Ruling

03232-21 Henson v examinerlive.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      29th July 2021

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 03232-21 Henson v examinerlive.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Barry Henson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that examinerlive.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Child sex attacker Barry Henson threatened to kill little girl's pet […] if she told of abuse”, published on 7 April 2021.

2. The article, which appeared online only, reported on the sentencing of the complainant who had been convicted of “indecency with a child and indecent assault of a child”, in relation to incidents which occurred “when he was 12”. A sub-headline to the article stated that “Barry Henson was 12 when he sexually abused a young girl”. A picture of the complainant as an adult accompanied the article. The article included details of what was heard in court in relation to the offences, including that “Sheffield Crown Court heard” that the complainant “would force the girl to carry out sex acts on him while also sexually touching her” and that he had “threatened to kill a young girl’s pet […] if she told anyone” about the incidents. It further reported that the “Prosecutor […] revealed” that the complainant “went to great lengths to keep the abuse a secret […] and drew up a contract.”

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that the headline was misleading, as it did not make clear that he had been a child at the time of the incident and that, in conjunction with the use of his photograph as an adult, readers would be misled into believing that the offences had occurred when he was an adult. He also said that the headline may mislead readers into believing that he had violently forced a child in the course of the incidents, whereas the court had not heard nor found that he had acted violently or with force.

4. He also said that the article had been misleading with respect to the nature of his conviction. He said that the headline may have misled readers into believing that he had used violent force on a child in the course of the incidents, whereas the court had not heard nor found that he had acted violently or with force. He also said that he had not been convicted of sexually touching the child in question, and that this was not the basis of his plea – the wording of which he provided to IPSO. He further noted that he had not pled guilty to forcing a child to carry out sex acts on him, to threatening to kill her pet, or to drawing up a contract in an attempt to keep the offences secret. Therefore, he said, it was inaccurate for the article to report that he “would force the girl to carry out sex acts on him while also sexually touching her” and that he had “threatened to kill a young girl’s pet […] if she told anyone” about the incidents, and that he had created a “contract.” He said these were accusations which had been heard in court, rather than specific criminal offences to which he had pleaded guilty. 

5. The publication said it did not accept that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. It first noted that the basis for the headline claim that the complainant was a “child sex attacker” was set out in the article; he had been convicted of a sexual offence involving a child who was too young to consent. It noted that neither the article nor the headline stated that the offences were violent in nature.

6. The publication further said that it had been heard in court that the victim had told police that the complainant had drawn up a contract to attempt to keep the offences secret, and that he had threatened to kill her pet should she tell anyone. It noted that the article reported that the complainant had been convicted of “indecency with a child and indecent assault of a child”; it therefore did not accept that the article was inaccurate, where it reported on what was heard in court and the exact charges for which the complainant had been convicted. The publication provided the reporter’s contemporaneous notes, which had been taken in court, and which demonstrated that it had been heard in court that: the complainant had sexually touched the victim and coerced her into carrying out sex acts on him; the complainant had drawn up a contract with the victim in an attempt to keep the crimes secret; and the complainant had threatened to kill the victim’s pet.

7. The complainant said that he had only pleaded on the basis of licking the girl’s genitalia and the article did not make this clear nor specify the exact basis of his plea, and was therefore still inaccurate.  He also said that the phrase “child sex attacker” implied he was a paedophile, which he was not; the offences had taken place when he was still a child. He noted that, while he had pleaded guilty to “indecency with a child and indecent assault of a child”, he considered that omitting the details of the basis on which he had pleaded guilty to the crime rendered the reporting of his conviction inaccurate.

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.

Findings of the Committee

8. The Committee turned first to the question of the headline. It noted that the phrasing of the headline was somewhat ambiguous. However, the Committee found that where the article and sub-headline both made clear the complainant’s actual age when the offences occurred, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

9. The complainant had expressed concerns regarding the use of the phrase “Child sex attacker” in the headline of the article, as he was concerned it gave the misleading impression that the attacks were forceful or violent in nature, which he disputed. The Committee considered that the phrase was not inaccurate or misleading, where it was clearly the publication’s characterisation of the complainant and the article made clear the basis for this characterisation. It was not in dispute that the complainant had been convicted of indecency with a child and the indecent assault of a child, and the article did not state or imply that the offences were violent in nature. The Committee also considered that it was not misleading to describe the perpetrator of a sexual offence as a “sex attacker”, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

10. The complainant also disputed the publication’s characterisation that he had “force[d]” another child to carry out sex acts on him, as he again considered that this might mislead readers into believing the offences were violent in nature. The Committee noted that the use of the term “force” does not necessarily imply violence, and that the article did not state that the offences were violent in nature. In circumstances where the complainant had pleaded guilty to sexual offences involving a child, who was too young to consent, it was not misleading nor inaccurate for the article to report that the complainant had “force[d] another child to engage in sexual activity”.

11. It was the complainant’s position that the article was inaccurate as it did not include the specific detail of his plea, and stated instead that he had “force[d] the girl to carry out sex acts on him while also sexually touching her”.   The exact details of the complainant’s plea were provided to IPSO by the complainant during its investigation, and these details were corroborated by the publication’s notes. The exact wording of the plea was graphic, and included explicit references to a sex act with a child. The publication was entitled to characterise the graphic and potentially upsetting plea in the manner it did, and no inaccuracy arose from the publication reporting that he had “force[d] the girl to carry out sex acts on him while also sexually touching her” rather than stating that he had pleaded guilty to licking her genitalia; this was the publication’s characterisation of what the complainant had pleaded to in court, and omitting the specific details of the plea did not render the article inaccurate. The Committee was also mindful of the fact that the publication had an obligation to protect the Code-based rights of the victim, where Clause 11 (Victims of sexual offences) makes clear that such victims should not be identified. It was, therefore, limited in the extent of detail it could include in the article without potentially identifying the victim. In addition, the specific crimes for which the complainant had been convicted were accurately reported. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. The complainant said that the article had breached Clause 1 by reporting that he had drawn up “a contract” in an attempt to keep the offences secret, and had threatened to kill the child’s pet. He did not dispute that it had been heard in court that he had drawn up a contract or threatened to kill the pet, but considered that the article should not have included these details as they were not included in the plea he made to the court and he had not been convicted in relation to these specific allegations. The Committee considered that – where the complainant did not dispute that these allegations had been heard in court – the article was not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted in its reporting of the “contract” and the threats to kill the pet. It noted that information is heard in court can be vital to understanding the circumstances of offences that lead to convictions. While such details may not form the basis of plea agreements, where they are heard in court newspapers are entitled to report them. The Committee emphasised the importance of maintaining the principle of open justice, and that newspapers should be free to report what is said in court provided the Code is not otherwise breached; to prohibit newspapers from reporting details of crimes which are heard in court unless they are specifically referred to in plea agreements would be to act counterintuitively to the principal of open justice. The Committee again noted that the article made clear the actual criminal offences for which the complainant had been convicted; it did not state that he had been convicted for drawing up a contract or threatening to kill the pet, and the references to the pet and contract were not framed as offences for which the complainant had been convicted. The exact offences for which the complainant had been convicted were accurately reported, regardless of the background information also included in the article. The inclusion of these details did not render the article an inaccurate, misleading, or distorted representation of what was heard in court, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

13. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

14. N/A


Date complaint received: 08/04/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/07/2021