Ruling

07403-21 Foster v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      28th April 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 07403-21 Foster v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint

1. Vicky Foster complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'Heroes aren't always what they're cracked up to be': Widow of firefighter murdered by man who fought terrorist with narwhal tusk says 'five minutes on London Bridge is not enough proof' he has reformed - as he's cleared for early release”, published on 7th July 2021.

2. The article reported on the early release of “London Bridge terror attack hero Steven Gallant” from prison and the response of the “widow of [the] firefighter murdered” by him. It stated that the complainant, who was the former partner of Barrie Jackson, the late firefighter murdered by Steven Gallant, “today said ‘heroes aren’t always what they are cracked up to be’” and that ”[s]peaking from her home in Hull, Mrs Foster, who has since remarried, said: 'It is a very strange thing for me and the children to have to process’”. The article continued by reporting on the details of her late partner’s murder. It stated that he had been “beaten to the ground with a hammer by a gang of men… who wanted revenge after he was cleared of the attempted murder of a 64-year-old Hull prostitute”.

3. The article also included details of Mr Jackson’s injuries and that “he had been attacked and beaten so severely paramedics who tried to revive him could not find his mouth” and that “Steve Gallant and James Gilligan… were eventually convicted of murder”. It also reported the sex worker had been found with “a broken jaw, fractured nose and wounds to her forehead that were caused by being stamped on”. It stated that the “Widow… today revealed she had not a clue that the man who confronted [the terrorist on London Bridge] with a narwhal tusk was the same one who had killed her partner”. The article also reported that the woman had said that “'Despite letters from my MP Dame Diana Johnson, explaining this to members of the government - including Boris Johnson - we have had no contact or consideration in their processes whatsoever”. 

4. The article was amended shortly after publication, following comments made by the complainant on Twitter, so that it reported the comments attributed to the complainant were made when she “[Spoke] to Radio 4 earlier this year”.

5. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because it gave the impression that the comments attributed to her about the events on London Bridge were contemporaneous quotes she had made to the publication. She explained that these quotes had actually come from an article she had written more than seven months earlier in December 2020 for a different publication. She said that her position had changed and the circumstances she had described in December had changed. For example, she highlighted that the article reported that she had received no contact from government, but since the article in December, she had received extensive correspondence, including an apology from a Minister. Furthermore, the presentation of the comments as being contemporaneous implied that they had been made in response to the release of Steven Gallant from prison; this was inaccurate, they had been made many months before he had been released in relation to his actions on London Bridge and the royal pardon he had received. She did not necessarily feel the same way about the situation now as she did at the time she made the comments.

6. She also said the article was inaccurate as it referred to her as the “widow” of Barrie Jackson, the firefighter who had been killed, yet she had never been married to him. In addition, the complainant also said the article was inaccurate because it implied that her former partner was responsible for the attack on the sex worker by suggesting it was the motive for his murder; this had not been established as the motive for his murder and he had been acquitted of this charge in court. She also said it was inaccurate for the article to state that her former partner had been attacked by a “gang” as only two men were convicted. Finally, she said that the article had inaccurately reported the first name of the second individual convicted of the murder of her former partner.

7. Furthermore, the complainant said the article breached Clause 4 as it referred to the murder of her former partner and it described the injuries he had received in great detail. She also said the article breached Clause 4, as the journalist contacted her just before the publication of the article and asked her to comment on the early release of the man who murdered her former partner. She had explained she was finding the situation difficult to process and did not want to comment at that moment. She explained that these comments had been included in the article which she saw as an intrusion into the grief she was experiencing at the time.

8. The complainant also said the amended article was inaccurate as it said that her comments had been made when “Speaking to Radio 4 earlier this year [2021]” when they had actually come from an article she had written in December 2020.

9. The publication said it accepted there had been an error in presenting the complainant’s comments as contemporaneous. It said this had happened when an editor composed the headline and included comments the complainant had made previously, and the reporter who edited the text had concluded that the complainant had made these comments recently to this publication’s journalist. The publication updated the article two days after the article was originally published after it was alerted to the error after noticing the complainant’s tweet on the article and therefore, the correction had taken place promptly. The publication also said this was not significantly inaccurate as the comments had still been made by the complainant, albeit at an earlier time.

