Ruling

05810-17 Williams v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      19th October 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05810-17 Williams v The Sun

Summary of complaint

1. Chris Williams complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:

  • “Cannibal killed by taser cops as he bites girl’s face”, published on 7 November 2014
  • “Dead… just hours after she met cannibal”, published on 8 November 2014
  • “Help! He’s eating her”, published on 16 March 2017;
  • “Demonic cannibal cop terror”, published on 18 March 2017
  • “Cannibal risk clear”, published on 6 April 2017.

2. The first article reported that Matthew Williams, whom it described as “a cannibal”, had attacked and killed a 21-year-old woman in a homeless hostel. It said that he had died when police tasered him; that he was “believed to be high on cocaine”; and that he had been released from prison two weeks before the attack. It quoted a witness who had said that he was “eating this girl to death”. The second article named the victim. It said that she had met Mr Williams just hours before her death, and that he had eaten parts of her face. 

3. The remaining articles were published after the inquests. The newspaper reported that Mr Williams’ inquest had been played a recording of the 999 call in which the witness to the attack had said “He’s eating her”. It said that the witness had told the inquest, “It looked to me as if he was eating her. Science has proved he wasn’t, but that’s what it looked like”. The next article said that a police officer, who had attended the scene of the attack, had been terrified by the scene she encountered. The piece said that Mr Williams had killed the victim and was “’eating’ her face”. The last article said that a forensic psychologist had told the inquest that the risk Mr Williams had posed was clear. It said that he had bitten and torn his victim’s eye out.

4. The complainant, Matthew Williams’ father, first complained to IPSO after the first two articles were published. He said that it was inaccurate to report that the victim had died due to an act of cannibalism; she had died as a result of “sharp force trauma and shock”.

5. The parties agreed to put the matter on hold until the inquests had taken place and the full facts of the case were known.

6. After the inquests, the complainant informed IPSO that he wished to pursue his earlier complaint. He also added that he wished to complain about the accuracy of the newspaper’s coverage of the inquest. He maintained that it was inaccurate to refer to his son as a “cannibal”; the inquest had heard that there were bite marks to the victim’s torso, but no skin had been broken, and there were no bite marks to her face and neck.

7. The newspaper said that its reports had been based on the information available at the time, and it had accurately reported the account of the murder provided by the first witness on the scene. Before the first article was published, the newspaper had spoken to the witness’ sister-in-law, and she had said that the witness had told her in a text message that Mr Williams had been “eating” the victim. The witness had subsequently told the inquest that this had been her belief at the time.

8. Following the publication of the first articles, the newspaper contacted the police to ask if they had any concerns about its references to cannibalism, and the police had said that they would not be seeking any corrections.

9. The newspaper maintained that it was not misleading to refer to Mr Williams as a cannibal given the findings of the inquest. It referred to a contemporaneous report of the inquest proceedings, published by another newspaper, which it said repeated the accounts from police officers and witnesses that it had reported at the time. It noted that a forensic dentist had told the inquest that there were bite marks on the victim’s abdomen, and there was a probable bite mark on her right hand; a police officer had described the scene as “utter carnage”; and when the witness to the scene had called the emergency services, she had said “there has been a murder. He stabbed her in the face and is eating her”. A police officer had also said that she had been informed that someone had been attacked with a screwdriver and a man was “eating the face”.

10. Although the newspaper did not consider that its coverage was misleading, it offered to publish the following clarification on page two and online, as the inquest had concluded that none of the victim’s body parts had been missing:

In an article “Cannibal killed by taser cops as he bites girl’s face”, (7 November 2014) we described former prisoner and drug addict Matthew Williams as a ‘cannibal’ because a first eye-witness said they believed he was ‘eating’ his victim, Cerys Yemm.  However, a recent inquest into both deaths revealed that, while there were 89 separate injuries to her face and body, there were no missing parts, and the pathologist confirmed that there was no evidence of her being eaten. 

It also offered to append the following footnote to the online article:

An inquest into the two deaths carried out in April revealed that Cerys Yemm died from ‘sharp force trauma to the face and neck’. However, a recent inquest into both deaths revealed that, while there were 89 separate injuries to her face and body, there were no missing parts, and the pathologist confirmed that there was no evidence of her being eaten. Witness Mandy Miles said at the inquest that she accepts the findings of the post mortem that he did not eat her.

Relevant Code provisions

11. 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.

Findings of the Committee

12. The witness to the murder had told the emergency services that she believed Mr Williams had been “eating” the victim. The newspaper had also spoken to her sister-in-law who had verified that this was the witness’ account of the incident. The newspaper had been entitled to report the witness’ account, and it had done so accurately. Given the witness account, it was not significantly misleading to refer to Mr William as a “cannibal” in the first two articles. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the articles published before the inquest.

13. The inquest had found that there were 89 separate injuries to the victim’s face and body, which included bite marks. However, there were no body parts missing and the inquest had concluded that there was no evidence that Mr Williams had “eaten” the victim in an act of cannibalism.

14. In the third article under complaint, published after the inquest, the newspaper had made clear that its reference to Mr Williams as a “cannibal” was based on the evidence given by the witness to the attack. The piece included the witness’ comment that “science had proven that he wasn’t [eating the victim]”. As the article made the finding of the inquest sufficiently clear, there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i).

15. The last two articles had asserted as fact that Mr Williams was a “cannibal”. Given that the inquest had concluded that there had been no act of cannibalism, this was significantly inaccurate and represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the articles in breach of Clause 1 (i). A correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

16. The newspaper had offered to publish a correction, which made clear that there was no evidence that the victim had been eaten. The Committee considered that the newspaper’s offer to address the complaint was sufficient to meet the requirement of Clause 1 (ii). There was no further breach of the Code on this point.

Conclusion

17. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

18. Having upheld the complaint in relation to the last two articles, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

19. On receipt of the decision the newspaper offered to update the clarification offered, to reflect the terms of the Committee’s ruling. It offered to publish the following wording, to appear on page two:

In two articles about the inquests of Matthew Williams and Cerys Yemm, published in March and April of this year, we used the word “cannibal” when describing Mr Williams. We should have made clear that this descriptor was based on evidence given by a witness to the attack that Mr Williams had been “eating” Ms Yemm’s face, and we also should have noted that while the inquest heard that Mr Williams had bitten Ms Yemm, it did not find that he had “eaten” her.

20. This correction was sufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1 (ii), and should now be published.

Date complaint received: 06/04/2017
Date decision issued: 22/08/2017