Ruling

01817-23 Cleary v South Wales Echo

    • Date complaint received

      21st September 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01817-23 Cleary v South Wales Echo


Summary of Complaint

1. Jane Cleary, acting on her own behalf and on behalf of Matthew Cleary, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the South Wales Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “City property developer led double-life as a drug dealer”, published on 23 December 2022.

2. The article reported on a criminal court case against the complainant, Matthew Cleary, at Cardiff Crown Court. It quoted the prosecutor in the case, who “told the court that Cleary, 34, was living in a ‘high-spec’ Llandaff home containing large flat-screen TVs in most rooms and luxury watches worth as much as £40,000.” It said the “home had a high-spec finish and was lavishly decorated, with a digital media system installed in the bathroom and a large flat screen TV in almost every room." It reported that “Police seized TAG Heuer and Audemars Piguet watches from the home as well as three pairs of Valentino trainers.”

3. The article said the police had discovered texts Mr Cleary had exchanged with his accomplice. It reported one of the accomplice’s texts read: "The boss has people with guns at night" and that “The prosecutor argued this suggested he was ‘part of an OCG (organised crime group) with access to firearms’ but Judge David Wynn Morgan said he did not accept this, adding: ‘There is no evidence of anything like shootouts in the street’”.

4. The article also stated, “Matthew Cleary and his accomplice [named individual] profited from eight cannabis factories in and around Cardiff in a conspiracy thought to have involved more than 100Kg of the class B drug Cardiff Crown Court heard." The article concluded: “The judge said the case ‘could be described as tragic’ but added that the illegal trade of cannabis is a ‘scourge that creates degradation and misery’. He sentenced Cleary and [accomplice] to 32 months in prison each. They must each pay a victim services surcharge of £190 following their release”. The article included a photo of Matthew Cleary and the accomplice.

5. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline, “The property developer whose lavish life of golf holidays and luxury watches was funded by drug ring”, published on 22 December 2022. This version reported: “Officers searched Cleary's house in Clos Taf and found smaller amounts of cannabis in Ziploc bags.”

1. complainant said that the online article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as it reported that the address at Clos Taf had been searched by police and cannabis found in the property. The complainant said that this was not the case, and the only address heard at court was a Copleston Road address. She further said that Mr Cleary did not reside at the Clos Taf address – which was why it had not been searched. The complainant also said that the article had described the contents of the house as being “high spec”, which made the house a burglary target. The complainant said that as a result of the inaccuracy about the address, the article had inaccurately stated that her home had contained the items listed in the article.

2. complainant also said that both versions of the article were misleading as they stated: “Matthew Cleary and his accomplice [named individual] profited from eight cannabis factories”. She said the eight cannabis factories had been linked to the accomplice, rather than Mr Cleary, and this had been heard in court. The complainant also believed the article implied Mr Cleary was the ‘boss’ of the accomplice, which she said was not the case. She further believed that the headlines’ focus on Mr Cleary implied he had a more significant role in the operation. She said that this was emphasised by the fact that the image of Mr Cleary which accompanied the article was larger than the image of the accomplice.

3. complainant further said the online article had revealed private information in breach of Clause 2, as it had published her partial address. She said it would be easy to identify her house from the online article.

4. complainant raised her concerns directly with the publication on 22 December 2022, the day the online article was published. She said that the publication replied on the same day, and explained that it had spoken to the court - which had confirmed the address was not mentioned during court proceedings as having been searched. The publication confirmed it would remove the reference to her address and the article was updated on the same day.

10. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that it was stated in court that Mr Cleary's home was searched, and the address listed for Mr Cleary on the court list was Clos Taf. Therefore, it was reasonable for the publication to report that this was the address which had been searched. During the IPSO investigation the publication provided an excerpt of the court register which contained the Clos Taf address. It also provided a copy of the court reporter’s notes, which it said demonstrated that it was heard that the items listed in the article were found at Mr Cleary’s “home”.

11. While the publication did not accept a breach of the Code, it said it had promptly addressed the complainant’s concerns: It said the article had been amended on the same day the complainant had made it aware of the inaccuracy and the court had confirmed that the address was not heard during the court case – this was also the same day that the original online article was published. It said that, on this date, it had made the decision not to publish a correction as it would result in the complainant’s address being republished. However, once the IPSO process began, it offered to publish a footnote correction in its first IPSO-process response to the complainant on 6 February; it later reiterated this offer on 29 March. The publication indicated the correction would correct the address, but did not propose specific wording.

