Ruling

06571-18 A man v Northern Woman

    • Date complaint received

      7th March 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 06571-18 A man v Northern Woman

Summary of complaint

1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Northern Woman breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Stalking NI”, published 1 October 2018.

2. The article reported on claims made by a named woman in an interview she had given to the publication. In the interview, the woman had spoken to the publication about her decision to set up an online support group for victims of stalking: “having had my own experience since 2011, I saw very little support available- which stalkers will exploit”. The woman detailed her criticism of the current law in Northern Ireland relating to stalking offences, and her argument that it needed to be changed to protect victims.

3. The piece was presented in a question-and-answer format. When asked to describe her own experience of stalking, the woman had claimed that her former partner, who was not named in the article, had continuously followed and “stalked” her following the breakdown of their relationship. The woman also claimed that her former partner had threatened to shoot her in 2012. The woman explained that it was these experiences which had led her to campaign for legislative change during which she had received support from Members of the Northern Irish Legislative Assembly.

4. The complainant, a former partner of the woman, said that the woman had been making these claims about him. He denied that he had followed or stalked her, or that he had threatened to shoot her in 2012. He said that neither his former partner, nor the publication, had any evidential basis to support the allegations which had been made against him. The complainant said that he had not been given the opportunity to challenge the woman’s claims, prior to publication.

5. The complainant expressed concern that the article had repeated the same claims made by the woman about his conduct, which had been contained in an article which had been the subject of an upheld ruling by IPSO against another publication within the same newspaper group. This ruling was published in January 2018 and can be found here. The Committee found that the newspaper’s presentation of the woman’s claims was misleading because the newspaper had adopted her position; as a consequence, the newspaper had reported, as fact, that the complainant had harassed and stalked the woman since 2012. The Committee found that the failure to put the allegations to the complainant prior to publication, the resulting omission of his denial in the article and the overall manner in which the claims were presented created the significantly misleading impression that his former partner’s claims were undisputed fact in breach of Clause 1 (i).

6. The complainant said that while he had not been named in the article under complaint, by identifying his former partner, the article had identified him as a consequence of his previous association with her. He said that the publication of inaccurate and damaging allegations about his conduct was an unjustified intrusion into his privacy.

7. The publication said that it was unfortunate, and entirely inadvertent, that the subject matter of the previous upheld complaint had been repeated. It acknowledged that the two publications were in the same newspaper group, but said that they had separate editorial structures. The publication explained that the editor had been contacted directly by the complainant’s former partner and had been unaware of the Committee’s previous ruling. The publication said that prompted by the complainant’s further complaint, a seminar was being convened at editorial level with any affiliated publications within the newspaper group to ensure that a similar situation would not arise in the future.

8. The publication said that it accepted the findings made by the Committee in the previous case. It said that it had chosen not to contact the complainant prior to publication for the same reasons set out in that ruling: he had not been named in the article and there was a concern that contacting him would pose a risk to the woman.

9. The publication said that there was a significant difference between the two cases relating to the presentation of the woman’s allegations. It said that unlike the previous case, the article under complaint had not commented on the woman’s claims or made any observations as to the truth or otherwise of the allegations. It said that the article was presented in a question – and – answer format, and accordingly, her claims had not been adopted by the publication as established fact.

10. In an attempt to resolve the complaint, the publication offered to publish the following wording on p.52 – the same page which the article appeared:

In our October edition we published an article relating to stalking in NI.  This article was an interview in which a named woman made a number of claims against her former partner, including that he had stalked and harassed her, and had threatened to shoot her. We were unaware that the subject matter of that article had previously been the subject of a ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) that the Belfast Telegraph had breached clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editor’s Code of Practice following an article it had published in June 2016.  In that complaint, the primary question for the Committee was whether care had been taken to publish an accurate account of the claims that had been made by the woman at interview, and had done so in a way that was not misleading.  IPSO held that the complainant, the woman’s former partner had not been given the opportunity to deny the allegations which had been made against him, nor have this recorded in the article.  No attempt had been made to contact him or obtain corroborating evidence to support the woman’s serious claims.  IPSO further held that this failure to put the allegations to the complainant, and the resulting omission of his denial from the article and the overall manner in which the claims were presented created the misleading impression that his former partner’s claims were undisputed facts. We would like to make clear that the woman’s former partner strenuously denies the allegations which have been made against him: he denies stalking or harassing the woman in any way, he also denies that he has ever threatened to shoot her. He says that he has evidence which supports this, and which challenges what the woman has said about him. We are happy to place his denial of these claims on record.

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.

Conclusions

11. The complainant’s former partner had a right to tell her story. The article under complaint formed part of a wider narrative relating to the woman’s campaigning work for legislative change; she had made a number of claims about the conduct of an unnamed former partner in order to place that work in context. Verifying claims about one party’s conduct during a relationship which took place several years ago is inherently difficult. The Committee’s role was not to make findings of fact in relation to the dispute between the parties, and nothing in this ruling should be read as such.

12. In considering the care taken over the accuracy of the article, the Committee first considered the manner in which the woman’s claims had been presented in the piece. The claims that a former partner of the woman had stalked, followed and threatened to shoot her were clearly distinguished as those of the woman. Care had been taken to present the piece in a question-and-answer format. In doing so, the publication had not adopted or accepted the woman’s claims, nor was there any suggestion that an objective finding of fact had been made in relation to them, for example, there was no suggestion in the article that the woman had obtained legal redress against this unidentified former partner.

13. The Committee then turned to consider the information which the woman had disclosed in the piece, and the extent to which her claims would be understood by a reader as being made against the complainant. The woman had alleged that following the breakdown of a five month relationship, an unnamed former partner had continuously “followed” and “stalked” her, and that they had “threatened to shoot her” in 2012. This was a limited frame of reference regarding the relationship and when it had occurred. Further, the woman had not named her former partner by name, nor did the article contain any information about this individual or their personal circumstances which might lead readers to identify them as being the complainant.

14. Nevertheless, the newspaper had prior knowledge, as a consequence of the complainant’s previous complaint, that the woman had been referring to his conduct when she had made these claims. The complainant had expressed concern that in those circumstances, he had not been contacted prior to publication. The Code does not place a requirement upon publications to seek comment from the subject of stories ahead of publication. However a failure to seek comment, or the omission of a person’s denial in a piece may, in certain circumstances, represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article and render an article misleading.

15. While it was unfortunate that the complainant had not been contacted prior to publication, given the Committee’s previous ruling, the presentation of the woman’s claims clearly indicated that her account was one side of a complex story. In such circumstances, the omission of the complainant’s denial in the piece did not render the article significantly misleading.

16. Taking into consideration the factors referred to above, the Committee concluded that the publication had taken care over the presentation of the woman’s claims and the article did not contain any significant inaccuracies, misleading statements, or distortions, such as would require correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). There was no breach of Clause 1 in those circumstances.

17. The article had contained only general references to the alleged conduct of an unnamed individual. No personal information about the complainant had been revealed in the article such as might lead to his identification, nor did the article contain any detailed information about the complainant’s relationship with his former partner. This limited the extent to which the complainant would have been identifiable to those who would not already have been aware of his association with the woman named in the article. The Committee did not establish that the article had disclosed any information about which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The complaint under Clause 2 was not upheld.

Conclusions

18. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

19. N/A

Independent Complaints Reviewer

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: 04/10/2018
Date complaint concluded: 13/02/2019