10. The publication did not accept that referring to the complainant as the “widow” of the firefighter was significantly inaccurate. It stated that the term was a convenient shorthand used to describe the complainant as she had been in a relationship with the Mr Jackson and they had had children together. It also referred to other published and unamended articles that also described her as the “widow” of the firefighter. Notwithstanding this, the publication amended the article so that it described the complainant as the Mr Jackson’s “ex-partner”.

11. Regarding the use of the term “gang”, the publication did not accept that there was a breach of the Code arising from the use of this term. It said that the summary of the appeal for the individual who was convicted of the firefighter’s murder stated that “the deceased was on the ground with three or four men around him”. As such, the publication argued that it was not significantly inaccurate to refer to those responsible as a “gang of men”; however, it amended the article to remove this reference as a gesture of goodwill as it acknowledged just two men had been convicted for the murder. The publication also stated the summary of the appeal referred to one of the individuals convicted of the complainant’s partner’s murder by the first name that the complainant said was inaccurate, as did an article by a different publication that covered the original arrests. Again, it amended the article based upon the complainant’s concerns, but did not accept this constituted a breach of the Code.

12. The publication also did not accept a breach of the Code in relation to the complainant’s concern that the article suggested her ex-partner had been responsible for an attack on a sex worker. The publication accepted that the motive ascribed to those convicted of the murder of the complainant’s former partner was inaccurate. It amended the article to refer to the motive as described by the judge who oversaw the appeal lodged by the man convicted of Mr Jackson’s murder. However, it said that, regardless of what motive was given to those convicted of his murder, the article had stated that the firefighter had been “cleared of the attempted murder of a 64-year-old Hull prostitute” and so did not represent a significant inaccuracy.

13. The publication also did not accept a breach of Clause 4 and said that this Clause was not engaged. It stated the approach by the journalist had been made sensitively, and that this was not something the complainant had disputed. It also said that the article had not contained gratuitously gory information and had not sought to mock the way that the complainant’s former partner had been killed. The publication argued that much of the material included in the article had already been put into the public domain by the complainant or had been reported contemporaneously at the time of the appeal. The publication further stated that the information detailing the injuries sustained by the complainant’s former partner and the sex worker had been made public in documents that had been released following the failure of the appeal.

14. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1 in relation to the amended article, which predated the IPSO complaint. It stated that the complainant had spoken to Radio 4 previously, and that this appearance had focused on the same information that she had included in her article. It concluded that, whilst it had amended the article on this point, it was not significantly inaccurate to refer to the programme in order to provide context for the complainant’s quotes.

15. During the referral period, and again during IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered to publish a standalone correction or article, working with the complainant to find an acceptable wording, while also making amendments to the article. Ultimately, it offered to remove the article from the website and publish a standalone apology that would appear in the clarification and correction’s section online, which was its standard location for corrections. It stated it would publish the article here for twenty-four hours before being archived, although it would remain searchable. The proposed article was as follows:

We published an article on 7 July about the reaction of Vicky Foster, the ex-partner of a firefighter, Barrie Jackson, murdered by London Bridge terror attack hero Steven Gallant, to Gallant's release from prison. Following contact from Ms Foster the article has been removed from the website and she has asked us to make clear the following points: Ms Foster was referred to in the article as Mr Jackson's widow, whereas he was her ex-partner; her comments published in the piece that 'heroes aren't always what they're cracked up to be' were initially made in an article for The Hull Story in December 2020 and not, as suggested, contemporaneously to MailOnline. Further to this, we are happy to clarify that only 2 people were convicted for the attack on Mr Jackson rather than 'a gang', and that the motive was not purported revenge following Mr Jackson being found not guilty for an attack on a sex worker but rather a belief that Mr Jackson had been partly responsible for an attack on the girlfriend of one of the attackers. We apologise for any distress caused.

16. Regarding the publication’s referral to the appeal documents that described “three or four” men surrounding Mr Jackson, the complainant said there was no suggestion in these documents or elsewhere that all of these men had participated in the attack.

17. The complainant did not accept this proposal from the publication as a resolution to her complaint.

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 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Findings of the Committee

18. First, the Committee acknowledged and was sorry to hear that the article had caused the complainant distress. The Committee first considered the presentation of the complainant’s quotes as being contemporaneous and made direct to the publication’s journalist. These comments had, in fact, mostly been taken from an article written by the complainant for a different publication more than seven months prior, as well as brief comments made contemporaneously to the publication’s reporter. The use of comments made previously in the context of a new article relating to subsequent events does not in and of itself raise concerns under Clause 1.  However, in this case, the article had reported that the complaint was “[s]peaking from her home in Hull”, and no distinction had been made between the comments made at the time the article was published, and those made seven months earlier.

