Ruling

05684-21 Khoram-Scotts and Scotts v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      2nd December 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee –05684-21 Khoram-Scotts and Scotts v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint

1. Behnaz Khoram-Scotts and Emmanuel Scotts complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Judge compares £87,000 serial fraudster who splashed out on 63 pairs of Jimmy Choos to former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos infamous for her 3,000-pair collection but spares her jail”, published on 12 April 2021.

2. The article reported that the complainants had “pleaded guilty to fraud by false representation and conspiracy to commit fraud following an investigation by the Dedicated Card and Payment Crime Unit (DCPCU), a specialist police unit funded by the banking and cards industry”. It said they were “called 'serial fraudsters' by [the] judge”, and reported that the prosecutor told the court that police had recovered 63 pairs of designer shoes from Mrs Khoram Scotts’ home. The article also reported that the “couple opened six different bank accounts with fake names after they lied about their professions to present themselves as wealthy”. It also said that Mr Scotts “was arrested on April 15, 2020, at Heathrow Airport where around £7,000 in euros, several credit cards, cheque books, and a bank statement showing a balance of £104,000 was found in his luggage”. It further reported that the “couple used their fake bank accounts to deposit foreign cheques, one of which was for £81,000” and that Mr Scotts’ “second home address” was searched.

3. The complainants said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. They said that they were not “serial fraudsters” nor had they “pleaded guilty to fraud by false representation and conspiracy to commit fraud” as Mr Scotts pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and Mrs Khoram Scotts admitted possession of articles for use in fraud and possession of criminal property. The complainants also said it was inaccurate to report that Mr Scotts had been arrested at Heathrow Airport on 15 April 2020, and that the correct date of the arrest was 16 October 2018. The complainants said that much of the information in the article was inaccurate, as all the items that were seized from their home had been bought legitimately; Ms Khoram-Scotts did not have 63 pairs of shoes; they had not used fake bank accounts to deposit foreign cheques, one of which was for £81,000; and that they had not “lied about their professions” and had actually held roles as a stockbroker and beautician, for which they possessed evidence. The complainants said it was inaccurate to report that their second home address was searched as they only had one house. The complainants said another person was involved in the case who was not referred to in the article, and the omission of a reference to this individual in the article was misleading.

4. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said it had relied on the press release which had been issued by the Dedicated Card and Payment Crime Unit (DCPCU), a specialist police unit, which it said it was entitled to rely on, and a report by an agency reporter who had attended court, copies of which it supplied. The press release stated that the “married couple pleaded guilty to fraud by false representation and conspiracy to commit fraud”. On receipt of the complaint, the publication amended the article to report that Mr Scotts “admitted conspiracy to commit fraud and possession of articles for use in fraud” and Ms Khoram-Scotts “admitted possession of articles for use in fraud and possession of criminal property”. Prior to the start of IPSO’s investigation, this was amended further to report that Mr Scotts’ had admitted  solely to “conspiracy to commit fraud”.

5. The complaint was not resolved, and after IPSO began its investigation, the police press release that the article was based on was amended. The amendments confirmed  that Mr Scotts was arrested at Heathrow Airport on 16 October 2018 and the publication then amended the article to reflect the true date of the arrest. The word “foreign” before “cheques” was also deleted from the press release, and the publication then amended the article by also removing the word “foreign”. With regards to the search of Mr Scotts’ home, the word “second” was deleted from the press release, which the newspaper then also deleted from the  article, whilst noting that it appeared that the police had searched more than one property. The press release was also amended to delete “falsely” from the sentence: “Mr Scotts falsely claimed to be a stockbroker while Mrs Scotts claimed she was a beautician, for which there was no evidence”, together with the phrase “for which there was no evidence”. The publication did not make a corresponding amendment to the article, and continued to report that the complainants had “lied about their professions”.

6. The publication said it had promptly made amendments to the article in order to clarify minor factual details, but it did not consider these matters to constitute significant inaccuracies, misleading statements or distortions. Therefore, it did not offer to publish a correction which acknowledged the points which had been corrected in the article, nor offer an apology.

7. The publication noted the complainants’ complaints about the police, and that they did not agree with the charges that had been brought against them. However, it said that it relied on absolute privilege when reporting the court case, and that allegations of police misconduct was not a matter for IPSO to consider. The publication said that it had been heard in court that the complainants had “lied about their professions” and noted that the police press release stated: “The couple opened numerous bank accounts in different names, using fake identification and doctored documents which gave false impressions of their wealth. Mr Scotts claimed to be a stockbroker while Mrs Scotts claimed she was a beautician. A total of six fraudulent accounts were opened in different names,” and provided notes which showed that it had been heard in court that the accounts were “fictional”. It also said that items taken by the police had been found to be property bought with the proceeds of crime and that it was heard in court that Mrs Khoram-Scotts had 63 pairs of shoes, with the contemporaneous notes of the reporter who attended court referring to a “vast array of designer shoes”. It also said that it was not required to report all the details of a case verbatim, and in this case had focussed on the sentencing of the complainants and it was not misleading to omit reference to another party referred to during the trial.

