Ruling

09542-19, 09141-19 Bell v The Press (York)

    • Date complaint received

      8th October 2020

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 6 Children, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09542-19, 09141-19 Bell v The Press (York)

Summary of Complaint

1. Gordon Bell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Press (York) breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 6 (Children) and Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) in articles headlined “Gordon Bell jailed for six year ‘vendetta’ against ex-partner” published on 3 May 2019, and “York man has jail term cut” published on 26 November 2019

2. The first article, which appeared online, reported on the sentencing of a man – the complainant – following his conviction in March 2019. It reported that he had been jailed for 16 months for a six year ‘vendetta’ against his former partner. It described how the court had heard that the complainant had repeatedly breached a restraining order, by posting comments and photos relating to a woman on social media and on internet websites. The article reported that a new, more tightly defined restraining order had been made which restricted the complainant’s use of the internet and social media and included remarks made by the judge who said that the man’s behaviour meant that he had “forfeited the right to use social media as anyone else does”. The article also reported a personal statement from the victim, who said that the complainant “…has run a vendetta against me for six years. Even after being found guilty he didn’t stop his behaviour”. It reported that the man claimed to live mostly in Lanzarote, but that he had also lived at an address in York. It also reported a plea in mitigation made by the complainant’s representative who argued against sentencing him to jail as he said that this would probably mean the collapse of a cycling magazine he was starting.

3. The second article reported that the same man, who it described as having ”…ran a six year ‘vendetta’” against his former partner, had had his jail term reduced from 16 months to 14 months. It reported that he had had been jailed in April 2019 after being convicted of four breaches of a restraining order and explained the nature of the breaches. In addition, it reported that that he had committed the offences within months of losing an earlier appeal against a conviction of stalking the woman and a man. It also repeated the victim’s personal statement included in the first article, in which she said that the man “…has run a vendetta against me for six years”

4. The second article appeared online in the same terms with the headline “York stalker Gordon Bell has jail term cut”. It was published on 25 November 2019.

5. The complainant said that the first article was inaccurate; he was jailed for breaching his restraining order, not for undertaking a “six year vendetta”. He said that it was also inaccurate for the first article to report that the new restraining order restricted his use of the internet and social media. He said that the second article was inaccurate to report the prosecution’s claim that he had committed the offences within months of stalking the woman and a man; he said that in 2015, he had been convicted only of harassment of a woman, and produced a charge sheet which he said confirmed this.

6. He also said that there were a number of inaccuracies in both articles. He disputed that he had carried out a “six year vendetta” against his former partner, as she alleged in her victim statement. He also said that it was inaccurate to report in both articles that he had breached the restraining order by posting comments and photos relating his ex-partner online; the restraining order, which he disputed that he had breached, prohibited him from posting photographs of his ex-partner’s family, and having discussion about his ex-partner on any private website, which he said he did not do. He said that it was not the case that he claimed to live mostly in Lanzarote, and by reporting his street address, this intruded into his privacy in breach of Clause 2. He said that the first article also intruded into his privacy by reporting the comment made by his representative that jailing him would probably mean the collapse of a cycling magazine he was starting. Finally, the complainant also made a complaint under Clauses 6 and 9, as he said that by naming him in both articles, members of his family could also be identified.

7. In relation to the first article, the publication said that the headline was based on the statement of the victim which had been included in the article, and that the breaches of the restraining order had continued a pattern of stalking and harassing behaviour as set out in court. However, on receipt of the complaint, it offered to amend the headline to say “Man jailed for breaching restraining order”, and to add a clarification to the article as follows:

“The headline on this article had been changed from ‘Gordon Bell jailed for six-year “vendetta” against ex-partner’ to ‘Man jailed for breaching restraining order.’ Mr Bell was jailed after four breaches of a restraining order, plus four months previously suspended for a stalking offence”.

8. In relation to the second article, the publication provided notes from the 2015 hearing which stated that “Mr Bell stalked both his former partner and her then-partner in late November, early December [20]13’” and that a Judge had said about the conviction that led to the restraining order, that the complainant had been “convicted of stalking her and a former partner”. In addition, a police press release said that the complainant “followed her then new partner from York to his house in Leeds where he threatened him.” This, in conjunction with the victim statement, gave a basis in both the print and online versions of the articles to describe the man as having run a “six year vendetta” against the woman. However, it accepted that in the 2013 hearing the only person mentioned in the charge was the complainant’s ex-partner. On this basis, towards the end of IPSO’s investigation the publication offered to print the following correction:

“In a report of May 3, 2019, The Press reported that Gordon Raymond Bell was convicted of stalking a man and a woman. While one of the charges did involve two people, Bell was only convicted of stalking one person."

