Ruling

01863-22 Francesco v walesonline.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      25th August 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01863-22 Francesco v walesonline.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Mark Francesco complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that walesonline.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Builder fabricated texts in attempt to get Welsh Government civil servant sacked”, published on 3rd December 2021.

2. The article reported that the complainant sent “fraudulent texts” to a civil servant’s employer “claiming she had disclosed classified information”. It stated that “[t]he complaint was taken seriously by the woman's employer who launched an investigation and disciplinary proceedings against her”, and, although she was “exonerated”, “it took 11 months before [the complainant] admitted the fraud”. The article said that the woman had “complained about the quality and cost of [building] work he had carried out on her home” and that during civil proceedings, he made the “false claims against the woman” that she had “had aired her personal opinions on the Covid-19 response, elected leaders and First Minister Mark Drakeford”. The article reported that the prosecution had said, “It is now accepted those messages were completely false and fabricated and were deliberately and fraudulently inserted in a message chain to expose the victim to risk of loss which would have been the loss of her employment as a civil servant at the Welsh Government”. The article stated the complainant “pleaded guilty to committing fraud by false representation” and that he “was sentenced to six months imprisonment suspended for 12 months. He was also ordered to carry out 80 hours unpaid work, a rehabilitation activity requirement of 30 days and was made subject to a restraining order”

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because he had not been sentenced to 30 days of rehabilitation activity but to 10 days. He also said the article was inaccurate because it was not his intention to get the woman “sacked” when he sent the texts, and this had never been proven in court. He said his barrister had argued in court that, although the civil servant was originally suspended, she was reinstated before it was established the messages were fabricated. This meant there was no threat to her of losing her job.

4. The complainant said the article also breached Clause 2 because it published his street level address. He said this was unnecessary information that put him and his family at risk.

5. The publication said it accepted that it was inaccurate for the article to report that the complainant had been sentenced to 30 days of rehabilitation activities. The parties had been in correspondence before the complaint to IPSO and during this correspondence, the publication had published a footnote correction:

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Mark Francesco had been sentenced to a rehabilitation activity requirement of 30 days. In fact, it was 10 days. We are happy to clarify this.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1 regarding whether the complainant had intended to get the civil servant “sacked”. It provided the court reporter’s notes which recorded that, during court proceedings, the prosecution said the complainant “deliberately and fraudulently inserted in a message chain to expose the victim to risk of loss which would have been the loss of her employment as a civil servant at the Welsh Government”. Notwithstanding this, at the start of IPSO’s investigation, the publication amended the headline to say, “Builder fabricated texts which exposed Welsh Government civil servant to risk of getting sacked” and added a correction to the top of the articl

Correction: A previous headline of this article stated as fact that Mark Francesco fraudulently made the texts in an attempt to get the civil servant sacked. We would like to clarify that although Mr Francesco pleaded guilty to fraud, and that the prosecution stated that he 'deliberately and fraudulently inserted in a message chain to expose the victim to risk of loss', his defence barrister expressed that the defendant did not want his victim to lose her job. We are happy to clarify this.

7. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 2. It said it was entitled to publish the complainant’s partial address because it was heard in court and because it serves to help distinguish people with the same name.

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.

Findings of the Committee

8. The Committee first considered the reporting of how much rehabilitative activity the complainant had been sentenced. The newspaper accepted that it had inaccurately reported that the complainant received 30 days of rehabilitation activity, when he had actually received 10 days. The publication, therefore, had not taken sufficient care over the accurate reporting of the complainant’s sentence and there was a breach of Clause 1 (i).

9. The error related to what had been heard in court and claimed the sentence the complainant had received was three times longer than was the case; it was therefore significant and required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). The publication had amended the article and added a footnote correction to the article when it was made aware of the error by the complainant and before the complaint came to IPSO. This was sufficiently prompt. A footnote correction represented due prominence where the inaccuracy appeared towards the end of the article and had been corrected. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii) on this point.

10. The Committee then turned to the complaint regarding whether the complainant had “fabricated texts in [an] attempt to get Welsh Government civil servant sacked”. The court reporter’s notes showed that the prosecution had stated the complainant had “deliberately and fraudulently inserted in a message chain to expose the victim to risk of loss which would have been the loss of her employment as a civil servant at the Welsh Government”. The Committee noted that the defence had stated the complainant “did not want his victim to lose her job”. However, where the texts lead to the instigation of disciplinary proceedings against the woman, the complainant had pleaded guilty to the sending of the messages, and where the prosecution had said it was “accepted those messages […] were deliberately and fraudulently inserted in a message chain to expose the victim to risk of loss which would have been the loss of her employment”, the Committee concluded that it was not inaccurate or misleading for the headline to claim the complainant had send the messages “in attempt to get [the woman] sacked”. This represented the publication’s characterisation and the article provided sufficient basis for this characterisation. There was no breach of Clause 1(i).

11. Finally, the Committee considered the complaint under Clause 2. In accordance with the principle of open justice, newspapers are generally entitled to report information that has been disclosed in open court and is not subject to a reporting restriction. The address of a defendant would typically be given in court, and the publication of a street address helps to accurately identify defendants. There was, therefore, no reasonable expectation of privacy over the complainant’s street level address and no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusion(s)

12. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

13. The published correction put the correct position on record and was offered promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required.


Date complaint received: 28/02/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 09/08/2022