Ruling

01986-21 A woman v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      11th November 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 11 Victims of sexual assault, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01986-21 A woman v The Daily Telegraph

Summary of Complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock), Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published in 2021.

2. This decision is written in general terms, to avoid the inclusion of information which could identify an alleged victim of sexual assault. The complainant was the spouse who alleged to have been abused.

3. The article reported on a court case between two spouses. It included statements from lawyers and attributed various claims to the spouse making the complaint. It reported that this spouse alleged they had been subject to abuse, which the judge did not make findings on. It also reported that the judge had heard information about the marriage. Information regarding the spouse’s profession was included. The article contained a quote from the other spouse’s barrister and an application this spouse made to the judge which was denied. The article named the complainant’s profession.

4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format.

5. The complainant, one of the spouses referred to, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. They said one of the statements attributed to lawyers had not been heard in court, and was not accurate. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report that no findings had been made over the allegations of abuse, as this had not formed part of the case, was not the purpose of the hearing, and gave the impression that their allegations against their spouse were dismissed. The complainant also said that the article suggested inaccurately that the information heard by the judge was true, which they disputed. They accepted that their spouse’s barrister had said this information in court, but that the judge had not made findings on it. The complainant also said they had not spoken in court, and therefore the article should have attributed claims to their barrister.

6. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 4 and Clause 11 by identifying them as a victim of sexual assault. The article named the complainant and included their allegations that their spouse had abused them. The complainant said the application by the complainant’s spouse, which was refused by the judge, amounted to them being a victim of sexual assault and therefore they should not have been named. The complainant said that being named in the same article as their alleged abuser was highly distressing and inappropriate in further violation of Clause 4, and that they had suffered injuries to their mental health as a result of the publication of the article.

7. The complainant said that by identifying their profession, their religion and that they considered themselves a victim of abuse, the article had discriminated against them in breach of Clause 12.

8. The publication stated that the court report had come from a press agency, and that a reporter had been present at court. The publication said that it had taken care not to publish inaccurate information by relying on this report, however, it accepted that the press agency had filed an update to the article clarifying the position. The publication amended the article, replacing the disputed sentence with one it said reflected a further email sent by the complainant’s barrister. It also added a clarification as a footnote to the article, and offered to add it to their established corrections and clarifications column.

9. The publication noted that the allegations of abuse had been aired in court, and that it was a matter of fact that the judge had made no findings on these allegations. The publication said that both the reporter in attendance at court and the complainant’s barrister had confirmed that the judge had said the statement of information. It also said the information had been said by the complainant’s spouse’s barrister and it was therefore accurate to state that the judge had “heard” the information about the marriage.

10. The publication said that at no time during the court proceedings was the complainant identified as a victim of sexual abuse. It said that the specific allegations of abuse raised in court did not automatically involve a sexual offence. It noted that it had a copy of the complainant’s Counsel’s skeleton argument and there was no suggestion that the complainant was a victim of sexual abuse within this document. It said, therefore, that Clause 11 was not engaged.

11. The publication said that, in addition to the above, the article was a fair and accurate report of proceedings held in open court, and that therefore Clause 4 was not engaged.

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 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.

Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault)

The press must not identify or publish material likely to lead to the identification of a victim of sexual assault unless there is adequate justification and they are legally free to do so. Journalists are entitled to make enquiries but must take care and exercise discretion to avoid the unjustified disclosure of the identity of a victim of sexual assault.

Findings of the Committee

12. The Committee noted that the complainant’s spouse denied the allegations of abuse and made clear that its role was to consider whether the article complied with the Editors’ Code as a report on the proceedings, rather than to make findings on the veracity of claims heard as part of the proceedings, including the allegations of abuse which were in dispute between the parties.

13. The publication had relied on a court report from a press agency, which had been written by a journalist who was present at the court. In addition to the information heard in court, the journalist had contacted the complainant’s barrister to provide clarity on one aspect of the case. Newspapers are entitled to use reports provided by agencies, but in doing so they adopt responsibility for the care taken to ensure that information contained in the published copy is not inaccurate, misleading or distorted.

14. The first point considered by the Committee was the disputed statement attributed to the complainant’s barrister. The publication said that this had not been said in court, but rather in a subsequent telephone conversation between the journalist and the complainant’s barrister. The complainant said that their barrister had denied this, and pointed out the statement was not, in any case, correct. There was clearly a conflict in the two accounts given; in such instances the Committee would generally expect the publication to support its account in order to demonstrate it had taken sufficient care over the disputed claim. The publication did not provide any record or contemporaneous notes of the conversation with the complainant’s barrister, but only the recollection of the journalist, obtained subsequent to the complaint. This was not sufficient to demonstrate that care had been taken not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and the Committee found a breach of Clause 1(i) of the Code.

15. The publication said that there had been a misunderstanding. It appeared to be accepted that there had been some discussion between the journalist and the barrister regarding the disputed statement, but that there had been a misunderstanding as to what this impact would be. This claim was significant and required correction under Clause 1(ii).

16. The publication offered to publish a clarification as a footnote to the online article and in print within its established corrections and clarifications column, which represented due prominence. The clarification was offered in the publication’s first substantive response to the complainant, with its location being specified later, which represented due promptness. However, the clarification offered did not make clear that lawyers did not accurately reflect the position put forward by the complainant’s barrister. Where the clarification did not put the correct position on the record, it did not satisfy the publication’s responsibilities under Clause 1(ii) and there was a further breach.

17. The complainant had accepted that the court had heard that they were a victim of abuse, but that the court case was not a fact finding case on these points. It was therefore accurate for the article to report that the judge had not made findings on the allegations of abuse; this did not imply that the allegations had been discounted. The article reported that the judge heard information about the marriage. Where the complainant accepted that this was their spouse’s position in court, the article was not inaccurate on this point. The Committee noted that the complainant believed it was inaccurate to report that they had said anything during the trial, as their barrister had been the one to speak. The barrister had been representing the complainant in the proceedings; in this context, it was not inaccurate to refer in general terms to the claims made in support of the complaint’s case, on their instructions, as having been attributed to the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

18. With regards to Clause 11, the Committee made clear that it was not making a finding as to whether the complainant was a victim of sexual assault, but whether the article had identified them as such a victim. The complainant had been named in court without reporting restrictions. During the proceedings, there were allegations that they had been subjected to abuse. Neither of these allegations constituted an allegation of sexual abuse, and there was no mention of sexual assault in the article. In these circumstances, the complainant had not been identified as a victim of sexual assault and there was no breach of Clause 11.

19. The complainant also said the publication of the article was intrusive in breach of Clause 4. The Committee noted that the article was a report of the court proceedings. Clause 4 makes clear that it does not restrict the right for publications to report on legal proceedings. The Committee understood that the publication of the article was upsetting for the complainant, but it was a report of contemporaneous proceedings that had been heard in court, and there was no breach of Clause 4.

Conclusions

20. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

21. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, 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 terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

22. The Committee found that the newspaper had published a significant inaccuracy. In circumstances where it was accepted by the parties this appeared to have arisen from a misunderstanding of a discussion that the journalist had initiated for the purpose of clarifying the complainant’s position, the Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record.

23. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. This correction should be added to the article as a footnote. This wording should only include information required to correct the inaccuracy. The wording should also 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. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, the correction on the article should be published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the correction should be published as a footnote which explains the amendments that have been made.

 

 

Date complaint received: 01/03/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 17/09/2021

 

Independent Complaints Reviewer

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.