Ruling

12028-22 Cook v northwichguardian.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      16th March 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock, 9 Reporting of crime

Findings of the Complaints Committee – 12028-22 Cook v northwichguardian.co.uk

Summary of Complaint


1. Judith Cook, complaining on behalf of herself as well as on behalf of her son, Matthew Cook, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Northwich Guardian breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), and Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles and social media post:

  • An online article headlined “Teen stabbed 18-year-old boy six times and shared sexual photos of girl”, published on 20 October 2022.
  • A Facebook post which said, “He has now been jailed” with the headline “Teen stabbed 18-year-old boy six times and shared sexual photos of girl” published on 20 October 2022.
  • An article headlined “Teen who stabbed 18-year-old boy is sent to custody”, published on 27 October 2022.

2. The article, which originally appeared online only, reported that Matthew Cook – the complainant’s son – had appeared at Chester Crown Court; the article included his street level address and stated that he had pleaded guilty to “wounding with intent, possession of a knife and also disclosing private, sexual photographs”. It also stated that he had been jailed after “stabbing an 18-year-old boy six times”. The article went on to state when the incident had occurred and describe the complainant as having “’maliciously’ stabbed the 18-year-old”.

3. The article also appeared on the publication’s Facebook page, accompanied by the caption: “He has now been jailed”. The headline appeared on Facebook as “Teen stabbed 18-year-old boy six times and shared sexual photos of girl”.

4. The publication also published a print version of the article which was headlined “Teen who stabbed 18-year-old boy is sent to custody” on 27 October 2022; this article was published after the complainant complained directly to the publication.

5. The complainant said that the online article and Facebook post were inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1. She said that the victim had not been stabbed six times and that the incident had not been “malicious” as it had been described in the online article. She said that the victim had been stabbed three times and that this had been done in self-defence; and that her son had not been the aggressor in the situation.

6. The complainant said that both versions of the article had also breached Clause 2 as they included her family’s address where her son had previously resided. She said that, while she understood that the disclosure of addresses was allowed, the crime had been committed while he was a youth. She said that including their address was unhelpful to his family who were still residing at the address, and had caused them a number of issues including threats, and abuse which she considered would endanger their lives. ­­She also said that the article and Facebook post breached Clause 4 as it had caused the family much distress and upset, particularly as the online version of article contained inaccuracies and both versions included their home address.

7. The complainant also said that the article and Facebook post had breached Clause 9 as they had contained inaccuracies, were unbalanced, and caused distress to the family.

8. Prior to making a complaint to IPSO, the complainant had contacted the publication directly to explain that the victim had been stabbed three times and her son had not been found with a knife. She requested that the online article and any social media versions of be corrected. In response, the publication said that the information relating to the number of times the boy had been stabbed had come from the police, who had subsequently confirmed the information they provided was incorrect. The publication amended the article to reflect the correct position on 21 October 2022 – the day after the article’s initial publication – and apologised to the family for any upset caused by the error. It published an amended version of the article in print on 27 October 2022, headlined “Teen who stabbed 18-year-old boy is sent to custody”; this version of the article did not include the above alleged inaccuracies.

9. The publication accepted that the article inaccurately claimed that the boy had been stabbed six times, however it did not accept that this amounted to a significant inaccuracy – though it did once again apologise to the complainant’s family for any distress caused. It said that the complainant had stabbed his victim several times and pleaded guilty to “unlawfully and maliciously wounding his victim with intent to do him grievous bodily harm”. The publication said that the information had been provided by the Cheshire Police Press Office over the phone, who had said that there were six stab wounds when, in fact, there had only been three. On 21 October, once it had been made aware of the inaccuracy it contacted the police who confirmed they had made an error while relaying the information over the phone. During the IPSO investigation the Police confirmed that a Senior Communications Officer had made an error due to the wording of the incident on the log sheet. The log sheet read: “3 wounds on his torso, one at the bottom of his left abdomen and 2 at the upper right side of his chest”, which he had interpreted as six wounds in total, rather than three with their specified locations.

10. The publication said it had used the information provided by the police in good faith and provided correspondence from Cheshire Police to support its position. Further, it said that it had taken immediate steps to verify the information and amend the article once it had been made aware of the inaccuracy. It noted that it had also added a footnote clarification to the article on 21 October 2022, stating:

Editor’s note: This article originally incorrectly stated Matthew Cook had stabbed his victim six times and had been found with a knife on his arrest. This was based on information provided to us by official sources and used in good faith. Once we were made aware of the inaccurate information the article was updated accordingly with the correct details, however we would like to apologise for any offence or distress this may have caused.

