Ruling

06462-21 Benwell v plymouthherald.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      30th September 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 06462-21 Benwell v plymouthherald.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Paul Benwell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that plymouthherald.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Plymouth's filthy fraudsters and callous con artists who've taken advantage of people”, published on 20th June 2021.

2. The online article was a roundup of local fraud cases, including the offences of the complainant. The article reported that it had been heard in court that “Paul Benwell, aged 36, faked payments for former tenants over three years but frittered the money away on his habit”. It went on to state that “Benwell… had earlier pleaded guilty to fraud by abuse of position between from 2014 until January last year”.

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as it stated that he had “earlier pleaded guilty to fraud by abuse of position between from 2014 until January last year”, whereas he had pleaded guilty to fraud up to January of 2018. This error implied that the offences were more recent than they were.

4. The complainant further said that the article breached Clause 9 as he considered it unnecessary to report on historic cases, particularly where many of the people mentioned have served their sentences in full. He added that the misrepresentation of the dates of his crimes and the failure to mention he had served his sentence have caused him further harm.

5. The publication accepted that it had, due to human error, incorrectly reported that Mr Benwell pleaded guilty to fraud by abuse of position from 2014 until January last year. They added that this was an oversight on their part, which they were regretful for. The publication said that upon receipt of the direct complaint, it had amended the article accordingly the morning after the article was published.

6. In addition, the newspaper published the following correction upon receipt of the IPSO complaint. This was published online on 6th July 2021: 

"A previous version of this article reported that Paul Benwell 'had earlier pleaded guilty to fraud by abuse of position between from 2014 until January last year.' In fact, Benwell pleaded guilty to fraud by abuse up until January 2018. We are happy to set the record straight."

7. Whilst the publication accepted that the disputed statement was inaccurate, it did not accept that it represented a significant inaccuracy. The publication said that the article accurately reported the amount of money taken, the way in which the money was taken, the complainant’s sentence, and that he “'faked payments for former tenants over three years”. It added that the difference in number of years was not significant, and therefore not significantly misleading.

8. The publication said that the terms of Clause 9 were not engaged and therefore, the article did not represent a breach of the Clause. It added that the complainant had not specified how the article represented a breach of Clause 9.

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 9 (Reporting of Crime)*

i) Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.

ii) Particular regard should be paid to the potentially vulnerable position of children under the age of 18 who witness, or are victims of, crime. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

iii) Editors should generally avoid naming children under the age of 18 after arrest for a criminal offence but before they appear in a youth court unless they can show that the individual’s name is already in the public domain, or that the individual (or, if they are under 16, a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult) has given their consent. This does not restrict the right to name juveniles who appear in a crown court, or whose anonymity is lifted.

Findings of the Committee

9. The article had incorrectly reported that “Benwell… had earlier pleaded guilty to fraud by abuse of position between from 2014 until January last year”; there was no dispute that the plea had related to fraud until January 2018, not 2020, and that this was a matter of public record. Whilst the Committee noted that the publication said this had been due to human error, it took the view that the publication had failed to take sufficient care not to publish inaccurate information, and found that there had been a breach of Clause 1 (i).

10. As the inaccuracy related to both the length of time over which the crimes occurred and how recently the offences had been committed, it was the Committee’s view that this was a significant inaccuracy, and therefore the newspaper was obliged, in accordance with the terms of Clause 1 (ii), to correct this promptly and with due prominence.

11. The Committee turned to the question of whether the action undertaken by the publication was sufficient to avoid a further breach of Clause 1 (ii). The newspaper had amended the online article, the morning after the article was published, and prior to IPSO’s investigation. In addition, it had also added a footnote correction at the bottom of the section reporting on Mr Benwell’s offences on the 6th July, upon receipt of the complaint to IPSO. This identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. The Committee considered the correction was published promptly, especially with the earlier amendment of the article, and was of due prominence. As such, the Committee considered that this was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

12. Clause 9 prevents the identification of relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime in circumstances where they are not genuinely relevant to the story. As the article made no reference to the complainant’s relatives or friends, the terms of Clause 9 were not engaged. While the Committee noted the complainant’s concerns over coverage of historic offences, this was not an issue which engaged the terms the Clause.

Conclusions

13. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial Action Required

14. The published correction put the correct position on record and was offered promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required.


Date complaint received: 25/05/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 15/09/2021