Ruling

02387-22 Williams v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      5th January 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02387-22 Williams v The Sun

Summary of Complaint

1. Llinos Williams, acting on behalf of herself and her daughter Rebeca Williams, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined:

- “TEACHER SEX Teaching assistant, 21, who had sex with schoolboy, 15, twice after telling him ‘age is just a number’ is spared jail”, published on 28 March 2022

- “TEACHER’S SHAME Teacher, 21, who had sex with schoolboy, 15, after telling him ‘age’s just a number’ now ‘bitterly regrets’ seducing him”, published on 6 April 2022

- “Teacher had sex with boy aged 15”, published on 7 April 2022

2. The online article headlined “TEACHER SEX” reported that Rebeca Williams – aged 21 – had admitted “two offences of sexual activity with a boy of 15 and abusing a position of trust”. It reported that the court heard that the woman had sent “flirty” text messages to the teenager before “taking him to her home” address and having sex. It then reported that the woman had asked to meet up again with the pupil, “taking him upstairs for a second encounter, before she pressured the teenager for a more intense relationship”. It then explained that the victim “blocked her on messaging apps” after rumours started to circulate at the school. It reported that the court heard “several of the messages must have been exchanged on school grounds”, with the judge saying that the woman had “groomed” her victim and that sending messages on school grounds was an aggravating feature.

3.The second online article headlined “TEACHER’S SHAME” reported that Rebeca Williams – 21 – had “since told friends” that she “bitterly regrets” her actions. The article described the woman as a “Predator” and reported that “[o]ne close friend, who asked not be to identified”, said: “Becky knows what she did was wrong and bitterly regrets what happened now”. The source also said that the woman had “paid a high price for her mistake”; was “truly sorry what she did”; had “suffered very badly with depression as a result of losing her career and the court case”; and now wanted “to try and rebuild her life”. It also reported that at the sentencing, the judge had told the court that she had “groomed” her victim and sending messages on school grounds was an aggravating feature.

4. The second article was accompanied by two images of the woman, captioned “Former teacher Rebecca [sic] Williams is said to be ‘truly sorry’ after joining the sex offenders list for sleeping with a 15-year-old schoolboy and abusing a position of trust” and “Convicted sex offender Williams has since told friends in her home town she ‘regrets’ her actions”

5. The third article, which appeared in print, headlined “Teacher had sex with boy aged 15”, reported on the sentencing of Rebeca Williams. It reported that a court heard that a “teacher told a boy of 15 that ’age is just a number’ before having sex with him twice, with the woman admitting to two offences of sexual activity and abusing a position of trust”. It reported that the woman received a “12-months’ suspended jail sentence and a ban from working with kids”, and “bitterly regrets her actions”. The third article was accompanied by an image of the woman, with the caption describing her as a “Predator”.

6. The complainant said that the first article was inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1, to report her daughter’s present age. She said that her daughter was younger at the time of the offence, although she accepted that her daughter was an adult. She also said the article was inaccurate to describe her daughter as a “teacher”; she had been a “teaching assistant”. She also denied that the judge had told her daughter that she had "groomed" her victim; instead, the judge had said that “this was not your normal kind of grooming”, with the article taking the judge’s comments out of context. She also denied that the court heard her daughter had “pressured the teenager for a more intense relationship”.

7. The complainant also said that the second article breached Clause 1. She said that it included some of the same inaccuracies as the previous article: reporting her daughter’s current age, referring to her as a “teacher” and reporting that she had “pressured the teenager for a more intense relationship”. She also denied that she had been described as a “Predator” during proceedings. Further, the complainant said the quotes attributed to her daughter’s “friend” had been fabricated. Her daughter denied that she had confided in friends; she had only discussed the matter with her immediate family and did not have any close friends locally. The complainant also noted that the “friend” had described her daughter as “Becky”; her daughter did not call herself “Becky” and was instead known as “Beca” by friends.

8. The complainant said the third article headlined “Teacher had sex with boy aged 15” also breached Clause 1. She said that where it reported her daughter’s age and her former job title in the same terms as the first and second article, it was inaccurate for the same reasons. Further, she said that the article was inaccurate to describe her daughter as a “Predator”.

9. The complainant also said that the second article, headlined “TEACHER’S SHAME”, breached Clause 2, as it published photographs taken from her daughter’s private social media account without consent or permission.

