Ruling

03124-18 Fletcher v Daily Record

    • Date complaint received

      30th August 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03124-18 Fletcher v Daily Record

Summary of complaint

1. Anthony Fletcher complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Record breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Experts warn of black market danger: DIY sperm donor fathers 22 kids to mums he met on Facebook” published on 16 April 2018.

2. The article began on the front page of the newspaper under the headline above; the front page reported that an unlicensed sperm donor had “admitted” to fathering 22 children. It said that “fertility experts warn what he has done is illegal and carries serious medical and legal risks”.

3. The story then continued on pages 10 and 11 under the headline “I’ve donated sperm to over 50 women. It’s simple...they find me on Facebook, drive to meeting point near my house and I hand over what I need to”. It said that the complainant, interviewed under the pseudonym that he used for sperm donation, had “confessed to fathering 22 children by illegally donating sperm to people he met on Facebook”. It said that “at first, he considered donating legally through a clinic but the requirements that must be met…put him off”. The article stated that “it is against the law in the UK to distribute or procure sperm and eggs without a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority”, and explained the public health reasons for this prohibition. The article included extensive quotations from the complainant, setting out his reasons for his actions, and included a screenshot of a post on his Facebook profile, in which he described the service he provided. The article went on to give the views of a specialist in reproductive health, who stated that “these tales of black market sperm donation are becoming more common…but finding a donor online…is incredibly dangerous”.

4. The article appeared online in substantially the same format. The sub-headline of the article stated “Anthony Fletcher says he has illegally donated to almost 50 women, some of whom have travelled from outside Scotland in a bid to have a baby”. The article stated that the complainant had “confessed to fathering 22 children by illegally donating sperm to women he met on Facebook”.

5. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate. He said that private sperm donations were not illegal: the publication had misinterpreted the law, and he was not “procuring” or “distributing” sperm as a third party without a licence. He said that, in fact, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority provided information about private donation on its own website. He said that the publication had not taken care to check this claim or put it to him prior to publication, and it was therefore also untrue to state that he had “confessed” or “admitted” to acting illegally. He said that the article’s use of the term “black market” also wrongly implied illegality, and suggested that he had charged for his sperm; in fact, he had never charged, and the ‘legal’ concerns raised in relation to private sperm donation related not to the act of donation itself, but to any difficulties arising from liability for child support or legal recognition as a parent. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that he had “told the Daily Record” his account; he had been interviewed by a journalist with no connection to the publication, and the Daily Record had never been mentioned during the interview. He said this gave a false impression of how the article came about.

6. The publication said that the original copy provided to it by an agency had referred to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 as the basis for the claim that the complainant had acted “illegally”, and this was published in good faith. The publication said that it was accurate for the article to state that “It is against the law in the UK to distribute or procure sperm and eggs without a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority”. However, it conceded that it was inaccurate to state that the complainant had acted illegally by engaging in private sperm donation, where this did not involve others’ sperm. The publication also accepted that the complainant had not “admitted” that he was acting illegally. It therefore removed the online article, and offered to publish the following correction online and in print, in its corrections and clarifications column on page 2:

The 16 April article “I’ve donated sperm to over 50 women. It’s simple…they find me on Facebook, drive to meeting point near my house and I hand over what I need to” stated that Mr Anthony Fletcher had admitted to donating sperm 'illegally'. In fact, private sperm donation is not illegal and Mr Fletcher did not admit to illegality. We would like to apologise for any misunderstanding.

The publication denied that any front page correction or ‘signpost’ to a correction was required: the inaccuracy related to just one word on the front page – “illegal” – and the front page headline had been accurate. It said that there was no reference to the complainant’s name on the front page and that the name given in the article was in any event a pseudonym.

7. The publication said that the term “black market” had been taken from the quotation from the reproductive health specialist. While it could imply illegality in certain circumstances, in this case, where the practice referred to in the article carried significant legal and health implications, it was not significantly misleading. In addition, it said that the article accurately reported the terms of the law. The publication denied that it was inaccurate to say that the complainant “told” it his account: his interview with an agency had been provided exclusively to the publication.

8. The complainant said that a front page ‘signpost’ to a correction was appropriate because the publication had made the claim that he had acted illegally on its front page. He said that the correction should also apologise directly to him as a wronged party, and make clear that he had not “confessed” to illegally donating sperm.

Relevant Code Provisions

9. 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.

Findings of the Committee

10. The publication had accepted that it was inaccurate to report that the complainant’s actions were illegal. This was based on a misreading of legislation, which was publicly available. The reporter had not put the allegation to the complainant prior to publication, and none of the experts quoted in the article had claimed that private sperm donation was illegal. There was a serious failure to take care over the accuracy of published information, in breach of 1(i). The complainant’s conduct was not prohibited by law, and he made his donations with a full understanding of the legal position. The allegation of illegality was a significant and damaging claim, requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The seriousness of this inaccuracy was further exacerbated by reporting that the complainant had “confessed” to acting illegally, erroneously suggesting that he had knowingly acted outside of the law.

