Ruling

09453-22 A woman v Daily Mirror

    • Date complaint received

      17th November 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 14 Confidential sources, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09453-22 A woman v Daily Mirror

Summary of Complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Daily Mirror breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 14 (Confidential sources) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Evil Bellfield’s girlfriend: I’m not ashamed / I AM NOT ASHAMED..LEVI HAS CHANGED”, published on 13 May 2022.

2. The article reported on a relationship between an unnamed woman and a convicted serial killer. The article was featured as a teaser on the front page of the newspaper showing a picture of the woman with her face pixelated alongside the man’s head shot. It described the article as an “exclusive” with the headline: “Evil Bellfield’s girlfriend: I’m not ashamed”.

3. The substantive article appeared on pages eight and nine of the newspaper, and was again described as an “exclusive”. It contained several quotes attributed to the “girlfriend” of the serial killer: that he had “changed” in prison; was “not a monster” but had “a bad past” and “has remorse”. The article also quoted her as saying that she was “not ashamed” of the relationship; and that she was “no random silly woman with an obsession for serial killers. I’m a very educated, intelligent woman, nobody’s fool. I don’t know Levi from 2002, I know the Levi of now. Well since 2019. I’m extremely non-judgmental, and although I have great empathy with the victims, I have empathy with Levi too. He is my partner, we have an extremely close relationship – people may not understand that, but we all make our choices in life” and they had shared “kisses and cuddles” in jail and had “moaned about prison conditions”. The article reported that Mr Bellfield was “planning to get married in prison” and that he had “consulted a solicitor to help him with his plan to marry and ha[d] lodged an application with chiefs at Frankland prison in Co Durham”.

4. The article also appeared online under the headline “Exclusive: Levi Bellfield’s girlfriend says killer is ‘not a monster’ and has ‘changed’ in prison”, and was published on 12 May (one day prior to the print publication) in substantially the same format.

5. The complainant, the woman referred to in the article as the girlfriend of the serial killer, said that the article was in breach of Clause 2. She had read an article about her partner which appeared in a previous, Sunday edition of the newspaper, and said she had written to the journalist who wrote that piece on 1 May  to make a complaint about it.

6. In that email, the complainant stated: “I am writing to you on behalf of my partner levi Bellfield re the article you published in todays paper. He wishes to make the following comments” [sic] and then explained why the man considered the article to be inaccurate. The complainant also made comments on their relationship in this email, some of which were included in the article under complaint. She had ended the email stating: “Levi will be putting an official complaint in. This email is confidential in that obviously gives my name. If you print my name I will not hesitate to sue you! For the simple reason there are many many judgemental people in this world, haters and I have to think of my own family and myself. My windows would no doubt be put through! Thank you for respecting my privacy” [sic].

7. The reporter responded via email on 2 May asking if the complainant would be willing to meet to discuss the matter. On the same day the complainant responded by email that she would need to think about it and discuss the matter with her partner. She also made further comments about herself, her relationship and prison conditions, which were included in the article. The complainant ended this email by stating: “As I said please respect my privacy and under no circumstances ever reveal my name as you would put me and my family in danger due to the judgemental haters of this world. He’s been sentenced and lost his life too. But still it’s not enough and people would without doubt come after me. I’m not ashamed of my relationship with Levi, but I have a family to protect too. I hope you understand that” [sic].

8. The complainant said that she received a phone call from the reporter on 10 May but was unavailable to speak at that time. She said she was unsure as to how the newspaper had obtained her phone number and was concerned it had obtained it from a separate complaint she had with IPSO. She considered that using her contact details in this manner intruded into her private life.

9. On 11 May, the complainant said she received a WhatsApp message from the journalist, which she provided to IPSO. The message said that the publication would be publishing a piece about her engagement to the man and wanted to speak to her about it. The complainant responded to the message saying it was “absolute rubbish” then said, “In fact send me your email I will give you a statement”. She also referred to a “duplicate story”, as a separate newspaper had published a story about her relationship to the prisoner, which she did not want to make a complaint about as she did not consider herself to be identifiable by the pictures it had used. The complainant also said she had received 20 missed calls from an unknown number on this date.

10. On 12 May, after the publication of the online version of the article, the complainant sent a further email disputing the accuracy of the article under complaint and stated she was not engaged. She also stated “Now please leave me alone, I’m changing my phone number and email. I have been advised by my solicitor to ignore you completely. It’s nothing less than harassment at it’s best” [sic], and then on 14 May she sent a further email which stated “Do not contact me by email or phone ever again. A complaint has gone in about you, your behaviour is beyond comprehension”.

