Ruling

07446-18 Heppell v Bella

    • Date complaint received

      25th April 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07446-18 Heppell v Bella

Summary of Complaint

1. Andrew Heppell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Bella breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Stalked…by my husband”, published on 27 November 2018.

2. The article was a first-person account written from the perspective of a named woman, describing the course of her relationship with the complainant (who was pictured, and identified by his name and age).

3. In the article, the woman described meeting the complainant after being single for a couple of years, and how they then became engaged. She said that the complainant’s behaviour had subsequently changed: “he’d get irritated and shout about the smallest things…he’d get really angry at cold callers on the phone”. She explained that, nevertheless, they had married in June 2016 and honeymooned together. She said that the situation had then deteriorated, and that the complainant would call her names and tell her she was “useless and pathetic”; she said this caused her to suffer from anxiety, and that she consequently lost her job with the police. She described how this had led to financial difficulties, and that the complainant’s behaviour had become “threatening”: “he’d smash mirrors, lamps and picture frames over the slightest disagreements”. She said that the stress of this made her lose weight.

4. The woman described in the article how the complainant began to check on her spending; she said that, in September 2017, he had accused her of stealing from him, after seeing she’d taken £10 out of their joint account, and had “picked up a broom and swung it, stopping just short” of hitting her. She said that she had then called 999, “while he went on a rampage, smashing things”; the complainant had then been given a warning by the police, and she had left the home. The woman described how, despite this, the complainant would “call and text hundreds of times a day”, and would follow her home from work on his motorbike, and “lurk outside the house”. She said that in November 2017, he was served with a non-molestation order by the police, but that nevertheless the complainant contacted her workplace “claiming [she] was an aggressive alcoholic and unfit to work”.

5. The woman stated that the complainant had then contacted her friends on social media to spread rumours about her; she described how she was “living in misery” at this time. She said that in January 2018, the complainant was arrested on a charge of stalking, and had pleaded guilty in March to “the lesser charge of harassment for what the judge called ‘persistent misconduct’”. The article described the complainant’s sentence, which included a five-year restraining order and a suspended custodial sentence. The woman said that she had since filed for divorce, but continued to suffer from the consequences of the complainant’s behaviour.

6. The complainant said that the article was an inaccurate account of his relationship with the woman, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). He said that his conviction had related to two actions only: sending an email to the woman’s employer, and wearing, to the gym, a t-shirt depicting a pig eating a doughnut (which was observed by a friend of the woman). He denied that he got irritated at small things or shouted at the woman, and that he shouted at cold callers. The complainant also disputed the article’s account of the reasons for the woman losing her job, and for the couple’s financial problems. He denied that he had been angry at the woman for withdrawing £10; he said that, in fact, he had been angry about a debt she had incurred. The complainant also denied having threatened the woman with a broom; he said that instead he had thrown a wine glass into the kitchen sink. He also denied having followed the woman home from work on a motorbike, and said that this had been disproven in court. The complainant also said that the article mischaracterised the nature of his contacts with the woman’s workplace: he said that he had simply asked her employer why he had been passed over for a job application.

7. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate in its report of the date of his marriage, the location of the honeymoon, and the claim that the woman had been single for a couple of years prior to their relationship. He also disputed that she had applied for a divorce.

8. The complainant also expressed concerns under Clause 2 (Privacy) about the publication of the photograph in the article. He said that he had not consented to its inclusion in the article, and that the copyright to the photograph was owned by the photographer.

9. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said the article had clearly been presented as the woman’s own account of the relationship. The publication said that the woman had a right to freedom of expression and to tell her story; that she was a credible witness with no convictions; and that the article’s content was supported by the facts of the complainant’s conviction. It said that it had taken care to remove a substantial number of unsupported claims from the original agency copy which had received, and to only include events which were supported, including by contemporary court reports. The publication said that the fact that the judge had felt compelled to issue a lengthy restraining order against the complainant indicated that he had considered the complainant’s behaviour to be of concern.

10. Following receipt of the complaint, the publication provided a transcript of the judge’s summing-up in court, which it said was very critical of the complainant. In the transcript, the judge described how, according to the woman, the complainant “began to demean her and belittle her, calling her names and making her feel worthless…she dropped to a dress size of 8”. The judge noted that the woman “says she was made to feel worthless”, and that he took this to be true because of what the complainant had admitted.

 11. The judge stated that the complainant had “pursued a course of conduct that amounted to stalking of her, namely by contacting her employer by email…posting comments on Facebook and wearing a t-shirt featuring content of a derogatory nature”. The judge had stated that the complainant had contacted the woman’s employer “saying that she was an alcoholic and she drove whilst under the influence” and that they should test her for drugs – but that “luckily”, she was able to persuade her employer that this was untrue. The judge said that this behaviour had led to the issuing of a non-molestation order. The judge said that the complainant had then gone to a gym wearing a t-shirt bearing a pig’s head and the woman’s police collar number, and that he had subsequently posted on Facebook in relation to personal matters relating to the woman. The judge stated that the complainant’s behaviour amounted to “persistent misconduct” and that “there must be some risk” to the woman, as part of his rationale for sentencing; he noted that the complainant’s conduct had caused the woman “to fear and to still fear for her safety”.

