub, and that he was later “tormented” to learn of Mr Bellfield’s crimes. The newspaper had been entitled to rely on his recollections of his conversations with the late Mr Payne, and to include his comments on those events. The complainant could not show that the two men had not drunk together or known one another. The Committee did not establish a significant inaccuracy in this regard, such that a correction was required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

12. While it appeared to be accepted that a newspaper cutting relating to Sarah Payne had not been found at Mr Bellfield’s former flat in Collingwood Place, Det Ch Insp Sutton was confident that cuttings had been found at a premises where Mr Bellfield lived. The newspaper had been entitled to rely on his evidence, and the witness statement provided by the complainant had not contradicted Det Ch Insp Sutton’s account. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of this element of the article, and the Committee found that any misattribution of the location at which these cuttings had been found would in any case not be a significant inaccuracy in the context of the article as a whole.

Conclusions

13. The complaint was upheld in part.

Remedial Action Required

14. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1 (i), the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee has the power to require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is to be determined by IPSO. It may also inform the publication that further remedial action is required to ensure that the requirements of the Editors’ Code are met.

15. The newspaper had offered to publish an appropriate correction, which made clear that Michael Payne and Mr Bellfield had not lived in the same block of flats at the same time, and further acknowledged the complainant’s denial that they had known each other. In light of the Committee’s decision, this correction should now be published both in print and online.

Date complaint received: 13/11/2014

Date decision issued: 19/03/2015