Ruling

02025-21 Cressman v The Sunday Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      26th August 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02025-21 Cressman v The Sunday Telegraph

Summary of Complaint

1. Rick Cressman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'Trial by television' of Fergie's killer aide”, published on 28 February 2021.

2. The complainant is the brother of Tom Cressman, who was murdered in September 2000. The article was a comment piece written by an individual who was described as the “friend” of the woman who was convicted of Mr Cressman’s murder and a campaigner on her behalf. It reported that the “prosecution claimed that [the convicted woman] had killed Cressman, a car accessories salesman with whom she had been in a relationship for almost three years, with a cricket bat because he had refused to marry her.” It also contained allegations the convicted woman had made against Mr Cressman and said that she had “alleged” having been sexually abused by Mr Cressman, and that “she claimed” he had “threatened her with knives [and] battered her”. The writer referred to a legal development regarding "coercive control law” which she said “shone a light on the impact that mental torture can have” and she expressed the view that if the convicted woman was “on trial today, [she] would probably have succeeded with a manslaughter defence.”

3. The article opened with a question posed by the writer: “When has a convicted murderer paid their dues?” and described the convicted woman as having been “relentlessly pursued” since her arrest and said that whilst many who “served a life sentence quietly re-enter society”, the convicted woman had not been able to. It described the convicted woman as “saying over and over that she was not a murderer. That she deserved to be punished but that she did not kill in cold blood.” The article described the convicted woman’s time in prison, and said she fled an open prison to see her parents, that she had been sent back to prison after police found accusations of harassment to have no substance, and included a quote from her in which she stated: “I begged the prison to let me write to the Cressmans to tell them how sorry I was”.

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

5. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1.  He said that the convicted woman had been found guilty of murder, and that the article suggested wrongly and misleadingly that she should not have been, and that her case was an example of someone being treated unfairly by the media after a conviction. He also said it was inaccurate to refer to the convicted woman’s allegations against his brother, as these had been heard and dismissed at the trial and on appeal. The complainant provided a copy of the judgment in the convicted woman’s appeal which made clear that she had made allegations against the complainant’s brother as part of her defence and that they had not been accepted by the jury.

6. The complainant said it was therefore inaccurate to report the allegations without making clear that they had been heard and dismissed. He said that where the claims had been rejected in court, it was also misleading to report that if the convicted woman were tried today that she “probably” would have succeeded with a manslaughter defence.

7. The complainant said that the article had also contained factual errors about his brother. He said that the cause of death had been reported wrongly, as it was not the attack with the cricket bat that had killed him, but the fact he had been stabbed through the heart. He also said that it was misleading to report that the “prosecution claimed that” the convicted woman had killed his brother, when it had not just been “claimed” but proven in a court of law. The complainant said it was inaccurate to state that his brother was a car accessories salesman when in fact he was a director of a business, and that it was misleading to describe the relationship as lasting for “almost three years” when it was two years and three months.

8. The complainant said that the article was biased and misleading in order to inspire sympathy for the convicted woman. He said that a life sentence was life, and that the convicted woman was out on license. He said that it was therefore inaccurate to ask when she had paid her dues, or to suggest that she had served a life sentence or should be allowed to “quietly re-enter society”. He also said many of the quotes from the convicted woman were inaccurate – he said she was convicted of murder, and that the evidence accepted by the jury made clear she had killed “in cold blood”. He said that there was no evidence that she had been “relentlessly pursued”; that she had left prison to see her parents or that she had asked to write to his family to apologise. He said that the reporter was wrong to dismiss the allegations of harassment against the convicted woman which had been made by a married man. The complainant also said that the omission of her mental abuse towards his brother was misleading.

9. The publication apologised for any offence or upset caused by the article. It said that it was clearly presented as an opinion piece and made clear that the convicted woman had admitted responsibility for killing Mr Cressman, that she had been convicted of his murder and had served a prison sentence. It also said that the premise of the article – whether women receive more public scrutiny than men after being convicted of serious crimes – was an important matter within the public interest.

10. The publication accepted that the article should have made clear that the convicted woman’s allegations against Mr Cressman had been discounted by the jury during her trials. It offered to publish the following clarification in their corrections and clarifications column in print:

In an article 'Trial by television of Fergie's killer aide' (28, Feb) we reported allegations made by Jane Andrew's against Tom Cressman. Those allegations of abuse were discounted by the jury at her trial for murder and her appeal was unsuccessful. We are happy to offer this clarification.

And to add the following as a footnote to the online article:

CLARIFICATION - The allegations of abuse made by Jane Andrew's against Tom Cressman were discounted by the jury at her trial for murder and her appeal was unsuccessful. We are happy to offer this clarification.

11. However, the publication did not accept that there were any further breaches of the Code. It said that the suggestion that the convicted woman would probably make a successful defence of manslaughter today was clearly presented as the opinion of the writer rather than as a statement of fact. The newspaper said that the prosecution’s case was that the convicted woman had hit Mr Cressman with a cricket bat and then stabbed him. The newspaper said it was not inaccurate to refer to this as a claim when referring to the presentation of the Crown’s case when the article confirmed the convicted woman was convicted of murder. The publication did not consider that describing Mr Cressman as a “car accessories salesman” rather than director of the company, nor characterising the two year and three month relationship as having lasted for “almost three years” as significantly misleading, however it did offer to amend these on the basis that it would resolve the complaint.