12. In his summing-up of the case in court, the judge had referred to the claim that the complainant had followed the woman on his motorbike, but stated that he was disregarding this based on the complainant’s agreed basis of plea. However, it was accepted that the woman had alleged that this had occurred. The publication said that the judge had not stated that this incident did not occur – he had merely said that he was not considering it.

13. The publication also said that a number of the discrepancies raised by the complainant were very minor – such as in relation to the date of the wedding and the honeymoon destination – and were not material to the substance of the article, which had accurately recording the facts of the conviction, and the judge’s summary of the case.

14. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy). It said that it was within its rights to publish a photograph of an individual who had been convicted of a crime, and that any copyright issue would be between the publication and the photographer.

Relevant Code Provisions

15. 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.

16. 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. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Findings of the Committee

17. The article reported the woman’s first-person account of her relationship with the complainant, and was clearly presented in this manner. The woman had the right to share her experiences, and there was also a significant public interest in her doing so, in the light of the complainant’s conviction. Nevertheless, the publication was required to take care over the presentation of the claims made about the complainant’s conduct in the article.

18. The complainant had been convicted of harassment and given a lengthy restraining order and a suspended sentence in relation to his conduct towards the woman. In summing up the case, the judge had characterised the complainant’s behaviour as “persistent misconduct” and as amounting to “stalking”. The judge had also “found it to be true” that the complainant had made the woman feel “worthless”, and had noted that she had been caused ongoing fear by his conduct. The complainant had not disputed that he had previously been given a police warning and that a non-molestation order had been made against him in relation to his behaviour towards the woman. Having heard the evidence, the judge had found the complainant’s conduct to be sufficiently serious to warrant a lengthy restraining order and a suspended custodial sentence. The question for the Committee was whether the report of the complainant’s account of the relationship and of the complainant’s conduct gave rise to any significant inaccuracies that would require correction.

19. The complainant had denied that he had sent emails to the woman’s employer, stating that she was an aggressive alcoholic and unfit to work. However, the publication had provided the judge’s summing-up, in which he had found that the complainant had, on two occasions, sent emails which could be characterised in this way. The article appeared therefore to be an accurate account of the complainant’s conduct in this respect. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The complainant had disputed that, during the course of his relationship with the woman, he had been easily angered and irritated; that he had called her names, causing her anxiety which led to her losing her job; and that it was stress arising from the relationship which had caused her to lose weight. He said that the woman’s own behaviour had contributed to her losing her job, and to her weight loss. In his summing up, the judge had made explicit reference to the woman’s account of the complainant’s behaviour, stating that “according to that young lady”, he had demeaned and belittled her, making her feel worthless, and causing her ongoing fear. The judge had said that he ‘took this as true’ on the basis of what the complainant had admitted. The article had also clearly been presented as the woman’s own account of the relationship. In circumstances where the claims were distinguished as the woman's view of the matters and where the judge had accepted the woman’s account in light of the evidence he had heard, the Committee did not consider that the presentation of the woman’s experiences in the article gave rise to any misleading impression that required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on any of these points.

21. The complainant said that the article’s account of the incident involving the broom was inaccurate: he denied that he had swung such an item at the complainant. However, it was accepted that the complainant had been issued with a police warning in connection with this incident, and that he had thrown a wine glass. The judge had accepted that the complainant’s actions had caused the woman to feel fear for her safety, and had found that the complainant posed “some risk” to the woman, in light of his past “persistent misconduct”; he had therefore felt moved to impose a lengthy restraining order on the complainant. The article had accurately reported the facts of the complainant’s conviction, and had not suggested that the complainant had engaged in any behaviour resulting in physical injury to the woman. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the inclusion of this claim, clearly presented as the woman’s own account of the event, gave rise to any significantly misleading impression that required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

22. The complainant also disputed that he had followed the woman on his motorbike. This had been alleged in court, but had not been a matter upon which the judge had made a finding and was not included in the complainant’s agreed basis of plea. However, it was not in dispute that the complainant had subsequently been issued with a non-molestation order in relation to his behaviour towards the complainant, after they had already separated, and he did not dispute the  claim in the article that he would “call and text hundreds of times a day”. The judge had also described his course of conduct with respect to the woman as “amounting to stalking”. In these circumstances, and where the claim was clearly presented as the woman’s own account, the Committee did not consider that the inclusion of this claim gave rise to any misleading impression that required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

23. The complainant had also disputed a number of minor points within the article: the date of the wedding; the location of the honeymoon; whether the woman had been single prior to their relationship; and whether the woman had filed for divorce. On each of the points, the Committee did not consider that the article gave rise to any misleading impression that was sufficiently significant so as to require correction; none of these points was material to the story, or related to the behaviour of either party. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

24. The photograph of the complainant showed only his appearance; it did not show him engaging in any private activity, or reveal anything private about him. There was also a public interest in showing the identity of an individual who had been convicted of crime. In these circumstances, there was no breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) in relation to the publication of the photograph.

Conclusions

25. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

26. N/A

Date complaint received: 20/11/2018

Date decision issued: 14/03/2019