Ruling

11344-20 A man v express.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 – 11344-20 A man v express.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the express.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 “Domestic abuse victim fled country after ex granted access to kids”, published on 16 November 2019.

2. The article reported on the experiences of a woman who “was forced to flee Britain with her […] children after fearing they would be abducted by their abusive father [who suffered from a named mental health condition]”. It reported that the woman “had half an hour to pack and head to the airport for a new home in Cyprus” even though “she had sole custody of the children… as she feared her ex would ignore visiting rights rules”. The article described the former partner as abusive and said the woman had suffered “years of abuse”. It included quotes from the mother which stated he suffered from a named mental health condition and that she said the “problems started when her ex refused medication for his mental illness”. The article contained a quote from the woman who said “there were thre[e] times when he was physically violent and he was also verbally abusive. He made death threats towards me.” The article said the mother had “concerns her youngsters could be snatched from school”. Neither the woman, the father, nor the children were named or photographed in the article, but the number of children was referred to.

3. The complainant said that he was the father 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. He said that it was inaccurate to state that he had been abusive to his former partner; he said that he had never been violent towards the woman to whom he had not spoken or seen  in over ten years; nor had he been convicted of domestic abuse or violence. The complainant said he had full custody of the children from the day after the mother fled, and her custody had been removed several months previously, and therefore it was inaccurate to report that the mother had custody, or that he would ignore visiting rights. He also said that the family court had ruled that there was no risk of him trying to abduct the children, as reported.

4. The complainant also said a number of the quotes ascribed to the woman in the article were inaccurate. He said it was inaccurate to report that she had “half an hour to pack” as she had taken the children out of school the day before. He said that the quotes had not distinguished between comment and fact, and made the article unbalanced and biased.

5. The complainant also said that the article intruded into his and his children’s private lives. He said that the content of the article related to private family legal matters and that he believed that private court documents on which there were restrictions had been shared with the newspaper. He said that as there were reporting restrictions on these documents, he had an expectation of privacy over them and the information that they contained.

6. The complainant said that, whilst neither him nor his children were named, they were identifiable from the information contained in the article. He noted that the article accurately reported the number of children, as well as details of the family proceedings before the court, and the country of the abduction location, and the investigations which had been undertaken. He said he had been told that there was only one other case similar to his in Northern Cyprus by the UK Foreign Office and UK Embassy in Cyprus, and any other cases could be distinguished from his by their legal basis. He also considered that the reference to his mental health diagnosis, and the specific allegations which were the same as those heard in the court, 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.

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

8. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 12 as it named his mental health disorder and he believed it was being used as leverage within the article. He said that it demonstrated that the mother was using his condition throughout court proceedings to prevent access to his children, and the characterisation of him in the article as an abusive father with a mental health condition was prejudicial and pejorative in itself.

9. The publication noted that the complaint was made over eight months after the publication of the article, and that this delay, in addition to lockdown, 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.

10. 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 it had taken care not to report inaccurate information. It said that the journalist liaised with a campaigner, who put her in touch with a mother who she spoke to on the phone at various times over several months. It repeated that it was not able to say whether the complainant was the father 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.  It also said that the documents the complainant had supplied showed he had custody of his children as of January 2018. The publication said that as another article, by another publication, which the complainant had also said was about him, had stated the mother had fled “two years ago”. It said that this meant the mother would have left in November 2017, when she had custody, and therefore it was not inaccurate to report that the woman had concerns visiting rules would not be followed.

11. The publication said that the quotes from the mother were clearly distinguished as comment, either by being in quotation marks or by being prefaced by “she said” or “she claimed”.

12. The publication said that as neither the complainant nor his children were identifiable, there could be no breach of Clause 2 or 6 and emphasised that it would not confirm whether the complainant and his children were the subject of the article. It said that the average reader or member of the public would not be able to identify the complainant or his children from the information in the article. It noted that the complainant accepted there was at least one other case similar to his, and other cases of abduction that had a different legal basis, and that the specifics of these cases were not known to the general public. 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 to which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

13. The publication said that there was no breach of Clause 12 as the father’s mental health was relevant to the story, as the mother 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.

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

14. 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.

15. 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.

16. 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.

17. 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.

18.  The Committee found that the article had stated as fact that the man in the article had abused his ex-partner, and that he had been considered a risk of ignoring visiting rights and abducting his children. The publication said it had verified all the claims in the article and had set out the steps it had taken but could not share its research materials without compromising 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.

19. 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).

20. 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 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 of his children; the details of the proceedings before the court; and the allegations against him from his former partner 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 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 his 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.

21. 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.

22. Finally, the Committee considered the complaint under Clause 12. The article had described the complainant by reference to a 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)

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

Remedial Action Required

24. 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.

25. 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.

26. 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.

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

Following an article published on 16 November 2019 headlined "Domestic abuse victim fled country after ex granted access to kids” 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 express.co.uk to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.

The article reported on the experiences of an unnamed woman who “was forced to flee Britain with her […] children after fearing they would be abducted by their abusive” father. It reported that the woman “had half an hour to pack and head to the airport for a new home in Cyprus” even though “she had sole custody of the children… as she feared her ex would ignore visiting rights rules”. The article described the former partner as abusive and said the woman had suffered “years of abuse”. The article contained a quote from the woman who said “there were thre[e] times when he was physically violent and he was also verbally abusive. He made death threats towards me.” The article said the mother had “concerns her youngsters could be snatched from school”.

The complainant said that he was the ex-partner of one the women featured 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. He said that it was inaccurate to state that he had been abusive to his former partner. The complainant said he had full custody of the children from the day after the mother fled, and her custody had been removed several months previously, and therefore it was inaccurate to report that the mother had custody, or that he would ignore visiting rights. He also said that the family court had ruled that there was no risk of him trying to abduct the children, as reported.  The publication did not comment on whether the complainant was the ex-partner of the woman 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 he had been considered a risk of ignoring visiting rights and abducting his children, which the publication was not in a position to demonstrate as true. The publication said it had verified all 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 where the publication had failed to distinguish clearly between comment and fact there was a breach of Clause 1(iv).


Date complaint received: 05/07/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 08/08/2022