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 article under complaint was a court report. It had reported that both complainants had “pleaded guilty to fraud by false representation and conspiracy to commit fraud”. This information had been taken directly from the police press release which had been issued by the DCPCU, the unit which had undertaken the investigation into the defendants. The errors in the press release, which were later corrected, were not discernible at the time of publication of the article, for example because there were internal inconsistencies, and the content  was not contradicted by the notes taken by the agency reporter in court. In these circumstances, by accurately reporting the police press release, the publication had taken sufficient care not to publish inaccurate information, and there was no breach of Clause 1(i).

9. The press release that the publication had relied upon was amended after the complainants made a complaint. The publication had then amended the article to accurately report the offences for which the complainants had pleaded guilty. However, it did not offer to publish a correction to identify the inaccuracies which had been corrected. The offences for which the complainants had pleaded guilty was central to the report of the court proceedings, and the published inaccuracy was significant and needed to be corrected in a manner which met the requirements of Clause 1(ii). The amendments made to the article, in the absence of a published footnote which identified the inaccuracies which had been corrected, did not constitute a sufficiently prominent correction, where it did not acknowledge the original inaccuracy for readers, and the publication had therefore breached Clause 1(ii).

10. The article had also reported that the complainants had “lied about their professions”. The original press release issued by the DCPCU had stated that Mr Scotts had “falsely claimed” to be a stockbroker, Mrs Khoram-Scotts had “claimed” to be a beautician, and that there was “no evidence” for these claims. For the reasons already given, the publication was entitled to rely on the press release and, in reporting these matters, there was no failure to take care under Clause 1(i). The press release had subsequently been amended on this point in the manner explained in paragraph 5, above.  The publication did not make corresponding revisions to the article and the Committee considered whether there was a significant inaccuracy requiring correction. The Committee considered the information in the updated press release, which the complainant accepted was accurate, and the contemporaneous notes taken by the agency reporter in court. The complainants accepted that they had opened multiple bank accounts under fake names and that they had been convicted of fraud offences. In the context of the article which had accurately reported that they had opened bank accounts using false identities, it was not significantly inaccurate to report that they had “lied about their professions”, in circumstances where the corrected police press release continued to refer to them as “claim[ing]” to be a member of such professions. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

11. The press release had also been updated on several other points reported in the article which the complainants said were inaccurate: replacing the cashing of “foreign cheques” with simply “cheques”; the search of Mr Scotts’ “second home” to his “home address in Wandsworth”; and the date of his arrest from 15 April 2020 to 16 October 2018. The Committee found that where it was not in dispute that the court had referred to cheques being cashed, the origin of these cheques as domestic or foreign was not a significant detail requiring correction. In addition, where Mr Scotts’ property had been searched, and it was accepted that the complainants lived in more than one property, it was not significantly inaccurate to refer to a “second” home being searched. Finally, where the date of the arrest was mentioned in passing and it was not suggested that it had particular significance, the difference of 18 months between the two dates was not significant. None of these points required correction, and there was no breach of Clause 1. The Committee, however, welcomed the amendments made to the article by the publication.

12. The complainants had contested evidence that was heard in the court case. However, newspapers are responsible for accurately reporting what is heard in court; they are not responsible for the accuracy of what is heard by the court. Whilst the complainants did not accept some of the claims which had been made about them, it was not inaccurate to report that the court had heard that 63 pairs of designer shoes had been recovered from Mrs Khoram-Scotts’s home. The complainants also said it was inaccurate to describe them as “serial fraudsters”. However, the contemporaneous notes provided by the journalist demonstrated that this had been said by the judge during the trial, and it was attributed to him within the article. The complainants had also alleged that there had been police misconduct in their case, which was not a matter which fell under the Editors’ Code. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

13. The complainants considered the absence of a reference in the article to a third party involved in their case to be misleading. Newspapers do not have to report all information heard in court and it was not misleading to omit to mention that another party was named in connection with the complainants, where the article focused on the convictions of the complainants. This omission did not raise a breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

14. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1(ii).

Remedial Action Required

15. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1(ii) the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

16. Whilst the publication had taken appropriate care by relying on the police press release, once the inaccuracy regarding the complainant’s pleas had come to light it had not offered to put a correction on record acknowledging the inaccuracies contained in the original article. The Committee considered the appropriate remedy. Taking into account the fact that the publication had promptly amended the article and the nature of the inaccuracy, it concluded that a published correction was appropriate.

17. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. As the article had already been amended, it should appear as a footnote to the article. The correction needed to record that the article had inaccurately recorded the offences the complainants had pleaded guilty to. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position should be agreed with IPSO in advance.


Date complaint received: 20/05/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 11/11/2021