Ruling

09984-22 Percy v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      10th November 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09984-22 Percy v The Daily Telegraph

Summary of Complaint

1. Martyn Percy complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Reporting ‘creepy’ dean for stroking my hair ruined my life, says scholar”, published on 14 May 2022.

2. The article was an interview with a woman, who had waived her anonymity to speak for the first time about “her claims that she was sexually harassed” by the complainant. The article was trailed on the newspaper’s front page with a photograph of the woman and the headline: “'Victim' in Christ Church row speaks out”. The caption of the photograph stated the woman “alleges that [the complainant] – who denies the claims and left his job last month for an undisclosed payout – stroked her hair during a service”. It then stated the woman “said that reporting the claims cost her thesis”.

3. The main article continued on page seven, beneath the sub-heading: “PhD student waives her anonymity to reject Oxford cleric’s claims that he is the victim of a witch hunt”. It reported that the complainant had, in an interview with a separate publication, suggested that the woman’s claim “was all taken out of her hands, heavily weaponised, and then talked up as a full-blown sexual assault”, adding that he “repeatedly denied having touched her and insists he is the victim of a witch hunt and failure in safeguarding”. The woman claimed that this “was a case of a man using his power, connections and position to trample down the woman who’s telling the truth” and was quoted as saying: “I’ve lost my job, my housing and my PhD over this. The whole thing was weird and creepy. He assaulted me while wearing a collar in a cathedral”.

4. The article went on to report the woman’s claim that she had been “sexually harassed” by the complainant and her recollection of the event: the complainant had told her that he “had been watching [her] throughout the [church] service and could not take his eyes off [her]”, with the sunlight catching her hair and that “he wanted to reach out and stroke it”, before “stroking her hair for about 10 seconds”. The article then stated that while the complainant “admitted to complimenting [the woman] on her hair”, he “denied ever touching it”. It said that the woman had reported the incident to the university authorities and then subsequently to the police when she discovered that the complainant had “denied” the allegations.

5. The article went on to report that since the allegations came to light the woman had been described as an “illegal immigrant” by supporters of the complainant when, “in reality”, her visa was “signed by” the complainant and had yet to expire. It also reported that the tribunal process was delayed to “such an extent” that the woman had to give up on her PhD, with the woman stating that she “kept on having to ask for more time [to complete her thesis] so [she] was given an ultimatum” by her University: “you either come back [to the University] and finish it or we withdraw you”. She then went on to say that “I couldn’t easily fly back because of Covid, and I was committed to seeing this through, so I lost my lifelong ambition to become a professor”. The article concluded by stating that “after a 10-day mediation, the pair finally reached a settlement in February, in which both were awarded compensation”.

6. The complainant said the article was inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), to report that he had sexually “assaulted” the woman. He denied that he had assaulted her, or that the woman had any evidential basis to support the allegations which had been made against him. While the complainant acknowledged that the woman had a right to tell her story, he said that the article was inaccurate as it only provided one side of the story, and adopted the woman’s narrative as truth. The complainant said that he had not been given the opportunity to challenge the woman’s claims prior to publication, which was particularly necessary given that these included an allegation of sexual assault, which is a criminal offence. He said the woman had never previously alleged that he had “sexually assaulted” her; the only allegation put forward, and which he denied, had been sexual harassment. He said that the publication of inaccurate and damaging allegations about his conduct had damaged his reputation.

7. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate and misleading not to report that, following respective investigations, the police and Church of England took no further action against him in relation to the allegations of sexual harassment.

8. Further, the complainant said that the caption of the photograph on the newspaper’s front page was inaccurate to report that the alleged incident occurred “during a service”. The alleged incident had occurred after a service and so read this as a new allegation put forward by the woman.

9. In addition, the complainant denied that: he had “signed” the woman’s visa application; that “a settlement” had been reached between himself and the woman or that any mediation between them took place; and that he had told her that “he could not take his eyes off” her during the service. He also said the article was inaccurate to report the woman’s claim that she had lost her “job”, “housing” and “PhD over this”. To support his position, the complainant provided a chronology of events as well as a history of the woman’s employment and academic studies including her eligibility for previous roles and her visa application. He claimed that the woman’s “job” and “housing” were either lost or about to be lost prior to the alleged incident. He also claimed that the woman’s university had terminated her doctorate for non-compliance and non-completion.

10. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It defended the article as a fair and accurate report of the woman’s account. It said that the woman had a right to tell her story and, crucially, to respond to the claims made by the complainant to a separate publication a week prior. It denied that the article reported the complainant had sexually assaulted the woman; instead, it reported, three times, including in the headline, that the allegations related to sexual harassment, not sexual assault. While the woman had claimed that the complaint had “assaulted” her, this was clearly the woman’s characterisation of the alleged incident and presented as such. Further, it noted that the only time “sexual assault” was explicitly referenced within the article was in quoting the complainant’s comments to the separate publication: the claim “was all taken out of [the woman’s] hands, heavily weaponised, and then talked up as full-blown sexual assault”.

11. The newspaper did not accept that the article was inaccurate to report that the complainant had told the woman “he could not take his eyes off” her during the service. The newspaper said this was clearly presented as the woman’s recollection of the alleged incident, adding that a subsequent investigation by a Court of Appeal Judge found that her recollection was “as credible” as the complainant’s own and it was “sufficient to conclude […] that it is possible that on the balance of probabilities, a finding could be made that the incident occurred as [the woman] alleged.”

12. Further, the newspaper did not accept that the article was inaccurate or misleading to report that the woman’s claim that she had lost her “job”, “housing” and “PhD over” the incident. This was clearly presented as the woman’s own experience. It was her position that the incident and subsequent investigations (as well as the associated delays to these) had had a detrimental effect on her life: she had withdrawn from her employment – a job which included accommodation – and suspended her studies for a time. The woman had then been “given an ultimatum” by her university on her thesis; this presented her with a choice between pursuing her claim against the complainant or completing her studies. As a result of this, and choosing the former, the woman said she “lost [her] life-long ambition to become a professor”.

13. The newspaper did not accept that it was necessary or appropriate to contact the complainant for comment prior to publication. The article was a first-person account of the woman’s experiences; it did not include any fresh allegations against the complainant or significant inaccuracies; and it reported the complainant’s position clearly throughout, including his denial that the alleged event happened as the woman described.

14. The newspaper did not accept that the article reported that there was a direct payment between the complainant and the woman. Instead, the article reported that a settlement was reached and both parties were “awarded compensation”. The newspaper said Christ Church had confirmed that a mediation process had taken place and shared a public statement by the organisation to demonstrate this. This stated: “settlements were reached with [the complainant and the woman] in February [2022]”; “Both the disciplinary and the medical procedures were withdrawn once [the complainant] agreed to resign and leave Christ Church as part of the settlement that was reached in February 2022 in the fourth round of mediation”; and “[the woman] was central to Governing Body’s acceptance of the proposed negotiated settlement in February 2022”.

15. Upon receipt of the complaint from IPSO, on 16 June, the newspaper accepted that the complainant did not sign the woman’s actual visa application form, although it said the complainant had signed her sponsorship licence. While it did not consider that this represented a significant inaccuracy in these circumstances, it removed the disputed information from the online article.

16. Further, the newspaper did not accept that the article was inaccurate or misleading to omit that the police and Church of England had taken no further action against the complainant in relation to the allegations of sexual harassment. The newspaper said it was self-evident that the matter was no longer under investigation by the police given the time that had elapsed since the allegations were first made by the woman and the publication of the article and the fact of a civil settlement in February 2022. Notwithstanding this, the newspaper amended the online article to include this further information on 4th August, adding: “After interviewing [the complainant] the police decided ‘no further action’ would be taken”.

17. In addition, the newspaper acknowledged that the reference to the complainant stroking the woman’s hair “during a service”, in the caption of the photograph on the newspaper’s front page, had been a minor production error. However, the newspaper did not consider that this rendered the article inaccurate, or constituted a significant inaccuracy requiring correction under Clause 1 (ii). The text of the article detailed the woman’s allegations accurately, including the chronology and location of the alleged incident: the complainant had allegedly stroked her hair whilst they were in the sacristy after a service.

18. The complainant suggested that the amendments to the online article fell short of what was necessary given that the nature of his complaint. He suggested that the newspaper should publish a correction and apology.

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.

Findings of the Committee

19. The woman was entitled to tell her story and had waived her anonymity to respond to claims made by the complainant to a separate publication regarding the treatment of her allegations. The Committee emphasised that it was not making a finding on the accuracy of the allegations made against the complainant. Its role was to decide whether there had been a breach of the Editors’ Code.

20. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate because no allegation of “sexual assault” had previously been made as part of the woman’s claim against him. However, the Committee considered that the article did not report that the woman had accused the complainant of sexual assault; it was made clear in the first paragraph that the woman claimed she had been “sexually harassed” by the complainant. While the woman described the incident during the interview in the following terms: “He assaulted me while wearing a collar in the cathedral”, this was clearly the woman’s characterisation of the incident, the nature of which – according to the woman – was further described in the article. Taken as a whole, the article detailed the precise nature of what the woman alleged, albeit a version of events which the complainant denied. For these reasons, the Committee did not consider that the article was inaccurate or misleading in the way the complainant suggested. Further, the Committee noted that the woman’s claims were presented in an interview she had given to the publication in which she gave an account of the impact on her of reporting the allegation and in order to “reject [the complainant’s] claims that he is the victim of a witch hunt”. It was clear that her account was only one side of a complex story, which had been challenged by the complainant and was the subject of multiple investigations; the publication had not adopted or accepted the woman’s claims, nor was there any suggestion that an objective finding of fact had been made in relation to these claims. Taking into consideration the factors above, the Committee concluded that publication had taken sufficient care over the presentation of the woman’s claim. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. The Editors’ Code does not place a requirement upon newspapers to seek comment from the subject of stories ahead of publication. However, a failure to seek comment, or the omission of a person’s denial in a story may, in certain circumstances, represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article and render an article misleading. In this instance, for the reasons outlined above, it was clear from the article that it was providing the woman’s account of events that were contested. While the complainant had not been contacted, the article repeatedly made clear his position: he denied the allegations made by the woman. The article made clear that the claims against the complainant were in dispute and reported his publicly available remarks, including those to a separate publication a week prior. In these circumstances not contacting the complainant for comment prior to the publication of the article did not amount to a breach of Clause 1.

22. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concerns about the accuracy of the woman’s claims that she had lost her “job”, “housing” and “PhD over [the incident]”. These claims were clearly reported as her account of the consequences that she said she had experienced as a result of reporting the alleged incident and the effect that subsequent investigations had had on her life; these claims were contained within quotation marks and clearly attributed to her within the text of the article, rather than published as statements of fact. The article also went on to detail the circumstances which led to her feeling she could no longer pursue her thesis. While the Committee noted that the complainant had provided extensive material to support his position, the woman was entitled to attribute the loss of her “job”, “housing” and “PhD” to the incident. As such, the Committee did not establish any breach of Clause 1 in relation to these points.

23. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concerns regarding the caption of the photograph on the newspaper’s front page, which reported that the incident had occurred “during a service”. In circumstances where the text of the article went on to report the woman’s allegations accurately and in detail, including the exact chronology and location of the alleged incident (shortly after, rather than during, the service), the Committee did not consider that this rendered the article inaccurate or represented a significant inaccuracy requiring under correction under Clause 1.

24. The Committee next turned to address the alleged inaccuracy that the complainant had “signed” the woman’s “visa” application. Both parties acknowledged that this was incorrect, with the publication amending the online article, in a gesture of goodwill, upon receipt of the complaint. On balance, however, the Committee did not consider this inaccuracy was significant where the complainant accepted that he had signed a sponsorship licence for the woman’s visa application. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

25. The complainant contended that by not reporting that both the police and Church of England had taken no further action against him, the article was not an accurate or fair report of the incident. The article had reported the testimony of the woman who had detailed, at length, an account of her experiences during and following the alleged incident. In the view of the Committee, there was no suggestion from the article that there was an ongoing police investigation into the matter. The article made clear that the complainant disputed the woman’s allegations and that civil settlements had been reached; irrespective of the matter still being the subject of public discussion. There was no breach of Clause 1. Notwithstanding this, the Committee welcomed the publication’s amendments to the online article in relation to this.

26. Finally, the Committee considered the complainant’s concerns that the article had reported that “following mediation, the pair finally reached a settlement”. The Committee recognised that the complainant had been in mediation only with the college, and the complainant and the woman had each reached individual, separate settlements with the college. However, it did not consider that the disputed statement rendered the article inaccurate or misleading: there had been mediation and a civil settlement, and the dispute had been, to some extent, resolved. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusion(s)

27. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

28. N/A


Date complaint received: 01/06/22

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 21/10/2022


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