Ruling

07589-17 A woman v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      1st February 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 6 Children

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07589-17 A woman v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “City trader ‘fathered heir to a fortune’ “, published on 22 March and an article headlined “‘The battle over my boy has ruined me’ “, published 18 April. Both articles were also published online with the headlines “Test proves I’m father of heir to £1bn, says former vegetable seller”, and “‘The battle over my boy has ruined me’. “

2. The first article reported that a man had claimed he had proved that he was the father of the heir to a “£1billion fortune”, and that the mother was the “daughter of a Luxembourg media tycoon”. It reported that the man had claimed that he and the mother had a six year relationship, and that they were engaged in 2006, but that the relationship ended when he discovered she had married another man. The article reported that “according to [the man], a judge ordered DNA test in Belgium that showed there was a 99.9 per cent chance he was the father”. The article reported that the man “said the mother consistently denied that he was the father”. The online version of the article was accompanied by an image of the man, outside a building.

3. The second article was a longer account of the dispute. It reported that after the man discovered the mother had married another man, he confronted her at her parents’ home, was told that the child was not his, and was thrown out. It reported that that the man once earned up to £250,000, but that he now lived off the charity of friends and family. It reported that “in the years during which [the man] fought for the test he was arrested five times by the police in Luxembourg for claims he believes were made up to intimidate him”.  It reported that the most recent incident “involved a claim from the family that he had broken into their house”, and that when he appeared in court, the family were unable to give a time or date when the crime occurred. It referred to the mother’s family as one of Luxembourg’s wealthiest. It reported that his case had to be moved to Britain’s embassy in Brussels, from the Embassy in Luxembourg, due to a friendship between an official, and the complainant’s uncle. It reported that "for almost a decade the boy’s mother successfully avoided court orders to submit to a DNA test".

4. The article reported that the man was waiting for the final court hearing, “which is expected to declare him the father and allow the media to name the family, who are currently protected by privacy laws”. The article reported that the mother of the child has consistently denied that she was in a sexual relationship with the man, that they were ever engaged, or that her marriage to another man had been a secret. It said that when she was contacted by the newspaper, she said that the man had no legal rights over the child, and that her family had suffered “systematic harassment by journalists and other persons regarding this case”. The article reported that the family had taken three journalists in Luxembourg to court for publishing the man’s stories, but “lost each time”. It reported that in 2012, a British freelance journalist was questioned by the police after ringing the family’s doorbell.

5. The complainant, the mother of the child, said she was prohibited by Luxembourg’s law from commenting on the DNA test. However, she said that the account of the paternity dispute that had been provided to the newspaper by the man contained a number of inaccuracies. She said that her son was not heir to a £1billion fortune, or a member of one of Luxembourg’s wealthiest families, and denied that she was the daughter of a “media tycoon”. She said that her relationship with the man lasted for six months, not six years, and denied that they were engaged. She said that the man had known about her marriage. She said that the man’s account of his changing fortunes was inaccurate; she said he had not earned what he claimed to before the dispute, he had no savings which could have been spent on the dispute, and that he always had an address in Luxembourg, and never had to sleep rough. She said that the man’s arrests in Luxembourg had nothing to do with her family. She explained that his arrest was in relation to her court case against him and a journalist from a Luxembourg, rather than the court case specifically about the paternity test. She said that the man failed to attend court, and that he was arrested after a judge considered this to be insubordination. She said that a complaint had been made to the police about him in relation to trespassing at her mother’s home, but this did not result in an arrest. She said that he had also been arrested for ignoring summons from a judge in 2011, but said that this was not related to her family.

6. The complainant said that the man was fully aware of her marriage to another person. She said that when the man came to her home to confront her, no one said to him that the child was not his. She denied that she had avoided court orders. The complainant said it was not correct to report that she denied a sexual relationship with the man; she only denied that they lived together. In relation to the claim that her family had taken three journalists in Luxembourg to court but “lost each time”, the complainant said that two of the cases, in relation to an article published in 2012, were pending, and she had won her complaint against the third to the Luxembourg press complaints body. She noted that the Luxembourg press regulator had ruled against one of the publications involved. The complainant requested proof that her uncle had a friend in the British Embassy in Luxembourg, and was sceptical that this would have resulted in the man’s case being transferred to another embassy.

7. The complainant said that when she was contacted by a journalist for the newspaper, prior to publication of the second article, the journalist had intimidated her by threatening to publish further allegations from the man, and to publish her and her child’s name.  The complainant said that the image of the man that appeared on the online version of the first article showed the man in front of a building with which she had a close connection. She said that anyone that knows her and her husband would recognise the building immediately, and that the article therefore identified her, and her child, in breach of Clause 2 and Clause 6.