12. The publication reiterated that as an opinion piece, the writer was entitled to ask whether the convicted woman had served her time and had been relentlessly pursued, and noted the multiple documentaries and newspaper coverage about her. It said that it was not necessary to include the complainant’s point about life sentences. The publication also said it was not inaccurate to include claims made by the convicted woman that the complainant was not privy to, such as her belief she was not a murderer who killed “in cold blood” or that she had asked to write to the complainant’s family.

13. The publication noted that it had been widely reported that the convicted woman had escaped from prison at the time, and provided an article from this period. The publication said that the article demonstrated that she had left to see her parents. The newspaper noted that the article under complaint did not state that the complainant was innocent of harassment, but that the police recorded there was no substance to the allegations, which was a matter of widely reported public record. It also said that as the article centred on the media scrutiny of women who had committed serious crimes, rather than a detailed history of this particular crime, it was not a breach of the Code to omit further allegations that were heard in court against the convicted woman regarding mental abuse.

14. The publication said Clause 4 was not engaged as it only applied to enquiries and approaches to families and others involved in a current tragedy. 

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 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.

Findings of the Committee

15. The Committee acknowledged that the article was a comment piece regarding highly sensitive and difficult subjects: the treatment of people convicted of serious crimes by the media, and how cases involving allegations of coercive control are prosecuted. The Committee understood that the publication of the article was distressing to the complainant and his family and expressed their sympathy for the family’s loss, but it made clear that newspapers are entitled to publish comment pieces on sensitive and difficult subjects as long as they adhere to the Code.

16. The article contained allegations about the conduct of the complainant’s brother towards the convicted woman. It was accepted by both parties that these claims had been heard and dismissed by the jury during the trial of the convicted woman, with the judgment of the appeal court recording that the jury could not have sided with the Crown “if they accepted that the account given to them by the appellant might be right”. To include the allegations in the article, without making it clear that they had been heard and dismissed in court, represented a failure to take care not to report misleading information under Clause 1(i) in circumstances where this information was publicly available. The newspaper had offered a clarification which put the correct position on record as soon as it was made aware of all of the alleged inaccuracies by the complainant, which represented due promptness. Publishing the wording in its established corrections and clarifications column and as a footnote to the online article represented due prominence. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

17. The article also referred to a legal development regarding coercive control which the writer said “shone a light on the impact that mental torture can have”; the writer expressed the view that if the convicted woman was “on trial today, [she] would probably have succeeded with a manslaughter defence.” This was clearly distinguished as the comment of the writer of the article and the word “probably” identified it as conjecture. Whilst the complainant may have disagreed, this did not mean that the article was misleading; the article had clearly distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact. There was no breach of the Code.

18. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s distress that full details of the cause of death had not been reported. However, it was not in dispute that the convicted woman had used a cricket bat and the omission of details concerning the additional weapon used was not significantly misleading given that the article made clear that the convicted woman had been found guilty of a violent murder. In addition, where the article made clear that the convicted woman had been convicted, it was not misleading to refer to an element of the prosecution’s case as a “claim”. In addition, the Committee did not consider that referring to the complainant’s brother’s occupation as a “car accessories salesman”, or characterising the two year and three month relationship as having lasted for “almost three years”, were significant inaccuracies which required correction. It did, however, welcome the publication’s offer to amend these points. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

19. The writer’s account of the convicted woman’s experiences in the years since the trial, including her opinion that she had been relentlessly pursued, and her question regarding when a convicted murderer has served their time were clearly distinguished as comment rather than statements of fact, and their inclusion in the article was not misleading. The Committee did not find that it was misleading not to include the full legal position on what a life sentence generally entailed, where the article accurately reported that the convicted woman had been sentenced to life and had served a term in prison. The article had also included the convicted woman's position that she was not a murderer who had “killed in cold blood”. The Committee acknowledged that this was upsetting for the complainant, but noted that the article made clear that the convicted woman was a convicted murderer, and had clearly attributed the comment to her. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

20. The complainant said he did not believe that the convicted woman had asked to write to his family, but he was not in a position to know whether this was accurate. Similarly, the complainant stated that the convicted woman had not escaped prison in order to see her parents, but was not in a position to know the convicted woman’s reason for escaping. Without knowing the correct position, the Committee was unable to make a finding on these points.

21. Finally, where the convicted woman’s crime had been accurately reported, and the article centred on media scrutiny after her conviction, it was not misleading for the article to omit additional allegations that were heard in court against the convicted woman.

22. With regards to Clause 4, the Committee understood that the re-publication of the information in the article, many years after the man’s death, had caused great distress to the complainant and his family and expressed its condolences to them for their loss.

23. Despite the years that had passed since the complainant’s brother’s murder, the Committee considered that given the traumatic nature of the events and the effect on the complainant and his family, the publication of an article of this nature was a “case involving grief or shock”. Clause 4 not only applies to enquiries and approaches made by journalists, but also requires that publication itself must be handled sensitively. Clause 4 was therefore engaged by the complaint.

24. The Committee acknowledged the upset caused to the complainant by details of the case being repeatedly published in the media and understood that this had caused the family distress. It also noted that the tone of the article, which was sympathetic towards the convicted woman, would have caused distress to him and his family. However, the test under Clause 4 is whether publication is handled sensitively. Whilst the complainant may have disagreed with the opinions of the writer which were presented in the article and found them upsetting, the Committee did not find that the article had been insensitive in its publication.

Conclusions

25. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial action required

26. The clarification which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.

Date complaint received: 03/03/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 02/08/2021