10. The complainant also said that she and her daughter had received multiple unwanted approaches from journalists at their home, in breach of Clause 3. She said that two individuals had approached the family house on 29 March 2022, before she asked them to leave. She said that one of these individuals had claimed to be a courier delivering court documents and had presented her with a “calling card”. She said that she had shown this card to a police officer, who said that it was a journalist pretending to be a courier. She said that the other individual had parked nearby her home, taking photographs and had been “aggressive” when she requested that they leave. She also said that the police had completed “a trace” on the vehicle’s registration number and confirmed that this individual was a journalist.

11. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It said that the three articles had been provided by a news agency and published in good faith. It did not accept that the articles were inaccurate to describe the complainant’s daughter as a “teacher”; she had worked as a “teaching assistant” and the difference between these two roles was not significant in terms of the level of trust and responsibility held. She had abused that position when she had been found guilty of sexual offences with a minor in her charge.

12. Notwithstanding this, at the start of IPSO’s investigation into the matter, in a gesture of goodwill, the publication offered to amend the online articles and to publish the following footnote clarification:

“Rebeca Williams was a teaching assistant at the time she committed the reported offences, not a teacher as the article originally stated. It has been amended”.

13. It also offered to publish the following item in its established Corrections and Clarification’s column, on page 2 of the newspaper:

“Rebeca Williams was in fact a teaching assistant, not a teacher, when she committed offences of sexual activity with a boy of 15 and abusing a position of trust, as reported in our 7 April article.”

14. Further, the publication did not accept that its use of the term “predator” was inaccurate or misleading; this was clearly the publication’s characterisation of her daughter. However, it offered, at the start of IPSO’s investigation, in a gesture of goodwill and in order to resolve the complaint, to remove this particular characterisation from the second online article, headlined “TEACHER’S SHAME”.

15. In relation to the complainant’s concerns about her daughter’s reported age in all three articles, the publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It said that the court heard her daughter was “21”, and she had been younger – though still an adult – when she had committed the offences in question, and provided a copy of the reporter’s contemporaneous notes in order to demonstrate this; this was a different age to that provided by the complainant. It also said that the difference between the ages was inconsequential: her daughter had legally been an adult and in a position of power when she committed the offences against the child.

16. Nor did the publication accept that the first and second articles were inaccurate or misleading to report that the judge said her daughter had “groomed” her victim. The reporter’s notes showed that the judge had told the court there was “clear grooming behaviour. [The victim] was 15, you were [an adult]”, and had repeated this particular remark on her behaviour in the sentencing. While the complainant’s counsel argued, during proceedings, that this was not a “classic” case of grooming, the publication noted that the complainant’s daughter’s abuse of her position of trust at the school had formed part of the case against her.

17. Further, the publication did not accept that the first and second articles were inaccurate to report that her daughter had “pressured the teenager for a more intense relationship”. The prosecutor had told the court that her daughter had “wanted more of a relationship”, and the victim had subsequently “blocked” her on various messaging apps.

18. In addition, the publication said the second article was an accurate report of the interview with a confidential source, who had identified themselves as a family friend, and shared a redacted version of the reporter’s shorthand notes to substantiate this. Nor did the publication consider that the complainant was in a position to dispute these claims, and her position was based on conjecture only. It noted, in any case, that her daughter’s position was not strongly at odds with the comments made by the source.

19. In relation to Clause 2, the publication did not accept that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the photographs published in the second article. The two images were publicly viewable on her Twitter page, appearing as her profile picture and banner, respectively.

20. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 3. It did not know anything about a “courier” or “transit van” driver; however, it said that a local photographer had been assigned by the publication to visit the family home on 29 March 2022. This photographer knocked on the front door of the property on two occasions that day; however, the door was not answered, and they did not encounter or speak to the complainant or her daughter. The publication also said that another reporter had attempted to speak with the complainant on 5 April 2022 at a location where they believed she worked. At the entrance of this location, the reporter had been approached by an unnamed individual and asked whether they were a journalist. Upon confirming this, the individual asked the reporter to leave the premise and not to return. The publication said that the reporter immediately left, and did not return, assuming that this individual was the complainant. The publication did not accept that either of these instances, in which reporters working for it, had attempted to contact the complainant and her daughter constituted harassment under the Editors’ Code.

