Ruling

02466-14 Yates v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      15th June 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 11 Victims of sexual assault, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock, 7 Children in sex cases, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02466-14 Yates v Mail Online

Summary of complaint 

1. Robert Yates complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on behalf of himself and his mother Marina Ivleva that Mail Online had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply), Clause 3 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Harassment), Clause 7 (Children in sex cases), Clause 9 (Reporting of crime), Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge), Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “’My Ukrainian internet bride asked me to have sex within hours of meeting her while her eight-year-old son was in the room… so I did’: Astonishing story of husband suing his wife for share of fortune”,  published on 9 December 2014. 

2. The article followed reports of divorce proceedings between the complainant’s mother and his step-father. The mother had attempted to divorce her husband in Ukraine, her country of origin, though they were both resident in the UK. The Ukrainian divorce had been overturned by a British court, meaning that the complainant’s step-father was free to pursue divorce proceedings in the UK. The article under complaint was an interview with the complainant’s step-father. He said that he had engaged in sexual activity with the complainant’s mother on the day that they had met, and that the complainant, then a child, had been in the same room as them, separated from the couple by a wardrobe. He also shared other details about his relationship with the complainant’s mother, including information about her sexual preferences. The article also included details which had been given in reports of divorce proceedings, including the complainant’s step father’s assertion that the complainant’s mother held assets of £300,000, while he lived in poverty. 

3. The complainant said that the allegation that his mother and step-father had engaged in sexual activity while he was in the room was untrue, that he was 12 years old in 1999, not 8 as reported, and that his mother did not possess assets of £300,000. He considered that the publication had failed to distinguish between comment and fact, and that he and his mother had not been given a fair opportunity to reply to the alleged inaccuracies. 

4. The complainant also said that the article in general had intruded into his private life, and that of his mother. His mother objected to the inclusion of additional “graphic details” of her sex life and sexual preferences. These details have been omitted from this decision. He also said that photographs used in the article had been stolen from his mother. 

5. The complainant said that he and his mother had been harassed by a freelance reporter in the UK, and that his grandparents in Ukraine had been harassed by a local journalist, who had not identified herself as an employee of Mail Online and had used a clandestine listening device during an interview with them. 

6. The complainant considered that the description of his mother as Ukrainian was not relevant to the story, and that she had been the subject of racist comments from readers following publication. With regard to his complaints under Clause 7, 9 and 11, the complainant said that, if the incident reported in the article had taken place, then his step-father would have committed a sex crime, and the publication should have reported him to the police. 

7. The publication defended its coverage and its reporting methods. It said that a freelance reporter in the UK had contacted the complainant’s mother prior to publication, and she had suggested she might be willing to offer an interview. This approach did not constitute harassment. On the day that the article was due to be published the reporter had called the complainant’s mother at home. The complainant had answered and the reporter had put his step-father’s claims to him. He had not commented. The reporter had then emailed the complainant’s mother, setting out the complainant’s step-father’s claims about their sexual activity. She had not responded. The publication said that a reporter in Ukraine had gone to the home of the complainant’s grandparents. She had identified herself as a freelance journalist and the couple had invited her in and spoken to her at length. There had been no harassment or repeated approaches, nor had the journalist used any kind of subterfuge. 

8. The details about the complainant’s mother’s sexual relationship with his step-father were included to show the complainant’s mother’s general lack of concern for privacy, and her business-like attitude to marriage. The publication noted that none of the details included had been disputed by the complainant or his mother. It said that there was a public interest in examining the pitfalls of internet marriages, and the complainant’s step-father’s position was that the complainant’s mother had behaved in a sexually uninhibited way in order to engineer a marriage from which she would later profit. In order to put this point across, it was necessary to include sexual details which some might find unedifying. On receipt of the complaint, the complainant’s name had been removed from the article. The entire piece had later been removed from the publication’s website, as a gesture of goodwill, and it had offered to contact search engines to ensure that the article did not remain searchable elsewhere on the internet. 

