Ruling

10262-20 Sharp v thescottishsun.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      22nd April 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 10262-20 Sharp v thescottishsun.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. Jill Sharp complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thescottishsun.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined “LIES Rangers fantasist ‘Champagne Jill’ Sharp claimed fake man was going to ‘propose at Ibrox with help from [Named footballer]’” published on 18 July 2019 and “'FAKE NEWS' Rangers fantasist ‘Champagne Jill’ Sharp claims she is victim following early release after stalking pals” published on 17 October 2019.

2. The first article headlined “LIES” reported that that a woman – aged 32 – had been sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to stalking a former friend and her husband between 2014 and 2017. It reported that the woman had met the former friend in 2011. The article explained that the newspaper had reported in 2017 accusations that the woman had faked a relationship with a stranger for four years by manipulating photographs of the man and his fiancée posted on social media. The article then explained that the woman told her friends she was engaged to the man and created a “double life” for herself. It also explained that the woman would shadow the man and his real-life fiancée by going to places they had visited and taking her own pictures and sharing stories of their “alleged romance”. The article described the man as a “fake man” and the complainant’s “fake boyfriend”.

3. The article then reported that now the woman had been sentenced, the former friend and her husband had spoken to a newspaper about their experience. It quoted the former friend repeating as fact that the woman had fabricated a relationship – including by using a second mobile phone – and that she was told by the woman that a footballer would be helping the “fake boyfriend” propose. The woman was also quoted as saying that she and her husband were “forced” to give up their seats at a football stadium because of the woman’s behaviour, and that she believed that the woman’s fantasy came about because she was jealous that she got engaged. The article reported the charges to which the woman had pleaded guilty – including sending abusive and threatening text messages and emails and “poison pen letters” cut out of newspapers. Following this description of her Sheriff’s sentencing comments, the article reported that the woman denied any wrongdoing and said that the accusations “simply weren’t true”.

4. The article also included several photographs of the woman. It included a photograph which allegedly had been manipulated by her to claim she was in a relationship with the man. It also included a photograph of the woman, seemingly on holiday, a photograph of her drinking champagne in a bubble bath, and a photograph of the woman and man waving a flag whilst in the crowd at a football match.

5. The second article headlined “FAKE NEWS” reported that the woman – also described as being aged 32 had “claimed she is the victim” after being released from prison. It reported the comments the woman had made on Facebook after her release and that she had shared photographs of her drinking champagne – it reported that she had previously “boasted” of her “champagne lifestyle”. It then included the response from the husband of the former friend she had stalked who was quoted as saying “This obsession she has with champagne is sad but we won’t be intimidated by her”. The article reported the charges to which the woman had pleaded guilty to – including sending abusive and threatening text messages and emails and “poison pen letters” cut out of newspapers.

6. The article then set out how the newspaper had reported the accusations in 2017 that the woman had faked a relationship with a stranger. It described this allegation in the same terms as the first article and referenced the first article in reporting that she had claimed a footballer was “’going to help with an Ibrox proposal’ from her fake boyfriend”.

7. The second article included the same photographs as the first article, but used a difference photographs of the woman drinking champagne in a bubble bath, and did not include the photograph of her on holiday.

8. The complainant said that the first article breached Clause 1. She said that she was 33 at the time of publication, not 32 and that she met her former friend in 2013, not 2011. She said that she had never fabricated a relationship with the man, and she was the victim of a hoax. She also said that although she was originally charged with offences relating to the allegedly faked relationship, these were dropped and she was never convicted on these points. She said that she had always denied these claims, and her denial was in the public domain via previous articles at the time of publication. As such, reporting that she had created a “fake man” or a “fake boyfriend”; that she claimed that a former footballer would be helping the “fake man” propose to her, or that she had used a second phone to carry out the fabrication was inaccurate. She disputed the former friend’s claim that her and her husband had been forced to give up their seats at a football stadium as a result of the complainant’s abuse, or that she was ever jealous of the former friend. She said that she was not convicted of sending the former friend any “poison pen” messages cut out of newspapers, but did accept that her indictment showed she pleaded guilty to “repeatedly send letters to [former friend’s husband’s] colleagues which included malicious remarks”.

