Ruling

11860-21 Currie v dailyrecord.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      15th September 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11860-21 Currie v dailyrecord.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Louise Currie complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that dailyrecord.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Scots thug dragged wife out bed and battered her after thousands vanished from his account”, published on 17th November 2021.

2. The online article reported that a man had been spared jail after admitting to assaulting his wife to her injury and committing a statutory breach of the peace. The article stated that the man had attacked “his wife who kept his books, after finding thousands of pounds were missing from his account”, which it described as his “business account”. It said that the man “flew into a rage after realising there was only £1800 left in his business account when he had expected there to be £8000”. It stated that it was heard in court that he had found out that HMRC were “chasing him for a £5,000 tax bill”, and that on the day of the incident he had tried to access his online banking but was unable to, and that “[h]e asked his wife for the password, and advises that she had actually closed all the windows in the house prior to giving him it, in anticipation that there would be an argument”. It went on to state that the solicitor had said that “[e]ssentially his wife was in control of the finances for the family, and also did Mr Currie's books”. The article went on to describe the incident and said that he called his wife a “cheat” and launched a prolonged assault on her in the early hours of the morning after they had friends round. It also stated that it had been heard in court that a “boy was in the room while the assault was going on”, including his age, and that the attack on the woman had left her with "reddening and bruising".

3. The complainant, the woman named in the article, said that the article contained a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. While she was not present at court, she said that the money referenced in the article had been in a joint savings account not a business account. She added that describing the money as having gone “missing” from her husband’s business account implied that she had been spending his money without his knowledge. She also said that it was inaccurate to state that she kept her husband’s books as he was employed and therefore there were no books to keep. Regarding the online banking, the complainant said that she had not changed the password, but rather that he had had a new phone and was unable to log in without verifying the device. The complainant said that the article was further inaccurate to state that HMRC were “chasing him for a £5,000 tax bill” as the £5,000 referenced was actually a tax refund rather than a bill. The complainant said that the article also inaccurately described the events leading up to the incident: she said that they had not had friends round; instead she had been out with friends before returning home, where her partner was already intoxicated. Further, she did not close the windows prior to the argument starting. In addition, the complainant said that the article inaccurately described her as “cheat”, which was not the case.

4. The complainant also said that the article had omitted to mention some details, in breach of Clause 1, which she considered minimised the events and excused her husband’s behaviour. She was concerned that the article said only that she was “reddened and bruised”, but failed to mention that she was cut, swollen, and had sustained a broken nose. She also said that the article had stated that a child had witnessed “some” of the events but did not make clear that they had seen the whole incident. In addition, the complainant said that the article had omitted to mention: that her husband had also faced another charge but this had later been dropped; that he had physically assaulted her on another occasion; that they had not spoken for two weeks prior to the incident described in the article; and that it omitted to include all the detail and extent of the attack she faced.

5. The complainant said there had been a further breach of Clause 2, as she believed that the intrusion into her and her children’s private life had not been considered. She also considered that there had been a breach of Clause 9 as she believed the article identified both her and the child who had been present, who was not relevant to the story.

6. In addition, the complainant also expressed general concerns about the article and its headline; she considered that the headline and article sought to blame her for the events and cast her as a “villain”, contrary to guidance linked to on IPSO’s website.

7. On receipt of the complaint, the publication acknowledged the complainant’s concern that coverage of domestic abuse should not be framed in a way that implies that victims of abuse are to blame. It accepted that it had made mistakes in the handling of the story and said that lessons had been learned from this case about how to handle these issues in future. It also removed the article on receipt of the complaint as a gesture of goodwill to the complainant and apologised to her for any distress caused by the article.

8. However, it did not accept a breach of Clause 1, because it maintained that the account of the court proceedings contained within the article was accurate; it noted that the reporter had taken contemporaneous shorthand notes and provided a copy and transcript of the notes.

9. The publication said that while it did not consider it a point of significance, it was satisfied that it had been heard in court that the man’s account was used for his business, and that the notes showed it was referred to as “his” account and “his online banking”. It also said that the reporter’s notes contained a reference to an “inland revenue bill” and that “HMRC were chasing [the man] for £5,000”. The publication also said that the quote - “[h]e asked his wife for the password and advises that she had actually closed all the windows in the house prior to giving him it, in anticipation that there would be an argument”, and the quote containing the word “cheat” were both verbatim quotes from the court proceedings, which could be seen in the reporter’s notes. The notes also contained a reference to the complainant doing her husband’s “books”. The publication went on to state that the article stated that “[t]he court heard that a ... boy was in the room while the assault was going on”, not that he had witnessed “some” of the events. The publication further highlighted that the reporter’s notes showed it had been heard in court that there had been friends round.

10. In relation to the complainant’s concerns about the omission of certain details she considered relevant, the publication expressed its regret for any offence or upset caused by the article; however, it did not accept that the omission of any of the details the complainant mentioned rendered the article inaccurate or misleading.

11. The publication said that Clause 2 and Clause 9 had not been breached; in relation to Clause 2 it said that the information included in the article was heard in open court, and the complainant was named in the assault charge and several times throughout the hearing. It further said that the children concerned were mentioned and named in court and highlighted that they were not named in the story. The publication also said that with regard to Clause 9, the complainant was genuinely relevant to the story, and that although it did not consider the article identified any children, they were also genuinely relevant.

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 their 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 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

12. The Committee first recognised the distress caused by the article; the matters discussed in the article were highly sensitive and the coverage had evidently caused significant upset. It welcomed the publication’s acknowledgment of the complainant’s concerns of the handling of the article and its intention to learn lessons from the complaint.

