Ruling

05240-19 Sharp v thescottishsun.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      22nd April 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 05240-19 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 an article headlined “'MOET LOYAL' Fantasist stalker Rangers fan pictured at Ibrox with ‘Moet Loyal’ flag after boasting about champagne lifestyle as she tries to change guilty plea” published on 8 July 2019.

2. The article reported on an ongoing court case in which a woman who had pleaded guilty to stalking her former friend was trying to withdraw her guilty plea. It explained that the woman had created fake online profiles to target the former friend and her husband, after they shared a love of a football club and had started chatting about football on Twitter. It reported that the former friend had said that the “fantasy” came about because the woman was jealous after the former friend got engaged. It said she had been recently “snapped” attending a football match with a “pal”. In addition, it also reported that just over two months ago, the woman was filmed drinking champagne in a hot tub and “repeatedly bragging about living luxuriously”.

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. In the first paragraph of the article, this was presented in quotation marks. The article then 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 “[Woman] terrorised a fellow fan and faked a relationship with a stranger”. 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 one photograph which she had allegedly manipulated to claim she was in a relationship with the man. It also included a photograph of the woman, seemingly on holiday, a still from the video referenced in the article which showed the woman drinking champagne in a hot tub, and a photograph of the woman and man waving a flag whilst in the crowd at a football match.

5. 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 was a “fantasist”. She said that she did not chat about football on Twitter – she had never had a Twitter account. She also disputed the former friend’s claim that she was jealous of her engagement. She said that the man who she had attended the football match with was not her “pal” – he was her long-term partner. She also said that it was not the case that the video was filmed two months prior to the article being published – she said that instead it was filmed in 2017. She also said that she was not “bragging” or “boasting” in this video. However, she did not dispute that it had been recently uploaded to social media. Finally, 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.

6. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 2, as it published photographs and a still from a video without her permission. Aside from the image of her in the crowd at a football match, 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 the article represented a continuation of persistent coverage by the newspaper, which she said was unjustified and excessive. Therefore, she said that the publication of these articles constituted a breach of Clause 3.

7. The newspaper did not accept that the article was inaccurate. It said that where the complainant had pleaded guilty to setting up fake social media accounts to stalk the former friend and her husband, it was not misleading to describe her as a “fantasist”. It acknowledged that the man described in the article as the complainant’s “pal” was in fact her partner, but it said that this distinction was not significant to the overall article. It said that the actual time that the video had been filmed was not significant to the article, and it was not in dispute that it had been recently uploaded to social media. It said that the video referenced in the article, which was posted on social media, it showed the complainant drinking champagne in a hot tub saying “Life’s a b**** isn’t it? Designer champagne lifestyle. It’s a hard life but somebody’s got to do it.” Therefore, it said it was not inaccurate or misleading to characterise this as “boasting”.

8. The newspaper 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 – in the first paragraph of the article, the “fake relationship” point was presented in quotation marks. 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”. 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.

9. The newspaper did not accept that the article breached Clause 2. It said that the video 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, so 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

10. 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.

11. 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”. The complainant had said that she had not chatted to her former friend on Twitter about football, however where she did not dispute that they had shared a love a football club as part of their friendship, the exact platform on which they discussed football was not significant to the overall article. The fact that the two women had formerly been friends was made clear. 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. Where this 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. Although it was not in dispute that the man she had attended the football match with was her partner, describing him as “pal” was not significantly misleading as to what had occurred – that she had been pictured at the match with a companion. The nature of their relationship did not affect this fact. 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. The complainant did not dispute that the video showed her talking about her “champagne lifestyle” whilst sitting in a hot tub drinking champagne. As such, describing the complainant as “boasting” or “bragging” in the video was not significantly misleading as to the video’s content. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

12. In relation to the allegedly fabricated relationship, the article did make clear that the complainant disputed the claims, and some of the references included in the article were presented as claims – for example via the use of quotation marks. However, it did also make claims of fact – reporting without qualification that the complainant had “…faked a four-year relationship with a man she’d never met” and “[Woman] terrorised a fellow fan and faked a relationship with a stranger”. Presenting this allegation as fact, despite the complainant’s denial and without being able to point to evidence which proved this was nevertheless the case, 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).

13. On receipt of the complaint, the newspaper had amended the article to remove references to the allegedly fake relationship. 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 article, 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).

14. The photograph showing the complainant at a football match was taken in a public place, and simply showed the complainant attending the match and waving a flag. With regards to the rest of the photographs, the complainant accepted that they were publicly available on social media at the time of publication. For these reasons, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over these photographs or the 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 an article which was unnecessary did not engage the terms of Clause 3.

Conclusions

15. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action

16. 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: 09/07/2019

Date complaint concluded: 21/01/2021