21. During IPSO’s investigation, the complainant confirmed that she had not worked at this location since 2020 and had not encountered or engaged with the reporter on 5 April 2022. 

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.

Clause 3 (Harassment)*

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Findings of the Committee

22. The complainant said that the three articles misrepresented her daughter’s position within the school; she had not been a “teacher”, but rather a “teaching assistant”. The Committee accepted the two roles had different job titles and responsibilities and noted that the articles were reports of the offences for which her daughter had been convicted. It was not in dispute that, similar to a teacher, her daughter’s role meant that she held a position of trust towards the children who attended the school where she worked and that this was a feature of the offences. Taken in this context, the Committee did not consider that the description of the complainant’s daughter as a “teacher”, rather than a “teaching assistant”, rendered the articles significantly inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to publish a clarification – online and in print – to address this.

23. The Committee next considered whether the three articles were inaccurate or misleading in reporting the complainant’s daughter’s current age, rather than her age when the offences were committed. Whilst there was a dispute between the parties as to the daughter’s age when she committed the offences, the Committee did not consider her exact age to be material – the nature of the complainant’s offences had been accurately reported, namely that she had been an adult who held a position of trust when the offences had been committed. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. The complainant denied that the judge had said that her daughter had “groomed” the victim and said that the first and second articles had taken the comments made by the judge out of context. The publication produced the reporter’s contemporaneous notes of the court proceedings, which recorded that the judge has said: there was “clear grooming behaviour. [The victim] was 15, you were [an adult]”. Given that the article reflected the reporter’s notes, there was no failure to take care over the reporting of the judge’s remarks. The complainant accepted that the judge had referred to her daughter’s conduct as “not your normal kind of grooming”; the omission of the judge’s full remark did not render the article inaccurate, and no correction was required. There was no breach of Clause 1.

25. Although the complainant disputed that her daughter was a “predator”, the basis for this characterisation was set out in the first and second articles – her daughter had abused a position of trust and had admitted to and been convicted of two offences of sexual activity with a child. The Committee did not find that this characterisation – clearly presented as that of the publication rather than a description heard during the court proceedings – represented an inaccuracy. There was no breach of Clause 1.

26. The Committee then considered whether the first article and second article were inaccurate to report that the court heard that the complainant’s daughter had “pressured the teenager for a more intense relationship”. In circumstances where the prosecutor had told the court that her daughter had “wanted more of a relationship” with the victim and that he had then “blocked” her daughter on messaging apps, the Committee did not consider that this statement represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, or a significant inaccuracy. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

27. With regards to the claim in the second article that the complainant’s daughter “bitterly regretted” her actions, the article made clear the status of this allegation: it was presented as comment, rather than a statement of fact, and the comment was clearly attributed to a source, albeit an anonymous one. Although the complainant claimed the comments attributed to the anonymous source had been fabricated, the publication provided the reporter’s notes to support its position that the comments were genuine. Where the complainant’s position was conjecture and the publication had been able to provide contemporaneous notes to support its position, the Committee did not find that there was any failure to take care over the article by reporting this claim. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

28. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concerns under Clause 2 in relation to the second article. The Committee noted that the images of the complainant’s daughter, which showed only her likeness, had been publicly available on her Twitter page at the time of publication of the article. For this reason, the complainant’s daughter did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of the information contained in the photographs and their publication did not represent an intrusion into her private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.

29. The Committee then considered the concerns raised under Clause 3. The Committee’s task was to establish whether the newspaper under complaint had been responsible for the harassment, for example if the harassment had been carried out by a member of its staff or by an external contributor which it had engaged, such as an agency reporter or photographer. The Committee noted there was a dispute between the complainant and the publication as to the extent of contact between the parties over the relevant period. The complainant had not provided any information which suggested that the individuals who had spoken with her at her home on 29 March 2022 represented the publication or had identified themselves as representing the publication. The publication had denied that these individuals represented them. There were, therefore, no grounds to find that the individuals in question had represented the publication. Further, the publication had provided details of approaches which it accepted had been made on its behalf, neither of which appeared to contravene the terms of the Code. There was no breach of Clause 3.

Conclusion(s)

30. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

31. N/A


Date complaint received: 01/04/22

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/12/22