Ruling

02850-19 Sharp v thescottishsun.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      22nd April 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02850-19 Sharp v thescottishsun.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. Jill Sharp complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thescottishsun.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined “ABUSE HELL Fantasist Rangers fan stalked fellow supporter – branding her a ‘f***ing Fenian’ during years of abuse” published on 12 March 2019 and   “BUBBLY BRAGS Fantasist stalker Rangers fan Jill Sharp filmed boasting about ‘champagne lifestyle’ as she sips bubbly in hot tub” published on 27 March 2019.

2. The article headlined “ABUSE HELL” reported that a woman had pleaded guilty to stalking a former friend. It gave details of the woman’s offence, which involved creating fake online profiles to cause her former friend distress. It reported that the former friend had said that the woman’s “fantasy” came about because of jealously after [the former friend] became engaged. The former friend was also quoted as saying “[The woman] said she was coming round to my house and was going to do violence to me. She came out with vile sectarian stuff, saying I was no better than a f***ing Fenian”.

3. The article then explained that the newspaper had reported in 2017 accusations that the woman had faked a relationship with a stranger for four years by manipulating photographs of the man and his fiancée posted on social media. The article explained that the woman told her friends she was engaged to the man, and created a “double life” for herself. It also explained that the woman would shadow the man and his real life fiancée by going to places they had visited and taking her own pictures. Photo captions included in the article said “[Woman] previously faked a four-year relationship with a man she’d never met” and “Fake posts were put online”. The article reported that the woman denied any wrongdoing, and said that the accusations “simply weren’t true”.

4. The article also included several photographs of the woman. It included two photographs which allegedly had been manipulated by her to claim she was in a relationship with the man. It also included a photograph of the woman, seemingly on holiday.

5. The second article headlined “BUBBLY BRAGS” was published after the woman had pleaded guilty but before she was sentenced. It included the reference to the woman having called a former friend a “f***ing Fenian”. It reported on the woman “boasting” of her “champagne lifestyle” whilst in a hot tub, in a video posted on social media which “emerged just weeks” after she pleaded guilty. It reported what the woman had said in the video: “Life’s a b**** isn’t it Designer champagne lifestyle. It’s a hard life but somebody’s got to do it” and that she went on to repeat the “champagne lifestyle” “boast” several time. It reported that it was believed to be the case that the video had been filmed sometime in the previous year. It also included the former friend’s claim that the woman had been jealous of her engagement.

6. The article also gave details of the allegedly faked relationship between her and the man in exactly the same terms as the previous article. It also included the same photograph captions and the woman’s denial.

7. The article included two stills from the video, showing the woman drinking champagne in a hot tub. It also included the same two photographs from the previous article which had allegedly been manipulated by the woman to claim she was in a relationship with the man.

8. The complainant said that the first article contained a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. She said that it was not the case that she pleaded guilty to sending threats of violence to her former friend and her husband, or using sectarian language by calling them a “f***ing Fenian”. However, she provided a copy of her indictment, and did accept that it showed she had pleaded guilty to “repeatedly leave voicemail messages for [the former friend] in which [the complainant] did utter sectarian remarks and threats of violence” She also disputed the former friend’s claim that she was jealous of her engagement. She said that she had never fabricated a relationship with the man, and she was the victim of a hoax. She also said that although she was originally charged with offences relating to the allegedly faked relationship, these were dropped and she was never convicted on these points.

9. The complainant said that the second article also breached Clause 1. She said that it was not the case that she was “boasting’ or “bragging” in the video she posted online. She also said that it was not the case that she was a “fantasist stalker”, and that the video had been filmed in 2017 rather than in the previous year, although she did not dispute that it had been posted recently on social media. She said that this article was also inaccurate to report the former friend’s claim that she had been jealous of her engagement. Where the article repeated the same points as the first article about the allegedly faked relationship, she said that this article was also inaccurate for the same reasons.

10. The complainant also said that both articles breached Clause 2, as they published photographs or stills from videos without her permission. However, she accepted that all the photographs or videos had been publicly available on social media at the time of publication. She also said that publication of both of the articles represented a continuation of persistent coverage, which she said was unjustified and excessive. Therefore, she said that the publication of these articles constituted a breach of Clause 3.