13. The Committee’s role was to consider the complaint as framed under the Editors’ Code of Practice. It noted that the article was a report of the court proceedings, at which the complainant had not been present. The complainant disputed that the information heard in court was accurate, but the publication’s obligation was to give an accurate account of the evidence and submissions which had been heard and it was not responsible for the accuracy of the information itself.

14. The Committee first considered the complaint about the accuracy of the account reported in the article about the events leading up to the incident. The publication had provided contemporaneous shorthand notes taken during the court proceedings and a transcript of the notes. The complainant had said that it was inaccurate to describe the bank account at the centre of the case as a “business account”, as it was a joint savings account. The reporter’s notes recorded that the account had been described in court as “his [the husband’s] account” and “his online banking”; however, the notes did not record that the account had been described as a “business account”. Where the publication was not able to demonstrate that the account was a “business account”, this represented a failure to take care and raised a breach of Clause 1 (i). It was the Committee’s view that in circumstances where the complainant was also described as having “kept the books” and where the money was described as having gone “missing”, this implied an allegation that the complainant had mishandled money held by her husband separately in an account associated with a business purpose. In the view of the Committee, the distinction between a business account and any other account was of particular significance, given that it was being presented as part of a chain of events that had ended with the assault on the complainant. Given the serious nature of the article and the fact the claim had appeared in the sub-headline, the Committee considered that the description of the account as a “business account” was significant and required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The publication had not offered to publish any corrective action on this point, and so there was a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

15. The journalist’s contemporaneous notes recorded that it had been heard in court that: HMRC were “chasing” the man for £5,000; that, according to the defendant’s solicitor, “[h]e asked his wife for the password, and advises that she had actually closed all the windows in the house prior to giving him it, in anticipation that there would be an argument”; that the defendant had called the complainant a “cheat”; that the complainant had done her husband’s “books”; and that a child was present during the assault. In light of the content of the notes, the Committee was satisfied that the publication had been able to demonstrate that it had taken care to accurately report what had been heard in court in relation to each of the above points; there was no breach of Clause 1(i).

16. The complainant also said that she and the defendant had not had friends round prior to the incident and instead that she had been out with friends before returning home. The reporter’s notes recorded that it had been heard in court that “two witnesses arrived at the locus” and that “[t]hey had friends round and they were still there”. The notes indicated that the publication had taken care to report what had been heard in court on this point and there was no breach of Clause 1.

17. The Committee next turned to the complainant’s concerns that the article had omitted to mention certain details and that this had minimised the gravity of the incident and excused her husband’s behaviour. While the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concerns, its role was to determine whether the omission of certain details had rendered the article significantly inaccurate, misleading or distorted. The complainant had said that her husband had initially faced another charge, but this charge had been dropped. In circumstances where the article was reporting on the sentencing of the defendant for the offences for which he had been convicted, there was no requirement for the publication to include details of the previous charge; this omission did not make the article inaccurate or misleading as an account of the sentencing hearing.

18. The Committee noted that articles are, by their nature, a summary of what is heard in court; there is no obligation for publications to include every detail, and not doing so does not, in and of itself, represent a significant inaccuracy. The complainant had also said that the article did not describe the extent of the attack or her injuries. The article had described the incident as a “prolonged assault”, detailed some of the ways the complainant had been assaulted, and included some details of the complainant’s injuries. While the Committee acknowledged the importance of communicating the gravity of the incident, it did not consider that the omission of these further details made the article significantly inaccurate, where it made clear that this was a violent attack that had left the complainant injured and accurately reported on the nature of the conviction and sentence imposed. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The complainant further said that the article omitted to mention her claim that her husband had assaulted her previously, and that she and her husband had not spoken for two weeks prior to the incident described in the article. While the Committee recognised that these points were of significance to the complainant, it did not consider that they were significant in the context of the overall article in circumstances where the article was a report of a court case about the specific offence for which the defendant was convicted. In addition, the Committee noted that it could not be established whether this information had been heard in court. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

20. While the Committee understood that it was distressing for the complainant to read the article and it acknowledged its impact, the information included in the article had been made public in court. The publication was entitled to report on the information heard during court proceedings, as it had been placed in the public domain. There was no breach of Clause 2.

21. Clause 9 prevents the identification of relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime in circumstances where they are not genuinely relevant to the story. The complainant and the child were both referenced in the court proceedings, as demonstrated by the reporter’s notes; in these circumstances, the Committee considered they were both genuinely relevant to the story. There was no breach of Clause 9.

Conclusions

22. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

23. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, 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 an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

24. The Committee found that the publication was unable to demonstrate that it had taken care over aspects of the article, as required by Clause 1(i). The article had given the misleading impression that the complainant had played a part in the disappearance of her husband’s money, and this was significant given that the article reported on court proceedings. The Committee noted the importance of accurately reporting on court proceedings, particularly when the proceedings in question related to a serious incident, such as domestic violence. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record. A correction was considered to be sufficient given that the misleading information, while significant to warrant correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii) did not render the substance of the article inaccurate or misleading; the article accurately reported what offence for which the man was convicted, and the sentence he had received.

25. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. As the article had been taken down, a standalone correction should be published on the homepage for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position should be agreed with IPSO in advance and the wording of the correction should include information to correct the misleading information: that contrary to the article, it had not been heard in court that the money the complainant’s husband believed was missing had been in his “business account”.

 

Date complaint received: 18/11/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 20/07/2022