9. The complainant also said that the second article also breached Clause 1. She said that it was also inaccurate to report that she was 32 at the time of publication. She said that the husband of her former friend was inaccurate to claim that she was “obsessed by champagne” or that she had previously boasted of her “champagne lifestyle”. Where the second article also reported that she had sent poison pen messages, she said that this was also inaccurate for the same reasons as the first article. The complainant also disputed the second article’s references to the allegedly faked relationship, for the same reasons as the first article.

10. Finally, the complainant also said that both articles breached Clause 2, as they published photographs and a still from a video without her permission. Aside from the image of her in the crowd at a football match, she accepted that all the photographs or videos had been publicly available on social media at the time of publication. The complainant also said that the publication of the two articles represented a continuation of persistent coverage by the newspaper, which she said was unjustified and excessive. Therefore, she said that the publication of these articles constituted a breach of Clause 3.

11. The newspaper did not accept that the first article breached Clause 1. It said that when the complainant met the former friend and her husband was not significant in the context of the overall article where it had accurately reported the time period for which the complainant was convicted of stalking the couple. The newspaper said that in relation to the allegedly fabricated relationship, the article made clear that these were allegations. It noted that the article reported that the complainant was “accused” of faking a relationship and that she had shared stories of “their alleged romance”. It said that the former friend’s claims regarding the relationship and the alleged involvement of a footballer in a proposal was the former friend’s own claim, which was clearly presented in quotation and attributed to her. It also said that the article included the complainant’s denial of these allegations by reporting “she denied any wrongdoing and said the accusations ‘simply weren’t true’”. With regard to the former friend’s claim that the complainant was jealous of her, it provided a press release from the Scottish Crown Procurator Fiscal Service (SCPFS) published after the complainant was sentenced which said that “the court heard that Sharp became jealous when a former friend formed a relationship and subsequently married” and that the complainant “sent threatening and abusive text messages, poison pen letters cut out of newspapers and emails to the employers of her victims”.

12. With regards to the second article, the newspaper also did not accept that it breached Clause 1. It said that the claim that the complainant was “obsessed by champagne” was clearly an opinion – in this case the view of the former friend’s husband – and was attributed to him in a quotation. With regards to the point relating to poison pen messages, it said that this was not inaccurate for the same reasons as the first article. Similarly, it said that the second article also made clear that the points relating to the alleged faked relationship were allegations.

13. The complainant disputed the accuracy of the press release referred to by the newspaper but accepted that she had not approached the SCPFS to amend the alleged inaccuracies.

14. The newspaper did not accept that the article breached Clause 2. It said that the video had been published on open social media, and did not reveal anything private about the complainant. The newspaper said that in relation to Clause 3, this generally related to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. It did not apply to the frequency that articles about a person were published, so the terms of Clause 3 were not engaged.

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 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. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

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.

Findings of the Committee

15. The Committee emphasised first 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.

16. In relation to the first and second articles, the difference between 32 and 33 did not amount to a significant inaccuracy in the context of the overall article – it did not affect the reporting of the complainant’s conviction or the nature of the claims made against her. With regards to the claim which also appeared in both articles that the complainant had sent poison pen letters cut out from newspapers, this had been accurately reported from the SCPFS statement released after the complainant’s conviction. The Committee noted that the complainant had disputed this statement, but in the absence of complaint to the SCPFS or material to contradict it and where the complainant had pleaded guilty to sending letters which included malicious remarks, the Committee could not find that this point represented a significant inaccuracy. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

