Ruling

12341-15 Clark v Whitstable Gazette

    • Date complaint received

      24th March 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 12341-15 Clark v Whitstable Gazette

Summary of complaint

1. Martin Clark complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Whitstable Gazette breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Drink driver caught with no clothes on”, published in print on 10 September 2015, and “Naked drink-driver Martin Clark, from Ramsgate, almost hit cyclist Whitstable High Street”, published online on 14 September 2015.

2. The front-page contained a summary of an article which appeared in full on page 7 with the headline “Drink driver was naked behind wheel of his car”. The article reported that the complainant had been convicted of outraging public decency and drink driving after he was seen driving his car erratically on a busy high street while naked. It quoted from the victim impact statement of a witness, read out in court, who said that she and her daughter had also seen the complainant masturbating in his car. It reported that the complainant had admitted outraging public decency and drink driving, but denied masturbating. The summary of the article on the front-page did not mention this allegation.

3. The online article was substantively similar to the print version, but it did not include any reference to the allegation that the complainant had been masturbating.

4. The complainant said that he attended court on 14 August to answer charges of drink driving and exposure. While he admitted the drink driving charge, and conceded he was naked at the time, he denied masturbating. However, he agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of outraging public decency for being seen naked in his car if the exposure charge in relation to the masturbation was withdrawn; he said that this offer was accepted by the prosecution in order to avoid a Newton hearing to establish the facts of the case prior to sentencing. The complainant said that when his sentencing hearing took place on 5 September, the prosecutor started to read out the victim impact statement of the witness who said she had seen him masturbating, but the court’s legal advisor reminded the prosecutor that particular charge had been withdrawn at court on 14 August. He said that the legal advisor had told the court, including the reporter present, that the details they had heard in relation to the allegation of masturbation should be disregarded.

5. The newspaper said that the prosecutor had read a victim impact statement in open court which referred to the complainant masturbating. It said that there was no order made directing its reporter not to report details of the victim impact statement. It said that after the prosecution had read the victim impact statement, the prosecutor said in open court that it had been decided, in order to save time and money, not to hold a Newton hearing to determine whether the complainant had been masturbating. It claimed that as a Newton hearing is a rarely used court process, its reporter did not fully understand the implication of this. It said that when the magistrates left the room to consider the complainant’s sentence, the reporter was advised by the court’s legal advisor to ensure that the complainant’s denial about masturbating was included in the article, which it was.

6. The newspaper provided the reporter’s notes from the hearing which included the advice given to the reporter by the legal advisor. The notes showed that the reporter had been told that the complainant had pleaded guilty to outraging public decency because he was naked in his car, and had denied masturbating in public. The legal advisor also advised that the complainant was being sentenced on that basis.

7. The newspaper said that when the complainant called its news desk on 10 September, it agreed as a gesture of goodwill to carry a clarification in its corrections and clarifications column on page 15 of the following week’s newspaper which said:

An article in last week’s Gazette reported that Martin Clark, 44, of Ramsgate, had pleaded guilty to outraging public decency and drink driving after he was found naked in his car in Whitstable High Street. A witness who reported Clark to the police alleged that he was pleasuring himself, something which he strongly denied. His account, namely that he was not pleasuring himself, was accepted by the prosecution and was sentenced by magistrates on that basis. We are happy to clarify this point.

8. The newspaper said the publication of the clarification in its established corrections and clarifications column, which had been in place since at least 2008, constituted due prominence in accordance with Clause 1(ii) of the Code. It said it also published an article online on 14 September – after the complainant had made contact – which reflected his version of events; it denied that the online article had ever reported that the complainant was accused of masturbating.

9. The complainant said that online article had been re-written to omit the masturbation allegation after he contacted the newspaper.

Relevant Code Provisions

10. 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. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.

Findings of the Committee

11. In the absence of any reporting restrictions at the sentencing hearing, the newspaper was entitled to report what had been said in open court; this remained the case even though a portion of the victim impact statement had been read in error.

12. The reporter’s notes, however, showed that the court’s legal advisor had explained that the complainant had pleaded guilty to outraging public decency on the basis that he was naked in public, not because he had been masturbating; the legal advisor made clear that he was being sentenced by the magistrates on that basis. This information was not reported in the article, which created the misleading impression that the complainant had been prosecuted and convicted in relation to the allegation of masturbation. This was significantly misleading; it was a more serious offence than those to which he pleaded guilty, and the reporting of it ignored the prosecution’s acceptance that this allegation should not form part of the case against him. Given that the reporter’s notes contained a clear note of the correct position as explained by the legal advisor, this represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate and misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i), and the omission was significantly misleading so as to require correction under Clause 1(ii).

13. On receipt of the complaint, the newspaper had published a clarification in its corrections and clarifications column, which made clear that the prosecution had accepted the complainant’s version of events. However, while the Committee welcomed the presence on the letters page of information about how to make a complaint, and acknowledged that the newspaper had acted in good faith in consistently using the same page for its corrections and clarifications column for a number of years, the Committee has made clear that in order for a corrections and clarifications column to be considered established, it needed to make readers aware where the column would ordinarily appear on weeks where there were no corrections or clarifications published. The newspaper did not publish such information and for this reason, the column was not considered to be established. In this case, given its position in the newspaper, the letters page was not an otherwise sufficiently prominent location for the clarification to have been published, since the article had appeared on page 7. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1(ii).

14. The newspaper had provided evidence that the online article was published on 14 September, which was after the complainant had made contact with the newspaper; the Committee was satisfied that it did not include reference to masturbation.

Conclusions

15. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

16. The Committee accepted that the original clarification had been published promptly and in good faith; the wording of the clarification recognised the inaccuracy. As such, it was satisfied that re-publication of the correction in an appropriate location would represent a sufficient remedy.

17. The newspaper was required to re-publish the correction either on page 7, where the article was originally published, or further forward in the newspaper. The correction should additionally state that it had been re-published following a ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

Date complaint received: 05/11/2015
Date decision issued: 03/03/2016