Ruling

03125-18 Fletcher v mirror.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      30th August 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03125-18 Fletcher v mirror.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. Anthony Fletcher complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that mirror.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Black market sperm donor who has fathered over 22 children branded 'incredibly dangerous' by health experts”, published on 16 April 2018.

2. The article said that the complainant had “fathered 22 children after illegally advertising his sperm 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”.

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate to state that private sperm donations were 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. The complainant said that the publication had not taken care to check this claim or put it to him prior to publication. 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 it had never been mentioned during the interview. He said this gave a false impression of how the article came about.

4. 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 was published in good faith. It said that the article went on the accurately report the terms of the law. However, the publication conceded that it was inaccurate to state that the complainant had acted illegally by engaging in private sperm donation. It therefore removed the online article, and offered to publish the following correction online:

The 16 April article…stated that Mr Anthony Fletcher had donated sperm ‘illegally’. In fact, private sperm donation is not illegal. We would like to apologise for any misunderstanding.

5. The publication denied that it was inaccurate to say that the complainant “told” the Daily Record his account: his interview with an agency had been provided exclusively to that publication. It also 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.

Relevant Code provisions

6. 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

7. 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 article had quoted an expert in the field, who had not 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).

8. 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 implied that the complainant was participating in an illegal trade, and gave greater weight to the serious allegation that the complainant was acting illegally. This was a further failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of 1(i) and significantly misleading, requiring correction under the terms of 1(ii).

9. The publication had offered to publish a correction, 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. However, the Committee was concerned by the seriousness of the breach of Clause 1 (i) in this instance: the publication had published a damaging allegation without checking its accuracy. In addition, the wording offered had not addressed the misleading impression created by the use of the term “black market”. For these reasons, the newspaper’s offer of a correction was insufficient. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1(ii).

10. It was not misleading to state that the complainant had “told” his story to the other 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).

Conclusion

11. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

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

13. 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.

14. The article had appeared online only. The adjudication should therefore 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.

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

Anthony Fletcher complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that mirror.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Black market sperm donor who has fathered over 22 children branded 'incredibly dangerous' by health experts”, published on 16 April 2018”. The complaint was upheld, and mirror.co.uk has been required to publish this ruling as a remedy to the breach of the Code.

The article said that the complainant had “fathered 22 children after illegally advertising his sperm on Facebook”.

The complainant said that the article was inaccurate; private sperm donation was not illegal. He said that the article’s use of the term “black market” also wrongly implied illegality.

The publication said that the original copy provided to it by an agency had referred to the relevant legislation, accurately reported in the article, as the basis for the claim that the complainant had acted “illegally”, and was published in good faith. It conceded that it was inaccurate to state that the complainant had acted illegally by engaging in private sperm donation. It therefore removed the online article, and offered to publish a correction online. It also said that the term “black market” had been taken from a quotation from a reproductive health specialist. Because 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 Committee 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, 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) in this instance: the publication had published a damaging allegation without checking its accuracy. In addition, the wording offered had not addressed the misleading impression created by the use of the term “black market”. The newspaper’s offer of a correction was insufficient. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1(ii).

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