11. The complainant said that her email of 1 May had been her first contact with the publication and that had been solely to make a complaint about the previous article in the Sunday edition. She said that she had stressed that the correspondence in relation to this complaint was confidential. She said, therefore, that she had an expectation of privacy over the information contained in her correspondence and that the publication should not have published her comments.

12. The complainant also said that the use of the photo of her taken from social media was a breach of Clause 2. She said that, whilst the images were pixelated, they were her profile photos and were clearly recognisable to anyone who knew her. The complainant said that she had been recognised at the prison by another visitor due to the photos included in the article. She said that by publishing her likeness in this way and connecting her with the prisoner, the newspaper had put her and her family at risk. The complainant also said that her Facebook account was private and had been for several years.

13. The complainant also said that as she had stated that the email was “confidential”, as well as having requested her privacy be respected and her name not be revealed, the publication had breached its moral obligation to protect her as a confidential source under Clause 14 by publishing the contents of her email.

 14. The complainant also said that the reporter’s behaviour prior to the publication of the article amounted to harassment in breach of Clause 3. She said that a journalist had requested to meet her, however she did not want to meet him. She also said that after failing to respond to his messages, he had also attempted to call her and sent her messages on WhatsApp. The complainant said she had only engaged in correspondence with the publication to correct the story published in the Sunday edition, and that she had felt “hounded” and intimidated by the publication’s subsequent efforts to contact her. She said on 11 May she had asked the publication not to publish the story, but it did so anyway.

15. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said that the article had been described as an “exclusive” which gave the misleading impression she had willingly been interviewed by the newspaper, when in fact she had been trying to make a complaint and had not believed the content of her emails would be published. In addition, the complainant said that she was not engaged to the prisoner, nor had she ever told the newspaper that she was.

16. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the complainant had initiated contact with a reporter and had willingly provided information in response to an earlier article. It acknowledged that the complainant had asked for her name not to be revealed and said that it had taken efforts to protect her identity, such as omitting her name and pixelating photographs of her. However, it noted that the complainant had started her first email by stating that she was writing on behalf of the prisoner and that he wanted to make “the following comments”. The publication said, therefore, that it was reasonable for the newspaper to interpret the email sent by the complainant as a right of reply and to clarify points regarding their relationship which it was entitled to publish. It also noted that when the reporter asked the complainant if she wanted to meet, she gave further information about her relationship, yet only expressed concerns that the publication not reveal her name. The publication also supplied a transcript of the phone call with the complainant and said that at the end of the phone call the complainant asked if she could call the reporter the next day, and in the subsequent WhatsApp messages she had asked to “give a statement”. It said that in these circumstances the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over the information in the article.

17. In addition, the publication said it did not consider that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of being identified in connection to the information in the article. It said that the fact of a relationship was not private, and the complainant had confirmed that she was not ashamed about it. It said that the complainant chose to embark on a relationship with a notorious criminal murderer which would be considered by many to be controversial.

18. With regards to the photographs, the publication said that the images used in the article had been taken from the complainant’s open Facebook page, and noted that other images showing the complainant’s likeness were also visible on her Twitter page. In addition, the publication noted that the complainant’s face was obscured when published.

19. The publication also said that it did not receive the complainant’s telephone number from her previous IPSO complaint, which was not received until after it had called her. In addition, it stated that it did not consider that gaining her telephone number in order to clarify information with a view to publication was an intrusion into her private life.

20. Similarly, the publication did not accept that the complainant was a confidential source such as to engage Clause 14. As previously noted, it said that the complainant had provided “comments” and had offered to give “a statement” and therefore the publication did not accept that the complainant had made clear that the information should not be published. It also said that, in any case, the complainant was not identifiable from the article, where the photographs of her had been obscured.

21. The publication also said that there was no breach of Clause 3. It acknowledged that a request to stop contact had been received on 14 May; however, it said that the complainant had not been contacted by the publication after that date. It also said that none of the other contact it had with the complainant amounted to intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit, but that the complainant was voluntarily providing information to the publication. It also said that the journalist had always been polite in their communications.

22. The publication did not consider that there had been a breach of Clause 1. It repeated its position that it did not consider the emails to be confidential and noted that it was the only newspaper to have been supplied with them. On this basis, it did not consider it to be misleading to describe the article as being “exclusive”.

23. The publication also noted that the article did not report that the complainant was engaged, nor did it refer to her as the fiancée of her partner. It said that the article had reported that her partner had “consulted a solicitor to help him with his plan to marry and ha[d] lodged an application with chiefs at Frankland prison in Co Durham”. It said, therefore, that this related to the complainant’s partner and not her, and that it had been confirmed by the Ministry of Justice.