9. Following receipt of the complaint, the complainant’s step-father had been contacted by the newspaper again to check the details in the article. He had conceded that he had made a mistake in relation to the complainant’s age at the time of the alleged incident. This had been amended. The complainant’s step-father maintained that the reported incident had taken place, and that the complainant had been in the room while he engaged in sexual activity with his mother.  He did not however suggest that the complainant had witnessed the activity, as he had been in the same room but had been separated by wardrobes. This had been made clear in the article. 

10. The publication said that the photographs used in the article had been provided by an agency, which had largely obtained them from the complainant’s step-father and from friends of his, with one being obtained from an open social media source in Russia. 

11. The publication did not pre-moderate comments, nor had any been reported by the complainant; they did not therefore fall within IPSO’s remit. Nonetheless, having reviewed the comments on the article under complaint, the publication was unable to find any that were discriminatory towards the complainant’s mother. The article had not included pejorative reference to the complainant’s mother with regard to any of the characteristics covered by the terms of Clause 12, and it would have been impossible to report the story without making reference to the complainant’s mother’s Ukrainian background. 

12. The publication said that no crime had been committed, and no complaint made to the police. The terms of Clauses 7, 9 and 11 were not engaged. 

Relevant Code Provisions

13. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion, once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate- an apology published. 

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) 

A fair opportunity to reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for. 

Clause 3 (Privacy) 

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications. 

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information. 

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent. 

Clause 4 (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 their property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent. 

Clause 7 (Children in sex cases) 

1. The press must not, even if legally free to do so, identify children under 16 who are victims or witnesses in cases involving sex offences. 

Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) 

i) Relatives or friends of those convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story. 

Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) 

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent. 

Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) 

The press must not identify victims of sexual assault or publish material likely to contribute to such identification unless there is adequate justification and they are legally free to do so. 

Clause 12 (Discrimination) 

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability. 

ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story. 

Findings of the Committee

14. The complainant’s step-father was entitled to speak publicly about his experiences, in accordance with his right to freedom of expression, and the publication was entitled to reproduce his comments. In addition, details of the complainant’s mother’s relationship with his step-father, and indeed information about the complainant himself, had already been placed in the public domain through court proceedings. However, the article had included intimate details of the complainant’s mother’s sexual relationship with his step-father, including information about her sexual preferences. These have not been included in this decision. While the Committee recognised that the publication sought to defend these references as a means of showing the pitfalls of internet marriage, the Committee was not, on balance, satisfied that the publication of this sensitive personal information was justified. The public interest was not proportionate to the level of intrusion posed by the publication of intimate details. While it welcomed the publication’s willingness to remove the online article following receipt of the complaint, and its offer to seek to ensure that it did not appear elsewhere on the internet, this aspect of the complaint under Clause 3 was upheld. 

15. The article was clearly distinguished as an interview, making clear to readers that the assertions in the piece were those of the complainant’s step-father. The reference to the complainant’s mother’s assets had been presented as her husband’s estimate. There had been no failure to distinguish between comment and fact in breach of Clause 1 (iii). 

16. While the complainant disputed that the sexual activity described in the article had taken place, the reporter had sought comment on this allegation from the complainant and his mother prior to publication; they had declined to comment. There had been no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1 (i) in this regard. Further, the discrepancy regarding the complainant’s age during the alleged incident was not significant, such that it which would alter the overall meaning of the article, and therefore did not require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s prompt amendment of the online article. 

17. The approaches made by freelance reporters in the UK and Ukraine, consisting of amicable email exchanges and interviews given with consent, did not constitute harassment in breach of Clause 4, nor did the use of a recording device to take a record of the conversation constitute a breach of Clause 10. 

18. Neither the complainant nor his mother had provided grounds for their belief that a journalist had stolen photographs from a private computer. The Committee was satisfied that there were no grounds to establish that these had been obtained from clandestine sources. 

19. The article had not contained prejudicial or pejorative reference to the complainant’s mother in relation to any of the characteristics covered by the terms of Clause 12. The inclusion of biographical details, including an individual’s nationality, would not generally breach the terms of this clause. In any case, the complainant’s mother’s Ukrainian background was directly relevant to the story, due to the nature of the court proceedings. Readers’ comments are subject to the terms of the Code if they have been brought to the publication’s attention, and therefore fall under editorial control. This was not the case in this instance, and the Committee did not consider this point further. 