17. In relation to the first article specifically, when the complainant met her former friend was also not significant to this facts of the complainant’s conviction or the nature of the claims made against her– the article did not suggest that the complainant had stalked her former friend since 2011. With regards to the claim that she had been jealous of her former friend’s engagement – this was a claim attributed to the former friend and was further qualified as being her “belief”. Similarly, it was the former friend’s claim – presented in quotation marks – that she and her husband had been forced to give up their seats at a football stadium as a result of the complainant’s abuse. Where these points were attributed to a person rather than adopted as part of the court’s findings, there was no failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, and was not significantly misleading as to charges to which the complainant had pleaded guilty. The Committee also noted that the complainant did not appear to be in a position to challenge the former friend’s claim regarding her stadium seats.

18. In relation to the second article specifically, the claim that the complainant was “obsessed with champagne” was a personal opinion rather than a claim of fact, and this was made clear by the article’s use of quotation marks to attribute it to the former friend’s husband. Furthermore, the Committee considered that where it was not in dispute that the complainant had posted pictures on social media of herself drinking champagne in a hot tub and the focus of the article was on the reaction to these posts, the extent to which the complainant had boasted previously about her “champagne lifestyle” was not significant to the overall article. Reporting this point did not give rise to any significant inaccuracy requiring correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

19. In relation to the allegedly fabricated relationship which was referenced in both articles, parts of the both articles did make clear that this was an allegation by reporting that she was “accused” of an “alleged” romance and attributing the former friend’s comments on this point to her via quotes. However, both articles referred to a “fake man” and “fake boyfriend” as a point of fact, and the complainant’s denial included in the first article was not specific to this allegation – it was included after a description of the complainant’s conviction. There was no denial of this allegation included in the second article. Furthermore, in relation to the first article, although the claim that the woman had told her former friend that a footballer would be helping her allegedly faked boyfriend propose had been attributed to the former friend, there was no denial from the complainant on this point. Presenting these allegations as fact, despite the fact that the complainant’s denial had been previously published and was in the public domain, constituted a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, and there was a breach of Clause 1(iv). Where this meant that the articles were significantly misleading as to the status of these serious allegations, a clarification putting on the record that these claims were allegations disputed by the complainant was required under Clause 1(ii). The newspaper had not offered to take any action in response to the complaint, and so there was a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

20. In relation to both articles, the photograph showing the complainant at a football match was taken in a public place, and simply showed the complainant attending the match and waving a flag. With regards to the rest of the photographs, the complainant accepted that they were publicly available on social media at the time of publication. For these reasons, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over these photographs or the video and their publication did not represent an intrusion into her privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2 in relation to either article. The terms of Clause 3 are generally interpreted to apply to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. The concern that the newspaper had printed an article which was unnecessary did not engage the terms of Clause 3.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action

22. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication. The nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

23. The Committee considered that the articles gave a misleading account of the status of the claim made against the complainant that she had fabricated a relationship. However, this was not central to the main theme of the articles, which was that her former friend had spoken to a newspaper in light of the complainant’s sentence to recount her experience of being stalked and that the complainant had made comments which had upset her former friends after her release from prison. Furthermore, in this instance the requirement under Clause 1(ii) was to make clear that the claim that the complainant had fabricated a relationship was disputed by the complainant and to put her position on record. In light of these considerations, the Committee concluded that a correction was the appropriate remedy.

24. This correction should acknowledge that the claim that the complainant had stalked the man by pretending to be in a relationship with him, creating a fake Twitter account, and photoshopping images, were allegations disputed by the complainant, not established fact. This wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance and in addition to the points above, include a reference to the newspaper title, the article subject, and that it has been required following an upheld ruling from IPSO. It should be added to the articles and appear as a standalone correction in the online corrections and clarifications column. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online articles without amendment, the correction on the articles should be published beneath the headline. If the articles are amended, the corrections should be published as a footnote which explains the amendments that have been made.

Date complaint received: 18/06/2020

Date decision issued: 21/01/2021