11. The term “black market” carries a spectrum of meanings. In this case, the term was used in the context of an article which had alleged illegality; the term therefore carried a strong implication that the complainant’s conduct was outside the law. This was a further failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of 1(i). The term “black market”, in the context of the article gave further weight to the serious allegation that the complainant was acting illegally. It was significantly misleading, and required correction under the terms of 1(ii).

12. The publication had offered to publish a correction on page 2, making clear that the complainant’s actions were not illegal. This correction included an apology, which was appropriate, as the inaccuracy was serious and personally damaging. The Committee recognised the value of publishing corrections in established corrections and clarifications columns; choosing to place some corrections in another part of the newspaper could undermine the advantages of having a consistent position for corrections. However, the Committee was concerned by the seriousness of the breach of Clause 1 (i) in this instance: the newspaper had published a damaging allegation without going through simple steps to check its accuracy, such as putting the allegation to the complainant or verifying its interpretation of the legislation with experts. The resulting inaccuracy was very prominent on the newspaper’s front page. And finally, the wording offered had not addressed the misleading impression created by the use of the term “black market”. For these three reasons, the Committee found that the newspaper’s offer of a correction in its usual column on page 2 was insufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1 (ii) in this case. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1(ii).

13. It was not misleading to state that the complainant had “told” his story to the publication: he had been interviewed by a journalist who had then sold the story to the publication exclusively. This did not give rise to a misleading impression of the complainant’s actions. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of this point, in breach of Clause 1(i), and no significantly misleading impression was created that required correction under Clause 1(ii).

Conclusions

14. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

15. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

16. The publication had published a significantly misleading article, which made a damaging and inaccurate allegation about the legality of the complainant’s conduct. In these circumstances, the appropriate remedy was the publication of an adjudication.

17. The print article had begun on the front page, and continued on pages 10 and 11 of the newspaper. The reference to illegality, bolstered by the reference to a “black market”, had appeared on the front page, while further references to illegality had appeared on page 10. In these circumstances, the Committee decided that the adjudication should be referenced on the front page, and published on page 10 or further forward. The adjudication should also be published online, with a link appearing on the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against the Daily Record, and refer to its subject matter. It must be agreed with IPSO in advance.

18. The terms of the adjudication for publication in are as follows:

Anthony Fletcher complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Record breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Experts warn of black market danger: DIY sperm donor fathers 22 kids to mums he met on Facebook”, published in print and online on 16 April 2018. The complaint was upheld, and the Daily Record has been required to publish this ruling as a remedy to the breach of the Code.

The article began on the front page of the newspaper; the front page reported that an unlicensed sperm donor had “admitted” to fathering 22 children. It said that “fertility experts warn what he has done is illegal and carries serious medical and legal risks”; and that the complainant had “confessed” to fathering children by “illegally donating sperm”.

The complainant said that the article was inaccurate; private sperm donation was not illegal. The newspaper had misinterpreted the law. It was also untrue to state that he had “confessed” or “admitted” to acting illegally. He said that the article’s use of the term “black market” further wrongly implied illegality.

The publication said that the original copy provided to it by an agency had referred to the relevant legislation as the basis for the claim that the complainant had acted “illegally”, and this was published in good faith. It noted that the terms of the legislation were included in the article.  It conceded that it was inaccurate to state that the complainant had acted illegally by engaging in private sperm donation. The publication also accepted that the complainant had not “admitted” that he was acting illegally. It therefore removed the online article, and offered to publish a correction online and in print, in its corrections and clarifications column on page 2.

The publication denied that any front page correction or ‘signpost’ to a correction was required: the inaccuracy related to just one word on the front page – “illegal” – and the front page headline had been accurate. It said that there was no reference to the complainant’s name on the front page and that the name given in the article was in any event a pseudonym.

The publication said that the term “black market” had been taken from the quotation from the reproductive health specialist. While it could imply illegality in certain circumstances, in this case, where the practice referred to in the article carried significant legal and health implications, it was not significantly misleading.

IPSO found that there was a serious failure to take care over the accuracy of published information, in breach of 1(i). The allegation of illegality was a significant and damaging claim, requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The seriousness of this inaccuracy was further exacerbated by reporting that the complainant had “confessed” to acting illegally, erroneously suggesting that he had knowingly acted outside of the law.  It found a further failure to take care, and significant inaccuracy, in relation to the term “black market”, which in the context of an article which had alleged illegality, carried a strong implication; that the complainant’s conduct was outside the law.

The publication had offered to publish a correction on page 2, making clear that the complainant’s actions were not illegal. However, the Committee was concerned by the seriousness of the breach of Clause 1 (i). The resulting inaccuracy was very prominent on the newspaper’s front page. Also, the wording offered had not addressed the misleading impression created by the use of the term “black market”. For these reasons, the Committee found that the newspaper’s offer of a correction in its usual column on page 2 was insufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1 (ii) in this case. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1(ii).

Date complaint received: 17/04/2018
Date decision issued: 09/08/2018