20. The terms of Clause 2 provide an opportunity to reply to published inaccuracies when reasonably called for. In light of the nature of the inaccuracies, the Committee did not consider the opportunity to reply to be necessary in this instance. 

21. There had been no criminal complaint made in relation to the allegations in the article, nor had anyone been convicted. Furthermore, the complainant denied that the incident which he considered to be a criminal offence had taken place. The terms of Clause 7, Clause 9, and Clause 11 were not relevant to this complaint, and the Committee did not consider them further. 

Conclusions

22. The complaint under Clause 3 was upheld in part. 

Remedial Action Required

23. Having partially upheld the complaint under Clause 3, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. 

24. While the Committee recognised and welcomed the action taken by the publication in an attempt to resolve the complaint, and noted that the article in question no longer remained online. Given the nature of the breach of the Code, however, it determined that the appropriate remedial action was the publication of an adverse adjudication, which should be published on the website’s homepage for a period of no less than 48 hours. It must then be archived and remain searchable in the usual way. 

25. The terms of the adjudication, which should be published without addition or alteration, under a headline which must be agreed with IPSO in advance, and must make reference to the subject matter, are as follows: 

Robert Yates complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on behalf of himself and his mother Marina Ivleva that Mail Online had breached Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “’My Ukrainian internet bride asked me to have sex within hours of meeting her while her eight-year-old son was in the room… so I did’: Astonishing story of husband suing his wife for share of fortune”, published on 9 December 2014. 

IPSO upheld the complaint in part, and decided that there had been a breach of Clause 3 of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO required Mail Online to publish this decision to remedy the breach. 

The article followed reports of divorce proceedings between the complainant’s mother and his step-father. The mother had attempted to divorce her husband in Ukraine, her country of origin, though they were both resident in the UK. The Ukrainian divorce had been overturned by a British court. The article under complaint was an interview with the complainant’s step-father. He said that he had engaged in sexual activity with the complainant’s mother on the day that they had met, and that the complainant, then a child, had been in the same room as them, separated from the couple by a wardrobe. He also shared other details about his relationship with the complainant’s mother, including information about her sexual preferences. 

The complainant’s mother had objected to the article’s inclusion of additional “graphic details” about her sex life and sexual preferences. 

The publication defended its coverage, and did not accept that the article had intruded into the complainant’s mother’s private life. It said that the details about the complainant’s mother’s sexual relationship with his step-father were included to show the complainant’s mother’s general lack of concern for privacy, and her business-like attitude to marriage. It noted that none of the details included had been disputed by the complainant or his mother. The publication said that there was a public interest in examining the pitfalls of internet marriages, and the complainant’s step-father’s position was that the complainant’s mother had behaved in a sexually uninhibited way in order to engineer a marriage from which she would later profit. In order to put this point across, it was necessary to include sexual details which some might find unedifying. 

The Committee made clear that the complainant’s step-father was entitled to speak publicly about his experiences, in accordance with his right to freedom of expression, and the publication was entitled to reproduce his comments. In addition, details of the complainant’s mother’s relationship with his step-father, and indeed information about the complainant himself, had already been placed in the public domain through court proceedings. However, the article had included intimate details of the complainant’s mother’s sexual relationship with his step-father, including information about her sexual preferences, which have been omitted from this decision. While the Committee recognised that the publication sought to defend these references as a means of showing the pitfalls of internet marriage, the Committee was not, on balance, satisfied that the publication of this sensitive personal information was justified. The public interest was not proportionate to the level of intrusion posed by the publication of intimate details. While it welcomed the publication’s willingness to remove the online article following receipt of the complaint, and its offer to seek to ensure that it did not appear elsewhere on the internet, this aspect of the complaint under Clause 3 was upheld. 

The complainant also raised concerns under Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply), Clause 4 (Harassment), Clause 7 (Children in sex cases), Clause 9 (Reporting of crime), Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) and Clause 12 (Discrimination). These were not upheld. 

Date complaint received: 15/12/2014 

Date decision issued: 15/06/2015