11. The newspaper did not accept that the first article was inaccurate. It said that the references to threats of violence and use of sectarian language were attributed to the former friend and that a press release published by the Scottish Crown Procurator Fiscal Service after the complainant’s sentencing said that she sent “threatening and abusive messages”. It said that reporting the former friend’s claims was not significantly misleading as to the charges for which the complainant had been convicted. It said that in relation to the allegedly fabricated relationship, the article made clear the complainant’s denial and was not misleading as to the status of the allegations. It reported that “she denied any wrongdoing and said the accusations ‘simply weren’t true’”. Nevertheless, on receipt of the complaint it removed the references to the fake relationship from the article, the word “fantasist” and added in the word “allegedly” to the first paragraph”. It also offered to add the following footnote to the article:

A previous version of this article reported suggestions that Jill Sharp had stalked a man by pretending to be in a relationship with him. We would like to make clear that Ms Sharp disputes the allegations.

12. The newspaper did not accept that the second article breached Clause 1, for the same reasons as the first article. Nevertheless, on receipt of the complaint, it removed the references to the fake relationship from the article and the word “fantasist”. It also offered to print add the same footnote as offered for the first article.

13. The newspaper did not accept that the articles breached Clause 2. It said that all the photographs or videos had been published on open social media, and did not reveal anything private about the complainant. It said that in relation to Clause 3, this generally related to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. It did not apply to the frequency that articles about a person were published, but nevertheless, each article reported on a newsworthy development. It said that the terms of Clause 3 were 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 2* (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, 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

14. The Committee emphasised first that it was not making a finding on the accuracy of the allegations made against the complainant. Its role was to decide whether there had been a breach of the Editors’ Code.

15. In relation to the first article, where the complainant accepted that she had pleaded guilty to “repeatedly leave voicemail messages for [the former friend] in which you did utter sectarian remarks and threats of violence”, it was not inaccurate to report that she had made threats of violence. Similarly, although the indictment did not go into details as to what the sectarian remarks entailed, it was not significantly misleading to the nature of the complainant’s conviction to report that this involved calling her former friend a “f***ing Fenian”. With regards to the claim that she had been jealous of her former friend’s engagement – this was a claim attributed to the former friend, who said it was her belief that this was the case. Where this was clearly speculation, attributed to a person rather than adopted as part of the court’s findings, there was no failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, and was not significantly misleading as to charges to which the complainant had pleaded guilty. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

16. In relation to the second article, it set out the basis to report that the complainant had been “bragging” or “boasting” in the video posted online – she had talked about her “champagne lifestyle” whilst sitting in a hot tub drinking champagne. As such, describing the complainant’s comments in these terms was not significantly misleading as to her behaviour when the basis was made clear in the article. Where the complainant had been convicted of stalking offences and was found to have created fake online profiles in order to do this, it was not significantly misleading to describe her as a “fantasist stalker”. Whether the video had been filmed in 2017 or the previous year was not significant to the overall article where it was not in dispute that it had been posted recently on social media. Finally, where the article had reported the former friend’s claim that the complainant was jealous of her engagement in the same terms as the first article, it was not inaccurate for the reasons as set out above. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

17. In relation to the allegedly fabricated relationship, both articles did make clear that the complainant disputed the claims. However, they both nevertheless made claims of fact – reporting without qualification that the complainant had “…faked a four-year relationship with a man she’d never met” and “Fake posts were put online”. Presenting this allegation as fact, despite the complainant’s denial, constituted a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, and there was a breach of Clause 1(iv). Where the article was significantly misleading as to the status of these serious allegations, a clarification putting on the record that these claims were allegations disputed by the complainant was required under Clause 1(ii).

18. On receipt of the complaint, the newspaper had amended the articles to remove references to the allegedly fake relationship from the articles. It also offered to publish a footnote to record that this change had been made, and to put on record that the faked relationship was an allegation which the complainant disputed. Where this offer was made on receipt of the complaint, this was sufficiently prompt, and as a footnote to the online articles, was sufficiently prominent. The wording of the footnote made clear the complainant’s position and the status of the claims, as required under Clause 1(ii). For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

19. The complainant accepted that the photographs and video included in the articles were publicly available on social media at the time of publication. Furthermore, they simply showed her likeness. For these reasons, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over these photographs or video and their publication did not represent an intrusion into her privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2. The terms of Clause 3 are generally interpreted to apply to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. The concern that the newspaper had printed two articles which the complainant considered were unnecessary, did not engage the terms of Clause 3.

Conclusion

20. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action

21. The action which the newspaper had offered was sufficiently prompt and prominent, and made clear the status of the claims. This was sufficient to comply with the terms of Clause 1(ii), and should now be printed.

Date complaint received: 28/03/2019

Date complaint concluded: 21/01/2021