Ruling

11343-20 A man v mirror.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      6th September 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy, 6 Children

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11343-20 A man v mirror.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the mirror.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 6 (Children) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Mums desperate to escape abusive exes forced to flee UK and live penniless abroad”, published on 28 September 2019.

2. The article was part of a campaign which highlighted women “on the run from domestic violence whose partners have been granted custody of their children”. It reported on women leaving the UK in general, as well as focusing on the specific experiences of several women. One of these women’s experiences was described as “the most horrific case”. The article stated that police had described the woman as a “high-level domestic violence risk” and that police, who were reported to have been “called to their UK home dozens of times” had “begged her to leave her brutal husband”. The article stated that she was receiving support from a named counselling service. The article reported that the woman’s ex was suffering from a mental health condition and that, during family court proceedings, he had admitted attacking her on a number of occasions. The article reported that the mother “endured years of physical, emotional and financial abuse at the hands of the man the courts want her sons to live with” and that the original judge had “accepted that the boys’ dad had been repeatedly violent to the mum” and had ordered that the father should only have indirect contact with the children.

3. The article reported that the father was arrested in relation to an alleged offence involving a family member but that the case had collapsed and that the civil court had found that the man had committed “violent crimes, sexual offences or child abuse”. It also contained quotes from the mother in which she described specific instances of abuse which she said she had suffered and an occasion when she said that one of their children was hysterical and had refused to see his father. The article reported that the older son “told a court-appointed guardian he did not want to see his violent dad”. It went on to say that the father spent “six years battling for access in court”, and that the judge had ordered her children, whose gender and ages were given in the article, to “stay with” their father and that the court “ruled they should be sent to live with their dad”. The mum was said to have “fled the UK" a specific number of years ago. The article also stated that, as part of its campaign speaking to various mothers who had left the UK it had “studied hundreds of pages of notes on each of their cases during a nine-month probe”. Neither the woman, the father, nor the children were named or photographed in the article.

4. The complainant said that he was the father of the first case study referred to in the article and was complaining on his and his children’s behalf. He said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. It was inaccurate to use his case as part of the campaign and to describe him as abusive; he said that he had never been violent towards the woman to whom he had not spoken to or seen in over ten years. He also said it was inaccurate to characterise her story as “the most horrific case” as judges had found that she was entirely responsible for the contested case. He said that it was inaccurate to state that he had admitted “attacks" on the woman when the conduct he had admitted was not violent, such as pointing a finger at the mother. He said he had never been violent towards the mother or been convicted of domestic abuse or violence.

5. He said that it was inaccurate to report that police had ever classed the woman as a “high-level domestic violence risk”, and misleading to report that they had been called to their home as the mother had called the police frequently with false allegations, or unnecessarily, which he said had been referred to in court. He said that it was inaccurate to report that the police had “begged her to leave” him as this claim had not been made in the evidence presented to the court, and he had left her over ten years ago. The complainant accepted that the mother had received support from the counselling service, but said it was misleading to include this in the article as she had sought support by falsely claiming to be a victim of domestic violence.

6. The complainant accepted that he had been involved in an incident with a family member but denied that it was relevant to the article and its inclusion was, therefore, misleading.

7. The complainant also disputed claims which were made in several of the quotes from the mother included in the article and said that one of the claims regarding one of his children had been investigated by social services and had been found to be untrue. He said that it was not the child who had been hysterical, but the mother, and that this had been reported by the contact centre. He also said that the court-appointed guardian had said that the mother had alienated the children and put words in their mouths, and therefore it was misleading to report that one of the children had told the court-appointed guardian he did not want to see his father.

8. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report he had spent six years battling for access, as he was granted access in 2010, and that it was not accurate to say that the original judge had ordered him only to have indirect contact. He also said that it was misleading to report that he had applied to the court to force his children to live with him and that the court “ruled they should be sent to live with their dad”, as to report the matter in this way was biased because it gave the impression the court had made the wrong decision. The complainant said that the mother did not have sole custody of the children at the time she left the country. He said that she lost custody in August 2017, and that the order was then stayed pending her appeal which was heard, and dismissed, in January 2018. He said that she left the country the day before the appeal was dismissed.

9. The complainant also said reporting that the journalist had “studied hundreds of pages of notes on each of their cases during a nine-month probe” gave the misleading impression that the journalist had studied his court documents.

10. The complainant also said that the article breached his and his children’s right to privacy. He said that the content of the article related to private family legal matters and that he believed that private court documents, access to which was restricted, had been shared with the newspaper. He said that as reporting restrictions applied to these documents, he had an expectation of privacy over them and the information that they contained.

11. The complainant said that, whilst neither he nor his children were named, they were identifiable from the information contained in the article. He noted that the article accurately reported the number, gender and ages of the children, as well as details of the family proceedings before the court and the investigations which had been undertaken. He also considered that mention of his mental health diagnosis, the very specific allegations his former partner had made against him in court and his previous arrest, allowed readers to identify him.   He said that an acquaintance of his who had knowledge of his circumstances had identified him from reading the article and had first drawn it to his attention.

12. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 6 (Children) as his children were identifiable and that reading the article could be harmful to them, by giving them unfavourable opinions of the courts, himself or their wider paternal family.

13. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) as it named his mental health disorder and he believed it was being used as leverage for the publication’s campaign. He said it also demonstrated that the mother was using his condition against him, and that reporting this was prejudicial and pejorative in itself.

14. The publication noted that the complaint was made over ten months after publication of the article and that this delay significantly hindered its ability to investigate. It said that this delay, and the restrictions imposed by lockdown, meant that it was unable to access the notes or documents that had been used to write the article in order to support its position that it did not breach the Code. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that none of the individuals referred to in the article were identifiable and that it was not in a position to confirm whether the complainant was the man referred to in the article because it had an obligation to maintain the anonymity of the woman, who was a confidential source, and the children. The publication said that, having undertaken a detailed review of their research materials, it was their firm view that it would not be possible to share them with IPSO, even in a redacted form, without revealing the identity of their sources.  However, it did say that the publication had taken care not to report inaccurate information. It said that the journalist researched various case studies for months, and then travelled abroad to meet the mothers, four of whom were willing to speak anonymously. It repeated that it was not able to say whether the complainant was one of the fathers referred to in the article but said that all the allegations in the article had been verified and corroborated by documentary evidence such as social work reports, counselling notes, police reports of domestic violence, psychiatric reports, Court Orders and relevant communications from the abusive partner such as text messages.

15. The publication also said that as the father in the article had admitted to the attacks on the woman in court, it was not inaccurate to refer to him as abusive, nor was it inaccurate to report this. It said that the article had accurately reported the man’s arrest over an alleged assault and made clear that the case had collapsed.

16. The publication said that the specific allegations against the father were presented as quotes from the mother, and that the publication had therefore distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact.

17. The publication said that as neither the complainant nor his children were identifiable there could be no breach of Clause 2 or 6. It said that the average reader or member of the public would not be able to identify the complainant or the children from the information in the article. The publication stated that the complainant had provided no evidence to support his complaint that the publication had gained access to court documents which it was not entitled to see, or in respect of which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

18. The publication said that there was no breach of Clause 12 as the father’s mental health was relevant to the story, as the woman had claimed that the problems started when he stopped taking his medication. It also said that there was no prejudicial or pejorative reference to his mental health condition.

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 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 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.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

19. Domestic abuse is an important and sensitive issue of significant public interest and the press plays an important role in highlighting the issue. However, the press has a responsibility to ensure that it is reporting in a responsible and accurate way, and to balance the rights of all individuals involved. The Committee also emphasised that it was not making a finding on the accuracy of the allegations reported in the article. Its role was to decide whether there had been a breach of the Editors’ Code.

20. The Committee considered the information provided by the complainant during the course of its investigation and concluded that the complainant was more likely than not the subject of the article. The Committee proceeded to consider the complaint on that basis.

21. With regards to the accuracy of the article, whilst the Committee noted that the publication felt unable to confirm whether or not the complainant was the subject of the article, it was nevertheless required to demonstrate that it had complied with its obligations under the Editors’ Code.

22. The Committee noted the publication’s position that it was unable to access any documents that supported the accuracy of the article, due to the time it had taken the complainant to bring the complaint to IPSO; because it could not go to its office due to lockdown restrictions; and because it had a duty to protect its confidential sources. The Committee acknowledged that flexibility was appropriate in circumstances where Covid-19 had disrupted working practices, but the pandemic could not be a justification for not fulfilling the requirements of Clause 1 given that the publication had published serious allegations which amounted to claims of criminality. In addition, the complaint had been submitted well within the 12-month period allowed under IPSO’s Regulations for the consideration of complaints about online articles; the Committee did not consider that the existence of the pandemic made it unreasonable or unfair to take forward the complaint.

23.  The Committee found that the article had stated as fact that the woman in the article had been abused by her ex-partner, that police had classed her as a “high-level domestic violence risk” and had “begged her to leave” her partner. The publication said it had verified all the claims in the article and set out the steps it had taken, but could not share its research materials without revealing the identity of its confidential sources. Where the publication was not able to demonstrate that these statements were established points of fact, the Committee concluded that the presentation of these claims as fact, rather than disputed claims, amounted to a breach of Clause 1(iv); the distinction was clearly significant given the serious nature of the claims.

24. The article also contained several claims which had been made by the mother and which were presented as direct quotes from her. They were clearly distinguished as the comments of the mother, and not as established fact, and the publication of these claims did not breach Clause 1(iv).

