Ruling

04166-17 Coombs v Southern Daily Echo

    • Date complaint received

      9th November 2017

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04166-17 Coombs v Southern Daily Echo

Summary of Complaint

1. David Coombs complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, that the Southern Daily Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) in an article headlined “Dating conman stole £37,000”, published on 16 February 2017. 

2.  The article reported the complainant’s conviction for nine counts of fraud, which it said had “nett[ed] him in the region of £37,000”. The article described the complainant as a “ruthless Southampton conman who stole tens of thousands of pounds from victims he met through dating sites and at hospitals”. The article reported that the judge had said: “you are a menace when it comes to dealing with decent people in the community. You were a predator waiting for these individuals to come into your view”. 

3.  The article explained that the majority of the complainant’s victims had been women and included the testimony which they had given in court. It said that the court had heard that the complainant “left a woman he met on a dating website called Smooch with a bill of more than £4,000” after he took her on a date in London, at Claridges hotel. 

4.  The complainant said that the judge had called him a “menace” not a “predator”, and the article had inaccurately reported that the frauds had “netted” him £37,000. While he accepted that he had been convicted for this amount, he said that this figure had included a count relating to fraudulent cheques which totalled £20,000. He said that these cheques were made out to charities: he had received no benefit. As such, he said that the actual amount which he had “netted” from the frauds, was in the region of £17,000. 

5.  The complainant denied that he had been convicted of stealing money from women he had met through dating sites. While the complainant accepted that he had met the woman he had taken to the hotel on a dating site and had asked her to secure the room with her credit card, he said that the actual loss had been on the part of the hotel, not the woman he had taken there. He provided a copy of his charge sheet which stated that the complainant had “booked a room at Claridges Hotel for four nights to the value of £4770.39 when he knew he did not have the means to pay and had no intention to pay”. In those circumstances, he said that the article had inaccurately reported that he had left a woman he had met on a dating site, with a “bill of more than £4,000 after he took her on a date in London”. 

6.  The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It provided two press releases from Hampshire Constabulary which had stated that the complainant had targeted women through dating websites and hospitals. One press release stated: “David Coombs, aged 52 of no fixed abode pleaded guilty at Southampton Crown court on Tuesday, January 17 to nine fraud offences after targeting people who he met on dating websites and in hospitals across the south. Coombs met many of his victims online via dating websites and occasionally in medical facilities”. The newspaper provided reporters notes, which recorded that the judge had referred to the complainant as a “predator”, and noted that other publications had also reported that the judge had referred to the complainant in this way. 

7.  The newspaper also offered to publish the following clarification: 

David Coombs: A clarification 

In February of this year the Daily Echo carried an article on a David Coombs who was sentenced for four years in prison at Southampton Crown Court for fraud offences.

Following that report we have been asked to clarify a number of points.

In the article we stated that the 52-year-old stole money from people he met on a dating website and through hospital.

We have been asked to point out that he stole £12,000 from people he met through hospital and £4,700 from the Claridges Hotel by using a credit card owned by a woman he met on a dating website.

 

The report also stated that the frauds netted Mr Coombs, of no fixed address, £37,000.

In fact, we would like to clarify, that they netted him £17,000 but that the offences involved a further £20,000 made up of blank cheques which he made out to charities which they never received.

 

Finally in the court report we stated that he landed a woman he met on a dating website with a bill for £4,700 for dinner and a night at Claridges.

 

In fact while Mr Coombs used the woman’s credit card the court charge actually said that he stole the money from Claridges and not the woman. 

Relevant Code Provisions 

8. 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
 

9.   While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that he had not received any benefit from the cheques he had written out to charities, the Committee did not conclude that reporting that he had “netted” £37,000 was significantly inaccurate or misleading, in circumstances where the complainant had accepted that had been convicted of nine counts of fraud, where the intended loss of his offences had totalled that amount.

 

10. The newspaper had provided reporter’s notes which had recorded that the judge had referred to the complainant as a “predator”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point and the Committee did not conclude that the article contained significantly inaccurate information such as to warrant a correction, in circumstances where the complainant had accepted that the judge had called him a “menace”.

 

11. The complainant had accepted that he had met a woman on a dating site, had taken her to a hotel and had asked her to secure a room with her credit card. In those circumstances, it was not inaccurate for the article to report that the complainant left a woman he met on a dating website with a bill of more than £4,000 after he had taken her on a date in London. There was no breach of the Code. 

Conclusion 

12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required 

13. N/A

Review

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.  

Date complaint received: 03/03/2017
Date decision issued: 30/08/2017