12. Turning to the other alleged inaccuracies in the article, the publication said the reference to the “eight cannabis farms” had been heard in court; this was also supported by the reporter’s notes. It said that, although the accomplice was more directly involved in managing the farms, it was clear that Mr Cleary worked with the accomplice and profited from the same cannabis conspiracy, resulting in the same sentence for both defendants. The publication said that the article reported on text exchanges between the two individuals which made it clear that Mr Cleary was not the boss. It further stated that the article had clearly described the two as "accomplices".

13. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 2; it said that the Clos Taf address had been included on the court register, and the article only included the partial address. Therefore, the address was in the public domain and publishing it did not represent an intrusion into the complainant’s private life.

Relevant Clause 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.

Findings of the Committee

14. The publication was able to provide the court register which it had relied on prior to publication; this listed the Clos Taf address as being Mr Cleary’s residence. In this instance, where the court register was an official document provided by the court, and it had been heard in court that Mr Cleary’s home had been searched, reporting that this was the address that was searched by the police did not represent a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. There was no breach of Clause 1(i) on this point.

15. While the Committee had found that there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article prior to publication, it acknowledged that the address included in the online article had not been searched by police, nor were cannabis and the “high-spec” items found in the property. The online article was therefore inaccurate on these two points, and the inaccuracy was significant where the article had linked criminal activity to the Clos Taf address - a potentially damaging and serious claim. The Committee found that this represented a significant inaccuracy which needed correcting in line with the requirements of Clause 1 (ii).

16. As such, a correction was required to promptly and prominently put the correct position on record. The publication had amended the online article the day of publication to remove the Clos Taf address during direct correspondence. The publication had told the complainant that it had made the editorial decision not to publish a correction to avoid republishing the inaccurate address, but nonetheless offered a footnote correction on 6 February, 46 days after it had been made aware of the inaccuracy, this offer was later reiterated on 29 March during the IPSO investigation. While the publication had offered a correction in a sufficiently prominent location and had indicated it would correct the inaccurate address, it had not made clear the precise wording of the proposed correction. Therefore, the Committee was not in a position to assess whether its proposed remedial action corrected the initial inaccuracy. The Committee acknowledged that the publication was concerned that the complainant did not want the inaccurate address to be republished; however, where the Committee was unable to assess whether the correction satisfied Clause 1 (ii) and the offer of a correction had not been offered promptly, this represented a breach of Clause 1(ii).

17. The complainant also said that the article was misleading as it suggested Mr Cleary had a more significant role in the conspiracy than his accomplice. The Committee noted that the article had accurately reported on Mr Cleary’s sentence and had not suggested that he was the accomplice’s ‘boss’; it had simply that: “Matthew Cleary and his accomplice [named individual] profited from eight cannabis factories in and around Cardiff in a conspiracy thought to have involved more than 100Kg of the class B drug Cardiff Crown Court heard." It further set out the accomplice’s involvement in the conspiracy and did not claim the Mr Cleary was running the farms. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. Turning to the concerns raised under Clause 2, the Committee did not consider publishing the street-level Clos Taf address represented an intrusion into the complainant’s private life where it was not in dispute that this address had appeared in the court register and had therefore entered the public domain prior to the article’s publication. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusions

19. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

20. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

21. The Committee considered that linking the Clos Taf address to allegations of criminal activity was significantly inaccurate. However, the Committee noted that the publication had taken care over the accuracy of the article, had removed the reference to the address on the day of the article’s publication, and had offered to correct the inaccuracy – notwithstanding that it had not offered a specific wording. Therefore, on balance, the Committee considered that a correction was the appropriate remedy. The correction should acknowledge that it had not been heard in court that the Clos Taf address had been searched by the police, nor that cannabis had been found there and “high-spec” items been seized from the property. It should also put the correct position on record, namely the actual address which had been searched in the manner described in the article.

22. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. As the inaccuracy had only appeared in the online article – which had since been amended to remove the inaccuracy – the correction should be published as a footnote. The wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.


Date complaint received: 05/01/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 31/08/2023


Independent Complaints Reviewer

The publication complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Reviewer found that the IPSO process was flawed, as the Committee had not taken the publication’s offer of a correction into account when making its decision. The complaint was therefore returned to the Committee, and the Committee issued an amended ruling.