9. The publication did not accept that any of the other points raised by the complainant represented inaccuracies. In relation to the first article, it noted that the copy of the new restraining order imposed on the complainant following his most recent conviction, provided by the complainant, made several prohibitions on what he could post on social media. It said that it was not inaccurate to report that the breaches of the restraining order were in relation posting online comments about his former partner; this was specifically set out in the charges for which he was convicted. It said that the rest of the points raised by the complainant had been heard in court and had been accurately recorded in shorthand by a reporter who was present during proceedings. Although the complainant disputed the veracity of the information heard by the court, this did not make the article an inaccurate record of proceedings.

10. The publication said that the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of the information reported; it was all heard in open court proceedings. It did not accept that Clause 6 or 9 were engaged; neither article referred to the complainant’s family.

Relevant Code Provisions

11. 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.

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. Clause 9 (Reporting of crime)

i) Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.

ii) Particular regard should be paid to the potentially vulnerable position of children under the age of 18 who witness, or are victims of, crime. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

iii) Editors should generally avoid naming children under the age of 18 after arrest for a criminal offence but before they appear in a youth court unless they can show that the individual’s name is already in the public domain, or that the individual (or, if they are under 16, a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult) has given their consent. This does not restrict the right to name juveniles who appear in a crown court, or whose anonymity is lifted.

Findings of the Committee

15. The headline of the first article was misleading as to the reason for the complainant’s conviction; it gave the impression that the complainant had been convicted for a course of conduct lasting 6 years, which was not the case. This was a failure to take care not to publish misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i). In the context of a court report, this was significant and required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

16. On receipt of the complaint, the publication offered to amend the online headline, and to add a footnote to the article. The footnote identified the original headline and the change that had been made, and was offered on receipt of the complaint, which was sufficiently prompt. Publication of the footnote alongside the article, so that it would be seen by anyone reading the updated article, represented due prominence. As such, there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

17. In relation to the information contained in the second article about the offence for which the complainant had previously been convicted,  the publication had relied on a police press release and the notes of a court reporter, which had both alluded to the complainant following a man and a woman. This, in conjunction with the victim statement, gave a basis to report that he had carried out a “six year vendetta”. While the complainant disputed the claim that he had carried out a six year vendetta, the basis set out above meant that the publication had taken care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information and there was no breach of Clause 1(i). However, to report that the complainant had stalked a man and a woman, when in fact he had only been convicted of stalking a woman, represented a significant inaccuracy in the context of a court report was significant and required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii) once the nature of the conviction had been confirmed.

18. The publication offered to add a footnote to the article, which identified the previous inaccuracy and made clear that the offence for which the complainant had been convicted related only to the woman. Whilst this offer was made towards the end of IPSO’s investigation, the footnote was offered once details of the previous conviction had been provided and was sufficiently prompt. Publication of the footnote also represented due prominence as it would make the position clear to any reader of the article.  On this basis, there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

19. In relation to the remaining points of alleged inaccuracy, the complainant did not dispute that these had been heard in court, or were recorded in court documents or in the various restraining orders imposed on him. Although the complainant disputed the accuracy of what was heard by the court, in circumstances where there was no dispute that these points had been accurately reported in the articles, there was no breach of Clause 1.

20. Newspapers are ordinarily permitted to report information which is heard in open court. In this case, the complainant’s address, the information about him claiming to live in Lanzarote and that he was starting a cycling magazine, had all been heard during proceedings in open court. There was no breach of Clause 2 in reporting this information. The articles did not refer to the complainant’s family; the terms of Clause 6 and 9 were not engaged.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i) in relation to the first article. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii). There was no breach of the Code in relation to the second article.

Remedial Action Required

22. The action proposed by the publication satisfied the requirements of Clause 1(ii) for the reasons set out above and should now be printed.

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: 26/11/2019

Date complaint concluded: 06/04/2020