11. On 9 December, the publication further offered to publish the editors’ note on Facebook, as a pinned comment on the original post. On 16 December 2022, the publication further amended the footnote note on the online article to state:

Editor's note: This article originally incorrectly stated Matthew Cook had stabbed his victim six times and had been found with a knife on his arrest. In fact Cook had stabbed his victim three times and the knife was later handed in to police. The initial article was based on information provided to us by official sources and used in good faith. Once we were made aware of the inaccurate information the article was updated accordingly with the correct details, however we would like to apologise for any offence or distress this has caused.

12. In relation to the complainant’s concerns about the article’s use of the word “malicious”, the publication said that the complainant had pleaded guilty to “unlawfully and maliciously wounding his victim with intent to do him grievous bodily harm”; it provided the court register which listed this as the charge to which the complainant had pled guilty.

13. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 2, Clause 4, and Clause 9. It said that the press is legally entitled to report on court hearings and publish details such as a defendant’s address.

Relevant Clause 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 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

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

14. The publication had said that Cheshire Police had provided it with the incorrect information that the victim had been stabbed six times; it said it had used this information in good faith. The Committee noted that at the time of publication, there was nothing to suggest that the information provided by the police was inaccurate, nor could the publication reasonably have been aware that it was. In this instance, the Committee was satisfied that the publication was entitled to rely on the information provided by the police, and that doing so did not represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the online version of the article and the Facebook post. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point.

15. In circumstances where it was not in dispute that the article and Facebook post had included inaccurate information regarding the number of times the victim was stabbed, the Committee next turned to whether the inaccuracy was significant and required correction in line with Clause 1 (ii). The Committee noted that the complainant had pleaded guilty to “unlawfully and maliciously wounding his victim with intent to do him grievous bodily harm” and that it was not in dispute that he had stabbed the victim a number of times: three. Taking this into account, it was the Committee’s view that the difference between three stab wounds as opposed to six was not so significant as to warrant a correction; it did not meaningfully misrepresent the nature of the incident. However, the Committee welcomed the steps the publication had taken to correct the inaccurate information and amend the article promptly. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

16. The complainant had said that the incident had not been committed “’maliciously’” and that this characterisation was inaccurate and it did not reflect that her son had been acting in self-defence. The Committee noted that the charge the complainant had pleaded guilty to contained the phrase “maliciously wounding [the] victim”, and that the phrase “’maliciously’” was in inverted commas in the article, indicating that it was taken from the charge sheet. It was not inaccurate or misleading for the article to have included this word, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The complainant believed that the omission of her son’s position that he had been acting in self-defence made the article misleading in breach of Clause 1.  The Committee noted that the complainant’s son had pleaded guilty to “unlawfully and maliciously wounding his victim with intent to do him grievous bodily harm” and this was also supported by the charge sheet the publication had provided. Newspapers have the right to choose which pieces of information they publish, as long as this does not lead to a breach of the Code. In this case, the article had accurately recorded the complainant’s son’s plea and the offence for which he was convicted. Therefore, it was not inaccurate or misleading for the article to omit her son’s position that he had been “acting in self-defence”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. The complainant said that the article had also breached Clause 2 as it had included her family’s address where her son previously resided. The Committee were sorry to learn that the complainant and her family had been receiving threats and abuse.  However, the address had been disclosed in open court and was not subject to a reporting restriction. The Committee also noted that the publication of a street address helps to accurately identify defendants; for example to reduce the chance of others with the same name being mistaken for them. In these circumstances, the article was entitled to include the address, and this did not amount to a disclosure of private information about the complainant and their family’s private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.

19. The Committee next turned to the complainant’s concerns in relation to Clause 4. The Committee noted that, unless there are restrictions on reporting imposed by the court, court proceedings are public, and newspapers are permitted to report on them – this right is explicitly protected by the terms of this Clause. The Committee acknowledged that the publication of the article had been distressing for the complainant’s family, however the publication were entitled to report on court proceedings and doing so did not represent a breach of Clause 4.

20. The complainant had also complained under Clause 9 on the grounds that it contained inaccuracies, was unbalanced, and caused distress to his family. Clause 9 is designed to prevent friends and family of those convicted of crime being identified unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.  As the article did not identify the complainant’s family, this Clause was not engaged.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

22. N/A


Date complaint received:  23/10/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  24/02/2023