19. The presentation of the complainant’s comments in the article gave the misleading impression that the complainant’s comments reflected her current position, following the release of the complainant’s former partner’s murderer; in fact, the only contemporaneous comment she had made was that the situation was hard to process, and she did not wish to speak about it. In addition, her position had changed, such as in relation to the absence of any contact from the government. The misrepresentation of the comments obtained from a previously published article meant the publication had not taken care and there was a breach of Clause 1 (i).

20. Where the comments were presented as the complainant’s reaction to the release of her former partner’s murderer from prison but had in fact been made seven months previous to his release, this inaccuracy was significant and required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The publication had altered the article shortly after publication to make clear that the comments had been made to a radio programme earlier in 2021, but this still did not reflect the correct situation, and no clarification had been made to acknowledge the original error and set out the correct position. This action did not, therefore, meet the requirements of Clause 1 (ii) to prompt a significant inaccuracy promptly and with due prominence.

21. The publication did, however, subsequently offer a correction that was sufficiently prompt, as an offer was made at the start of IPSO’s investigation that addressed the inaccuracies and provided the correct position. It was also sufficiently prominent as it was proposed to be published as a standalone correction in the established clarification and correction’s section online. There was no further breach of Clause 1 on this point.

22. Regarding the complainant being referred to as the “widow” of Mr Jackson, the Committee considered the publication’s position that previous coverage had also referred to her in this way. However, the complainant’s marital status would have been easy to verify, especially as the article authored by the complainant in December 2020 – heavily drawn on by the publication – had referred to this individual as her “ex-partner”. The publication had not taken care and so there was a breach of Clause 1 (i).

23. The article reported on a sensitive situation: the complainant’s apparent reaction to the release of the man who murdered her ex-partner. The nature of the complainant’s relationship to the murder victim was therefore significant and the Committee did not agree with the publication that the term “widow” could be considered a “convenient” shorthand for a former partner. The term had a specific meaning which was not in this case applicable. The misuse of the term “widow” was therefore significant and required correction. The correction proposed by the publication had addressed this inaccuracy and provided the correct position. It was offered with due promptness and prominence, as set out above, and so there was no additional breach of Clause 1 (ii) on this point.

24. The article reported that the murderers of the complainant’s ex-partner had been seeking revenge after he had been cleared of the attempted murder of a sex worker. The complainant stated that this was inaccurate. The newspaper had been unable to support its description of the motivation for Mr Jackson’s murder and amended the article to reflect the motive as described in documents submitted to the Court of Appeal, which said that they had been motivated by a belief Mr Jackson was responsible for an assault on one of their girlfriends. Where the correct information had been available in publicly accessible court documents, this represented a failure by the publication to take sufficient care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and consequently raised a breach of Clause 1 (i). The motivation for the murder of the complainant’s late partner was a significant point, and the misreporting of this information was therefore significantly inaccurate and required correction.  The publication accepted this was an error and, as set out above, offered a correction promptly and with due prominence. There was no further breach of Clause 1.

25. The Committee then considered the use of the term “gang”. Only two men had been convicted of the murder of Mr Jackson, however, the reference to a “gang” was brief and did not represent a significant detail in the article which was reporting on one of the men’s release and the complainant’s response. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

26. The reference to one of the men involved in Barrie Jackson’s murder by the wrong first name, whilst inaccurate, was not significantly inaccurate in the context of the article. The article reported on the actions of the other individual convicted of murder and so the reference to the second man involved was brief and did not materially affect the story, especially where the surname was reported correctly. Therefore, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

27. The Committee then considered the complaint under Clause 4. The description of the injuries sustained by her ex-partner and the sex worker had been made public within court documents and contemporary coverage. In addition, it was not insensitive or gratuitous as the details of the injuries had been heard in court and were used in the article to demonstrate the severity of the injuries sustained by Mr Jackson at the hands of his attackers. There was no breach of Clause 4.

Conclusion(s)

28. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

29. The correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.


Date complaint received: 08/07/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 18/03/2022