24. The complainant disputed that her Facebook account was public. She noted that the whole account had been private; however, she accepted that two profile pictures used in the article, had been public. She said she had been unaware of this and had since changed the account to be fully private. She said that the journalist should have been aware that it was private and not used the images.

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 their private and family life, home, physical and mental 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.

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 14 (Confidential sources)

Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.

Findings of the Committee

25. The Committee noted that the material about the complainant in the article derived mainly from emails sent by the complainant to the publication. The complainant had said they formed part of a confidential complaints process and she therefore had a reasonable expectation of privacy over their contents. The publication said that the emails had not been a complaint, but rather a response to a previous article on behalf of herself and her partner, and that the complainant had only requested that her name not be published, which it was not.

26. The Committee noted that the article did not simply report the existence of the relationship between the complainant and an imprisoned serial killer, but also included a number of details, such as the complainant’s feelings about the relationship.  The Committee considered that there may be a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of information of this nature, and in reaching its decision gave careful consideration to the circumstances which existed in this case.

27. The Committee first wished to make clear that providing information to a publication in the context of making a confidential complaint about published material would not amount to a public disclosure for the purposes of Clause 2(ii); IPSO itself requires that material provided as part of an IPSO complaint is to be kept confidential.  The Committee therefore carefully reviewed the content of the emails which had been exchanged between the complainant and the publication.  The Committee noted that the complainant’s first email had started by stating that her partner “wishes to make the following comments” and ended by stating he “will be putting an official complaint in” which suggested that the information had not been provided as part of a complaint and that any such complaint would follow separately. The Committee noted that the complainant had written in the first email: “This email is confidential in that obviously gives my name. If you print my name I will not hesitate to sue you!”, and in the second: “As I said please respect my privacy and under no circumstances ever reveal my name”. The Committee considered that those sentences indicated that the complainant expected only that her name would be kept confidential but that, by extension, she did not have a similar expectation in relation to the rest of the information provided.  In the second email, which was sent by the complainant in response to the reporter asking if she wished to “discuss” the matter, the complainant said she would have to “think about it”, and she also provided further information about her and her partner after stating “just so you know” to the reporter. Again, this email ended with a request for confidentiality only in relation to her name.

28. The Committee noted that the specific piece of information that the complainant had asked to be kept confidential was her name, and this was not published in the article. Having given consideration to the content of the complainant’s emails and that they had been sent in response to previously published material but not, in the Committee’s view, as part of a confidential complaint about that material, the Committee considered that the complainant had voluntarily disclosed this information to the publication. Having done so, publication of the information did not amount to an intrusion into the complainant’s private life.  There was no breach of Clause 2.

29. The complainant also said that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy over the photographs had been taken from her Facebook profile and published in the article. She acknowledged that the photographs were public, although the rest of her profile was not. When considering complaints under Clause 2, the Committee considers to what extent the information is already within the public domain. In these circumstances, the photographs used in the article had been placed in the public domain by the complainant and therefore she did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over them. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

30. The Committee then turned to the question of whether the complainant had been acting as a confidential source and had subsequently been identified in breach of Clause 14. However, the Committee noted that the complainant had not requested to be a confidential source, nor had the publication entered into an agreement with her that she would be a confidential source. She had requested that her name not be published, and the publication did not do so; she was not identified by name, and the publication had taken the further step of pixelating the published photograph of her so that she could not be readily identified from it. There was no breach of Clause 14.

31. The complainant also said that the conduct of the reporter prior to the publication of the article amounted to a breach of Clause 3. The Committee reviewed the written correspondence from the journalist to the complainant, which it found to be professional and polite. It also noted that, whilst the complainant did not expect to receive a phone call or know how the publication had obtained her number, journalists reaching out to complainants for comment does not in itself represent a breach of Clause 3 – and in fact could be part of their responsibility to take care over the accuracy of published information. Finally, the Committee noted that the first time a request to desist had been made was on 12 May, and that this request had been respected and no further contact was made after this date. On this basis, the Committee did not find a breach of Clause 3.

32. The complainant had also said that it was misleading to describe the article as “exclusive”. However, where the article included information which she had provided only to one publication, the Committee did not consider this to be significantly misleading. Additionally, the complainant had said she was not engaged, and that the article was inaccurate to suggest this. However, the Committee noted that the article had not stated she was engaged, but that her partner, not the complainant herself, was “planning to get married in prison” and that he had “consulted a solicitor to help him with his plan to marry and ha[d] lodged an application with chiefs at Frankland prison in Co Durham”. As the article did not state that the complainant was engaged, and she had not disputed that such an application had been lodged, there was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion(s)

33. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

34. N/A


Date complaint received: 17/05/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 07/11/2022


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.