Resolution Statement – 09540-22 A woman v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      25th August 2022

    • Outcome

      Resolved - IPSO mediation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Resolution Statement – 09540-22 A woman v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “EXCLUSIVE Ex-boyfriend of Levi Bellfield's 'educated and intelligent' fiancée condemns couple's wedding plans as he claims she was always fascinated by serial killer's crimes during their relationship”, published on 17 May 2022 and an article headlined “EXCLUSIVE: Serial killer Levi Bellfield, 54, wooed his new fiancée by painting her a picture of a rose and offering her half the £4,500 compensation he got for being attacked in prison”, published on 19 May 2022.

2. The first article was an interview with the “ex-boyfriend” of the “fiancée” of an imprisoned serial killer. It stated that “the former partner of [the serial killer]’s girlfriend says she had shown sympathy to the beast while they had been still together” The article reported that the ex-boyfriend had said that he was “stunned” after “learning she is to wed the notorious criminal”. The article contained quotes from the “fiancée”, who was not named, which were described as being “told” to another newspaper. The article contained a photo of the “fiancée” in which her face was pixelated.

3. The second article was described as an “exclusive” and stated that the “fiancée” was “wooed” after receiving a picture of a rose from the imprisoned man, and that a source, described as having been “in a relationship” with the “fiancée”, had said that he painted her a landscape. The article described how the woman had been in contact with another prolific serial killer, which led to the man described as her fiancé contacting her in 2019. The source also stated that the man was “claiming he was going to give her half of the £4,500” he had received as compensation whilst in prison. The article described the woman as “a huge music and reality TV fan”, and also referred to comments the woman had reportedly “told” another newspaper. The article contained a photo of the woman, where her face was obscured by her hair, as well as a picture of a flower and bird with the caption “Serial killer [name] turned to art to try and woo the woman and they are now engaged”.

4. The complainant, the woman referred to as the man’s fiancée, said that the articles were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said that both articles referred to an ex-boyfriend, but that she had not been in a relationship that matched the description given of the man and believed that the source had been lying about their identity and the information he had given the publication. In particular, she said she had not been in a relationship for a long time before she had begun speaking to the imprisoned man. She also said that she was not engaged to the man, and was simply his friend. In addition, she stated it was inaccurate to report she had “told” the other newspaper any of the comment quoted  within the article, and that the article the quotes were taken from were subject to a separate complaint.

5. The complainant also said that the second article was inaccurate as the man had never sent her any artwork and that she did not know anything about the compensation. Furthermore, she said that she was not a fan of music and reality TV.

6. The complainant also stated that the article, and approaches made to her intruded into her private and family life. She also said that the images from the article had been taken from her private Facebook page, though acknowledged that they were profile pictures which could have been publicly viewed. She said, however, that as the rest of her Facebook was private the newspaper should have been aware the two visible pictures were also private. She said that her Twitter page, where a further photo had come from, was public.

7. The complainant also complained that a journalist from the publication had acted in contravention of Clause 3. The complainant provided a text she had sent to the publication on 18 May after a request to call her in which she stated: “do not contact me again”. She said she received several missed calls on this date from unknown numbers. The complainant also said that, whilst at her brother’s house on 20 May, she answered the door to a journalist who asked first for her brother and, when she stated he was not in, said he wished to speak to her. The complainant said that, when asked, the journalist identified himself as working for the publication. The complainant said she then told the journalist to leave and close the door, but that he asked her, through the closed door, whether she was sure she did not want to speak to him. The complainant said the same journalist had also spoken to her mother, some of their neighbours and a person who worked at the Post Office.

8. The publication said that upon receipt of the complaint it had contacted the source again, and as a result of the responses he provided,  it no longer had faith in the validity of the information originally supplied, and therefore deleted both of the articles. It also apologised for any distress caused and offered to publish a standalone correction which would appear on the news homepage for 24 hours and then be archived and searchable in the normal way:

On 17th May and 19th May, we published articles which reported on claims from a man who we said was the ex-boyfriend of Levi Bellfield’s fiancée. We have been contacted by Levi Bellfield’s fiancée who has advised that the articles were inaccurate, and furthermore, she was not in a relationship with the source of the claims. We accept this, and have apologised for the error and removed the articles from the website.

9. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 2, and said that the images used in the newspaper were publicly available on the complainant’s social media at the time of publication. It also said that it had taken efforts to ensure that the complainant was not identifiable from the images by pixelating her face.

10. The publication also apologised for any upset that it had caused by attempting to contact the complainant for comment. It said that whilst she had asked for communication to cease via text, it considered she may be more amenable to an approach in person. It also said that it had understood that the complainant had spoken to another newspaper.

11. The complainant did not accept the resolution – she said it was inaccurate to describe her as the serial killer’s fiancée in the correction as she was simply his friend, and that she wanted compensation.

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.

Mediated Outcome

12. The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter.

13. During IPSO’s investigation the publication offered to print the following correction and pay the complainant a sum of compensation:

On 17th May and 19th May, we published articles which reported on claims from a man who we said was the ex-boyfriend of a woman reported to be Levi Bellfield’s fiancée. We have been contacted by this woman who has informed us she is not Mr Bellfield’s fiancée. She has advised that claims in the articles were inaccurate, and furthermore, she was not in a relationship with the source of the claims. We accept this, and have apologised for the error and removed the articles from the website.

14. The complainant said that this would resolve the matter to her satisfaction.

15. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.

Date complaint received: 20/05/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 02/08/2022