8. The newspaper said that this complaint represented the rehearsal of claims and counterclaims which had been considered by various courts in Luxembourg. It said that those courts, in deciding whether to allow the man to pursue his demand for a paternity test, and whether to reject the complainant’s attempts to bring actions for libel and breach of privacy, had weighed the allegations submitted by the man’s lawyer, against the complainant’s position that his claims were false.

9. The newspaper said that the first article reported claims that had been made by the man, but made clear that this was their status. It said that prior to publication of the second article, its reporter had visited Luxembourg, spoken to the man and others, and examined the documents, photographs and statements which had been assembled by the man’s lawyer. It provided this material in response to the complaint. It said that the second article therefore went further than the first in adopting the man’s claims, which it had felt able to support. It said that it also took further care over the accuracy of the article by contacting the complainant, and offering her the opportunity to give her account, but that she declined to provide a substantive response. It said that her position was reflected in the published report.

10. In relation to specific claims in the article, the newspaper said that the reference to the complainant being the daughter of a “media tycoon”, was an error; the article should have referred to her as the granddaughter. It said that the first article’s reference to the child being heir to a £1bn was clearly attributed as a claim made by the man. It said that the claim that the complainant comes from one of Luxembourg’s wealthiest families was a claim submitted to court by the man’s lawyers. It said that the complainant’s grandfather was involved in the creation of a very large company, which would appear to support the claim.

11. The newspaper said that in the litigation, the complainant had denied that the man had any contact with the child since birth. It said that the man responded with family photographs, witness statements from others that observed the relationship first hand, and other documents. It said that endorsing the man’s demand for a paternity test, the court had not appeared to accept the complainant’s position, or her argument that the man’s evidence lacked authenticity.

12. The newspaper said that the article made clear that it was the man's belief that the claims that led to his arrests were made to intimidate him. It noted that none of the arrests appear to have resulted in the man being charged with any offence.

13. The newspaper said that the articles carefully did not identify the child at the centre of the case, or the complainant and her family. It said that the illustration of the online version of the first article with a photograph of the man in front of a partial view of an anonymous building in Luxembourg did not identify the complainant.

14. The newspaper offered to publish the following wording:

In reporting on legal proceedings in which Steve Marston was seeking to establish his paternity of a child, we reported Mr Marston’s claim that the child was the heir to a £1billion fortune. We also reported that the child was a member of one of Luxembourg’s wealthiest families. The mother of the child has asked us to put on record her position that the child is in fact set to inherit 250,000 euros. We are happy to do so.

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.

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

Clause 3 (Harassment)

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit. 

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii)  Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Clause 6 (Children)

i) All pupils should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.

ii) They must not be approached or photographed at school without permission of the school authorities.

iii) Children under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents.

iv) Children under 16 must not be paid for material involving their welfare, nor parents or guardians for material about their children or wards, unless it is clearly in the child's interest.

v) Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child's private life.

Findings of the Committee

16. The first article reported that the man had claimed the child was the heir to £1billion. This was a categorical claim, and served to contrast the man’s financial insecurity, with the complainant’s family’s alleged wealth. In response to the complaint, the newspaper was not able to demonstrate that its reference to  the child’s inheritance was accurate. Whether the man had made this claim in the course of the paternity dispute was unclear, and the newspaper had not taken any further steps to verify this claim about the size of the child’s inheritance. The publication of this claim represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, in breach of Clause 1 (i).

17. The wording offered by the newspaper was sufficient to identify the inaccuracy, and make clear the correct position. The article was published on page 9 of the newspaper. The offer to publish the correction in the newspaper’s established corrections column was sufficient to comply with the terms of Clause 1 (ii). In relation to the online article, publication of the correction as a footnote to the article would be sufficient, if it was accompanied by amendments to the article to remove the claims the Committee has identified to be inaccurate, with the wording noting that these amendments had been made. The Committee noted that the offered wording specified the sum the complainant’s child was set to inherit. Specification of the precise sum is not necessary to correct the identified inaccuracy, and the newspaper should consider amending the wording, subject to the complainant’s wishes, so that it makes clear the complainant’s position that in fact the child was set to inherit a substantially smaller sum than specified in the article. To avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii), the newspaper should now take these steps.

18. In relation to the other aspects of the complaint, the Committee first considered the March article. In this article, the newspaper had relied on the man’s account of the dispute. It had not examined whether there was evidence to support his claims, or asked any of the other parties involved in the dispute for their comments on what the man claimed. However, the newspaper had not adopted his claims as fact; they were clearly presented as his account of the dispute. In addition, the complainant’s family was not named in the article, and the Committee considered that readers would understand that the complainant would have a different account of the dispute, given the length of the dispute, and the manner in which the man’s claims had been presented. For these reasons, aside from the claim about the complainant’s family’s wealth, the Committee considered that the other complaints about this article did not raise a breach of Clause 1.