25. Whether and to what extent the information contained in the article identified the complainant as the subject of the article to readers was central to the Committee’s consideration of the complaints under Clause 2 and Clause 6. The Committee reiterated the importance of freedom of expression in reporting the issue of domestic abuse, and the importance of balancing one party’s right to tell their story with any other relevant parties’ right to privacy. The complainant had said that the information contained in the article about the number, gender and ages of the children; the details of the proceedings before the court; the specific allegations made against him by his former partner; and his previous arrest was sufficient to identify him to at least one other individual. The Committee noted that the information regarding the family proceedings and the specific allegations which had been made in the proceedings would not generally be known and would not serve to identify him to readers.  With regard to other classes of information, such as the information about the children, the Committee noted that the article had been published at a national level which meant that this information could potentially relate to a wide pool of individuals. The Committee noted, further, that biographical information about the complainant, such as his job or the part of the country in which he lived, had not been included. With regard to the information which was more specific to the complainant, including that he had been arrested in relation to the incident concerning a family member and his medical condition, this would potentially identify the complainant as the subject of the article to only a limited number of people who had knowledge of the arrest and the complainant’s diagnosis. Taking into account the woman’s right to freedom of expression; the fact that the article presented most of the claims as her account (which the Committee acknowledged was challenged by the complainant); and that the complainant and his children would not be readily identifiable by the general reader of the article, the Committee concluded that the newspaper had not failed to respect the private and family life of the complainant or his children. There was no breach of Clause 2.

26. The relevant part of the Editors’ Code relating to the complainant’s children was Clause 6(i) which states that all pupils should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion. Having found that the children would not be readily identifiable by the general reader of the article and given that it contained minimal information about the children, the article did not represent an unnecessary intrusion into their time at school. There was no breach of Clause 6.

27. Finally, the Committee considered the complaint under Clause 12. The article had described the complainant by reference to the mental health condition from which he suffered. The Committee did not consider that the reference, which was not prejudicial or pejorative, breached Clause 12(i). The Committee then considered whether it was genuinely relevant to the story. The complainant had accepted that his ex-partner had referred to his mental health in the family proceedings, which made the condition genuinely relevant to the story which related, in part, to the findings which had been made by the court. On this basis there was no breach of Clause 12.

Conclusion(s)

28. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(iv).

Remedial Action Required

29. 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.

30. The Committee considered that there was a breach of Clause 1(iv). The article had published a number of serious claims as statements of fact without distinguishing them as such and in circumstances where it did not feel able to demonstrate that they were true. In these circumstances, the Committee concluded that an adjudication was the appropriate remedy.

31. The Committee considered the placement of this adjudication. The adjudication should be published online, with a link to this adjudication (including the headline) being published on the top 50% of the publication’s homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. The headline to the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, give the title of the publication and refer to the complaint’s subject matter. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance.

32. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

Following an article published on 28 September 2019 headlined "Mums desperate to escape abusive exes forced to flee UK and live penniless abroad” a man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the newspaper had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice. IPSO upheld this complaint and has required the mirror.co.uk to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.

The article was part of a campaign which highlighted women “on the run from domestic violence whose partners had been granted custody of their children”. It reported on women leaving the UK in general, as well as focusing on the specific experiences of several unnamed women. One of these women’s experiences was described as “the most horrific case”. The article stated that police had described the woman as a “high-level domestic violence risk” and that police, who were reported to have been “called to their UK home dozens of times” had “begged her to leave her brutal husband”. The article reported that the mother “endured years of physical, emotional and financial abuse at the hands of the man the courts want her sons to live with”. It also reported that the civil court had found that the man had committed “violent crimes, sexual offences or child abuse”. The mum was said to have “fled the UK… two years ago”.

The complainant said that he was the ex-partner of one of the women featured in the article. He said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said it was inaccurate to use his case as part of the campaign or describe him as abusive as he had never been violent towards the woman and had not seen or spoken to her in over ten years. He also said that it was inaccurate to report that police had ever classed the woman as a “high-level domestic violence risk”. He said that it was inaccurate to report that the police had “begged her to leave” him. The publication did not comment on whether the complainant was the ex-partner of the women featured in the article because it said to do so would reveal the identity of a confidential source.

IPSO made clear that domestic abuse is an important and sensitive issue of significant public interest. The press plays a critical role in highlighting the issue, however, when doing so the press has a responsibility to report in a responsible and accurate way, and to balance the rights of all individuals involved. IPSO was not making a finding on the accuracy of the allegations, but whether there had been a breach of the Editors’ Code.

IPSO found that the article had stated as fact that the ex-partner of the woman featured in the article had abused her and that police had classed her as a “high-level domestic violence risk” and had “begged her to leave” her partner, which the publication was not in a position to demonstrate as true.  The publication said it had verified the claims in the article and had set out the steps it had taken, but it could not share its research materials without compromising its confidential sources. IPSO found that, in relation to those specific claims, the publication had failed to distinguish clearly between comment and fact and there was a breach of Clause 1(iv).


Date complaint received: 05/07/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 08/08/2022