Ruling

12223-15 Proudman v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      4th April 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment

·   DDecision of the Complaints Committee 12223-15 Proudman v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. Charlotte Proudman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Barrister ‘reduced granny to tears with online rant’”, published on 12 September 2015.

2. About two days prior to publication of the article the complainant had been the subject of significant amounts of press coverage after she posted a message on Twitter that she had received from a male lawyer on social networking site Linked In. The article reported the views of a family member of the complainant, who said that she had greatly upset her grandmother - now deceased - a few years previously after she sent her a message saying that she did not want any contact with her or other members of her paternal family. The article appeared in substantially the same form online and in print.

3. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to report that she had told her grandmother that “none of [her paternal family] had achieved anything”. It was also inaccurate to say that “family members believe that her strident feminism may be inspired by the fact that her wealthy father had left her out of his will before he died when she was aged four”; it was impossible to claim with any truth or accuracy that her feminist views were inspired by one action that occurred when she was four years old, and in any case she had never discussed feminism with her father’s family. The complainant also believed that only one family member had spoken to the newspaper, and so the reference to “members” was inaccurate; the inaccuracy was significant as it gave the impression that multiple people shared the same views.

4. The complainant said that it was an intrusion into her privacy to publish information about the message between her and her grandmother. It had been a private message, the details of which had been relayed to the newspaper by a third party, and there was no public interest in publishing details of it. She also said that the fact that her family had challenged her father’s will and secured an amount of money to be left in trust for her was an intrusion into her privacy, and a breach of Clause 3.

5. The complainant said that she had received an email from the journalist at 8.02pm the evening before publication, in which he said that he wished to speak to her about a message she had sent to her grandmother: “I hoped you might comment about a message you sent to your paternal grandmother, Barbara Bailye, when she tried to contact you on Facebook about four years ago. It has been claimed that she was deeply hurt by the message in which you criticised her family and that you never made contact again. Could you explain the context of the message.” The complainant had been on a long-haul flight and so had not received the message for some time. The complainant said that she had not been given adequate notice to respond to the claims, or to raise concerns about the possible publication of private information.

6. The newspaper said that the complainant had been mentioned in thousands of articles since she had published the LinkedIn message, and that it was absurd to suggest that the claims reported in the article under complaint were so damaging that they should not have been published until or unless the complainant had answered the newspaper’s requests for comment. It said that it had accurately reported family speculation about the motivation for the complainant’s feminist views, and did not adopt it as true. It said that the journalist had spoken to two family members, and the published article quoted one of them; the reference to “members” was not inaccurate. It said that, while there was no obvious way to reconcile the differing accounts of the complainant and the family member quoted, it was happy to put the complainant’s position on record, and would have included her position in the article if she had responded prior to publication. In response to the complaint the newspaper offered to publish the following statement in its Corrections & Clarifications column, as well as adding it to the online version of the article:

“An article of 12 September 2015 reported claims about a communication sent by Charlotte Proudman to her paternal grandmother. Miss Proudman has informed us that she did not accuse her paternal family of having not ‘achieved anything’, and she believes the views expressed by the relative quoted in the article are shared by one estranged family member, not her whole family. She has also asked us to record that her feminism was not inspired by her deceased father’s estate being left to charity. We are happy to do so.”

7. The newspaper said that it had reported a third party’s brief summary of something the complainant had said; it had not quoted directly from the message itself, nor had it even seen it. The newspaper said that the complainant’s grandmother had been entitled to communicate her upset to family members, and those family members were entitled to talk about it to the newspaper. The newspaper did not believe that reporting the bare fact of a family dispute amounted to intrusion into the complainant’s private life, such as to engage Clause 3.

8. The newspaper said that it had disclosed no more than that the complainant’s family had “challenged [her father’s] will, securing some money for Charlotte to be left in trust until she was 18”. This information was not in itself particularly private or sensitive, and the article had not included the specific amount left to the complainant.

9. The journalist had tried to contact the complainant in advance, via two tweets and the email mentioned by the complainant. It said that when covering the initial story about the complainant’s posting of the Linked In message she had received, the journalist had found Twitter to be an effective means of contacting the complainant; she had responded to a request to call by telephoning the journalist within five minutes. When preparing the story under complaint the journalist had “tweeted” the complainant at 10.14am and 10.57am, asking her to call him “re Barbara Bailye”. Receiving no response, he followed up with the email of 8.02pm. The complainant did not recall promptly telephoning the journalist in relation to the initial story, and said that she had not seen the newspaper’s tweets as she was receiving a large number of tweets at the time.

10. The complainant asked that the article be removed from the newspaper’s website, and that the newspaper contact third-party websites which had republished it, requesting that those websites remove it also. She declined to resolve her complaint on the basis of the proposed clarification alone.

Relevant Code Provisions

11. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

iii) The press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 3 (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.

Findings of the Committee

12. The newspaper had relied on the account of a family member who had provided details of the message the complainant’s grandmother had received. While the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that she had not seen the tweets sent the morning before publication, the newspaper had attempted to contact her in advance - via both Twitter and email - in order to put the claims to her. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article.

13. Following publication the complainant disputed that she had accused her paternal father’s family of having not “achieved anything”. However, she did not dispute that she may have sent her grandmother a message which could have led to her being upset, and nor did she dispute that she may have told her grandmother that she wanted nothing to do with her father’s family. In this context, the Committee determined that the alleged inaccuracy identified by the complainant was not significant, and did not require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to put the complainant’s position on record.

14. The article had reported that “family members believe that her strident feminism may be inspired by the fact that her wealthy father had left her out of his will before he died when she was aged four.” The article had not presented this alleged motive for the complainant’s feminist beliefs as fact, and the complainant was not in a position to dispute that family members believed this to be the case. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. Further, the complainant’s belief that only one family member had spoken to the newspaper was speculation, and the newspaper maintained that two family members had been involved. The reference to “family members” in the article did not raise a breach of Clause 1.

15. The article had not included extracts or quotations from the message sent by the complainant, and the details published did not disclose any information about her which would be considered to be private. The complainant’s relative was entitled to speak to the press about the message, and to express their impression of the effects of the message on the complainant’s grandmother; publishing those details did not represent an unjustified intrusion into the complainant’s private life; it did not breach Clause 3.

16. The article had not disclosed the value of the trust fund that had been secured for the complainant. In general, the contents and value of a person’s will are a matter of public record. While the Committee understood that in this case the original will had been challenged, the fact that the complainant had a trust fund was not intrinsically private information, and the article did not breach Clause 3.

Conclusions

17. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 29/12/2015
Date decision issued: 04/04/2016