19. The Committee then considered the April article. In this article, the newspaper had not simply relied on the man’s claims, but had travelled to Luxembourg to examine the evidence submitted to the court in support of the man’s account of events. The complainant had also been approached to give her the opportunity to comment on the dispute, from her perspective.

20. A large part of the complaint about this article concerned the accuracy of claims about the man’s relationship with the complainant, which he had advanced as part of the dispute, and which she vigorously contested. These claims related to events between 2000-2006. The newspaper was able to provide evidence in support of the man’s claims, including photographs, and corroborating accounts from others. This evidence did not determine the factual position, and the Committee acknowledged that much of it was disputed by the complainant. However, the second article made clear that the complainant denied the man’s claims. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that she had not denied she had been in a sexual relationship with the man, as reported in the article. However, where the complainant had told that court that, due to the date of conception, it was not possible that the man was the father, the article was not misleading on this point.

21. The Committee’s decision on the claims reported in the second article about the relationship between the man and the complainant was finely balanced. However, it concluded that the thrust of the article was that it represented the man’s side of a complex dispute, making clear that his account was denied by the complainant. By presenting his claims in this way, the newspaper had taken appropriate care not to publish inaccurate information. The Committee did not establish that the article required correction on these points, under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). This aspect of the second article did not breach Clause 1.

22. The second article did not report that the child at the centre of the dispute was the heir to a £1billion fortune. It simply recorded that the man had entered “a court battle against one of Luxembourg’s wealthiest families”. This was a relatively broad reference to their wealth. The Committee noted that the complainant accepted her family were “well-to-do”, rather than “rich”. The newspaper, by reference to the business activities of the complainant’s grandfather, had shown it had valid reasons for believing the family to be wealthy, and the Committee did not find that there was a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in making this broad claim about the family’s wealth. The Committee did not consider that the article was significantly misleading on this point, such as to require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

23. In addition to claims about the relationship, the second article also reported the man’s account of the effect of the litigation on him. The Committee noted that the complainant disputed that the man’s financial circumstances had changed as dramatically as was reported in the article. This Committee considered that this claim was not a general point of fact, or a claim which related directly to the complainant. Rather, it related directly to the man, and the effect of the litigation on his financial situation. By her own account, the complainant had not been in touch with the man for some time, such that she would be in the position to dispute his account of his circumstances, and the Committee considered that it was not in the position to establish that this claim was inaccurate, such as to raise a breach of Clause 1. The Committee noted the complainant’s scepticism about the claim that the man’s case had been transferred to another embassy, due to a conflict of interest at the Luxembourg embassy due to an official’s friendship with a member of the complainant’s family. This did not represent a criticism of her, or her conduct of the dispute, and the Committee did not consider that the complainant’s scepticism provided grounds for finding that this was significantly inaccurate claim, in the context of the article as a whole. The complaint on this point did not demonstrate a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, in breach of Clause 1 (i), or show that the article contained a significant inaccuracy on this point, such as to require a correction, under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

24. In relation to the article’s claims about the man’s arrests, the Committee noted that the complainant did not dispute he had been arrested in connection to her legal disputes with him, and that her family had also made a complaint to the police about him trespassing at their home. It was not in dispute that none of these incidents had led to any charges. The article made clear that it was the man’s belief that the arrests were made on the basis of claims that were “made up”. This was clearly distinguished as the man’s conjecture, and the Committee did not consider the article was significantly misleading on this point.

25. It was not in dispute that the complainant had “taken three journalists in Luxembourg to court for publishing [the man’s] story”. Nor was it in dispute that a British freelance journalist was questioned by the police in relation to his making enquiries about the story. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that her case against two of the journalists in relation to a 2012 article was still pending, and that it was therefore inaccurate to report that she had “lost each time”. However, it did not consider that this represented a significant inaccuracy where the complainant had been unsuccessful in one case, and where the outcome in the other two cases was pending, more than four years after publication. This aspect of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 1.

26. In relation to the complaint under Clause 3, the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that she found the approach made to her by the newspaper’s journalist via email to be intimidating. The Committee recognised that to be put on notice that a newspaper intends to publish an article could feel threatening for a person who strongly objects. However, having considered the tone of the emails that passed between the complainant and the journalist, the Committee did not consider they represented an attempt to intimidate the complainant, under the terms of Clause 3.

27. In relation to the complaint under Clause 6, the articles did not name the complainant, or her son. The Committee said it was matter of regret that the picture was included in the first article, but that given the context, this was not sufficient to identify the complainant or the child.  There was no breach of Clause 2 or Clause 6.

Conclusions

28. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

29. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1 (i), the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee considered that the breach of Clause 1 had been appropriately remedied by the offer of a correction in print, and online.  In light of the Committee’s decision, they should now be published.

Review

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: 15/05/2017

Date decision issued: 28/11/2017