Ruling

09814-23 Leary v liverpoolecho.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      1st June 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09814-23 Leary v liverpoolecho.co.uk

 

Summary of Complaint

1. Robert Leary complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that liverpoolecho.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into shock or grief) and Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Snapchat creep hacked woman he knew to steal nudes”, published on 13 January 2023.

2. The article was a court report which appeared online only. It reported that the complainant had pleaded guilty to charges of computer misuse, harassment and sending indecent images, in relation to allegations that he sent “threatening and sexually explicit messages” after he “hacked” the victim’s Snapchat account and “downloaded private images of her in a state of undress”. The article stated that the complainant who was an “unknown contact” of the woman had “demanded further naked pictures of her [the victim] in exchange for deleting the ones he already had, offered her money in exchange for 'more’, and sent her unsolicited explicit images of himself.” It further reported that the complainant had “used the dark web to repeatedly access his victim's private account even after she changed her password”. The article reported that he was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison, suspended for 12 months.

3. The article reported how, in a statement read out during court proceedings, the victim had said: "I then received more messages containing compliments, further pictures of myself and requests to send more pictures to this stranger. I pleaded with them to delete these images and asked how they had them - I was told they would only be deleted if more exposed images were sent.” The article further included a quote from the defence which said: “At the time [the complainant] was suffering from his mental health.”

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) as it reported that he had sent explicit images of himself to the woman in question. He said this was never mentioned at court at any point; rather, it was heard that he had sent the victim explicit images, but they were not of himself. 

5. He also said the article was inaccurate because it made reference to passwords that he had obtained on the “dark web”. He said that the phrase “dark web” was never mentioned at court, and that he had used “easily accessible” websites to get this information on the open internet.  He said he had not used any special software to obtain this information.

6. The complainant also said the article was inaccurate because it had included part of the victim’s statement which was read out in court – it said, in reference to the images the complainant had obtained: “I was told they would only be deleted if more exposed images were sent.” The complainant said this was inaccurate as this had never happened and did not form part of the case against him. He did not dispute that this statement had been read out in court.

7. The complainant also complained under Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) as he said the article had had a significant impact on his mental health.

He said that his mental health issues had been mentioned in court and therefore, believed the publication had not taken into account the impact the article would have on his mental health. He further said that the article was insensitive and sensationalist.

8. After IPSO had referred the matter to the publication so that it might correspond directly with the complainant about his concerns, the publication had contacted the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The organisation had confirmed there was no evidence to suggest that the explicit images the complainant had shared with his victim were of himself, and that it had not been heard during court proceedings that the complainant had shared explicit photographs of himself with the woman. In light of this, the publication offered to amend the article on 31 January 2023 by removing the reference of the explicit images showing the complainant, and publish the following footnote correction:

“A previous version of this article reported that Robert Leary had sent the victim unsolicited explicit images of himself. In fact, CPS have confirmed that there was no evidence to suggest that the explicit images Leary sent to the victim were of him. We are happy to clarify this and have amended the article accordingly.”

It also offered to add the same wording as a pinned comment on social media posts which shared the article. On 8 February, during IPSO’s investigation, the publication confirmed that the proposed amendments and corrections had been added to the article and relevant social media posts.

9. The publication provided copies of the court reporter’s notes to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of the story. The notes recorded that the complainant had "used various names to contact victim and send her... pictures asking to see more photographs and sen[t] her an erect penis with the message ‘think you can take it all [name]?’".

10. The publication did not accept that the reference to the “dark web” represented a significant inaccuracy; it said the complainant had used special software to obtain the victim's password and then hacked her social media. It said this was further supported by the CPS who said that the complainant had “used some software to obtain the victim’s password for the social media site he hacked.” The publication did however offer to remove the reference to the “dark web” as a gesture of goodwill and in order to resolve the complaint.

11. The publication said that the reference to deleting the photos was included in the victim's statement, which was included in full in the article. The publication said that the complainant had pleaded guilty and that the defence's mitigation did not include any reference or dispute of what the victim said about the deleted images.

12. The publication said the complainant’s concerns did not engage Clause 9. In regard to Clause 4 it said that the article was reported sensitively and that the publication was entitled to report what was heard in open court.

13. The complainant reiterated his position that he had never used any special software to obtain his victim’s data.

Relevant Clause 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 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

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

14. The Committee first considered the article’s claim that the complainant had sent the victim “unsolicited explicit images of himself”. The Committee noted that publications should take care to ensure that a report is accurate and not misleading. This provision of the Code is of particular relevance when reporting on court proceedings, which  – in line with the principle of open justice – outline the workings of the justice system. It noted that in this case, the publication was able to provide the court reporter’s notes. However, these notes did not support the claim made in the article that the images showed the complainant. The CPS had also confirmed there was no evidence to suggest the images had been of the complainant. As such, the article had inaccurately recorded what was heard in court, and had gone beyond what was heard in court in making the assumption that the explicit images were of the complainant. After contacting the CPS, the publication appeared to accept the reference to the explicit images was inaccurate.

15. However, the question for the Committee was whether this information represented a significant inaccuracy. The Committee considered the context in which the explicit image had been sent: the message which had accompanied the image was direct and personal, and the impact on the victim of receiving the unsolicited image and threatening message would have been the same, regardless of whether the image showed the complainant or another individual. The Committee considered that whether the image showed the complainant or another individual was not significant in the context of his conviction. Therefore, while the Committee welcomed the publication’s prompt correction, it did not consider that reporting that the image showed the complainant rendered the article significantly inaccurate, distorted, or misleading, where the key focus of the article was the offences to which the complainant entered guilty pleas, and the impact his actions had had on the victim. There was no breach of Clause 1, where the article did not contain significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information.

16. The complainant had said the article was inaccurate because it referred to the “dark web” which the complainant said he had not used. It was the complainant’s position that he had not used any special software to obtain his victim’s private data. The Committee noted the term “dark web” generally refers to a part of the internet which isn’t visible to search engines and requires the use of a specific browser to be accessed.

17. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that he had obtained his victim’s password through an easily accessible website which shared individual’s accounts and passwords, on the open web. However, where this was clearly an infringement on the individuals’ private data, the Committee did not consider the term “dark web” to be significantly inaccurate. It further noted that this data was used for ”computer misuse, harassment and sending indecent images” – according to the crime for which the complainant had been sentenced – and therefore “dark web” was a fair characterisation of sites which displayed individuals’ private data, which the complainant had then used for unlawful purposes. For these reasons there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. The Committee noted the complainant’s concerns that the victim’s statement which was read out in court was inaccurate. In this case, the complainant did not dispute that this statement had been read out in court, and therefore the newspaper was entitled to report the victim’s statement. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. Turning to the complaint’s concerns raised under Clause 4, as the article reported on a case that took place in open court, the newspaper was permitted to report on it – particular in circumstances where the terms of Clause 4 explicitly protect the right of publications to report on legal proceedings. The Committee acknowledged that the reporting did not seek to make light of or minimise the circumstances of the legal proceedings or references to the complainant’s mental health. For these reasons, the Committee did not find a breach of Clause 4.

20. The Committee next considered concerns raised under Clause 9. This Clause generally relates to the identification of the friends and family of individuals who are accused or convicted of a crime. As the article’s impact on the complainant’s mental health did not relate to this, there was no breach of Clause 9 on this point.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

22. N/A

 

Date complaint received:  13/01/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  15/05/2023