Ruling

12513-22 Muir v Paisley Daily Express

    • Date complaint received

      20th July 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 12513-22 Muir v Paisley Daily Express


Summary of Complaint

1. Michael Muir complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Paisley Daily Express breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “TEACHER'S YEAR-LONG CAMPAIGN OF ABUSE AGAINST EX / Teacher convicted of abusing ex-girlfriend given community order”, published on 11 November 2022.

2. The article – which began on page one of the newspaper, before continuing on to page four – reported on the complainant’s sentencing for a crime. It set out the details of allegations against the complaint, saying that he “bombarded his ex-girlfriend with abusive messages and followed her after their break-up”. It went on to report, on page four, that:

“[t]he charge states Muir engaged in a course of conduct which was the abuse of [his ex-partner]. It is stated Muir pushed her on the body and threw keys at her. Muir went on to remove her from a bed and uttered a threat of violence towards her. He also repeatedly walked past her and followed her to her friend’s and her own home address. The charge goes on to say Muir ‘persistently contacted [his ex-partner] and sent her messages of an abusive nature’. Muir was found guilty after trial at Glasgow Sheriff Court to the single charge.”

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “Paisley teacher sent former lover abusive messages and followed her after break-up”.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1; he first said that the article breached Clause 1 by implying that he had been found guilty of physical violence against his ex-partner, by way of its reference to pushing his ex-partner, removing her from a bed, and throwing keys at her. The complainant said that, while these allegations had appeared on the original charge, they had subsequently been deleted by the Sheriff after they did not find them to be credible. He said that these had not been heard in court at all, save that the prosecution had referred to the allegation concerning the keys which the Sherriff accepted did not happen. The complainant provided a letter from his solicitor to support his complaint; this letter said:

Essentially, you were convicted of engaging in a course of behaviour which was abusive of you partner or ex-partner […] in that you did repeatedly walk past her, follow her to her friend’s home address, follow her to her home address and persistently contact her and send her messages of an abusive nature. We can categorically confirm that the Sheriff deleted all the allegations that you had been violent to the complainer.”

The letter was accompanied by a copy of the charge; the charge had a number of deletions and additions. With the further additions and the deletions, the wording of the charge was:

[B]etween 1 June 2019 and 13 July 2020 both dates inclusive, at [several addresses], you MICHAEL MUIR did engage in a course of behaviour which was abusive of your partner or ex-partner […] in that you did (iii) repeatedly walk paste her, follow her to a friend’s home address and follow her to her home address (iv) persistently contact her and send messages of an abusive nature CONTRARY to the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, Section 1.”

5. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate because it did not include the Sheriff’s comment that his messages had been “diluted” by the “behaviour” of his ex-partner. The complainant set out the alleged behaviour, and said that this was context which should have been included in the article. The complainant further said that the article omitted to reference the fact that he had lodged an appeal against the sentence, in breach of Clause 1.

6. He then said that the use if the phrases “terrorised” and “bombarded” did “not reflect the truth of the matter”, as “there was a handful of messages sent during relationship and zero abusive messages after relationship ended”. He said that the headline’s reference to a “year-long campaign of abuse” was also inaccurate for this reason.

7. The publication did not accept that the article inaccurately reported on the offence for which the complainant had been charged. It said that, after setting out the wording of the charge and “the matters which supported it”, the article stated clearly that he had been found guilty of a “single charge” and that the complainant was not charged with a separate violent offence. While the publication agreed with the complainant’s position that the charge had been amended, it did not accept that the amended charge had omitted reference to the complainant “push[ing his ex-partner] on the body […] throwing keys at her [and] remov[ing] her from a bed”.

8. To support its position regarding the reporting of the complainant’s charge, the publication provided an email sent from the agency which provided the copy for the article, as well as the reporter’s notes – though the reporter’s notes did not reference the wording of the charge. The notes did contain the following exchange between the complainant’s legal representative and the Sheriff:

The complainant’s lawyer

“There was no doubt he was negatively effected [sic] by this relationship and behaved out of character. The persistent contact after the split was complimentary not threatening or abusive. He was going through a process of natural human emotion of leaving the relationship. […] I accept in certain circumstances perpetrating contact can be abusive but in this case it was very complimentary, it was reminiscing…”

The Sheriff

“I didn't find him law abiding, this was by my finding on the last occasion. He was largely a man who struggled to come to terms with the end of the relationship and moved on from that. I found the accused guilty of a case of domestic abuse conduct over the course in excess of a year. This wasn't a one off matter. Yes, there was context with the offending but the accused did behave in this manner and I found him guilty. This was sending abusive text messages, persistent contact following direction from the direction from the complainer not to contact her and following the complainer”.

9. The agency accepted that the charge “was indeed edited with things scored out and added in with the use of a pen. However, what has been reported on, is what remained on the charge i.e. what was not scored out.” The agency went on to say that it had checked the court minutes, and that they tallied with what was reported in the article.

10. After receiving a copy of the letter and charge from the complainant’s solicitor, the publication contacted the court to ask it to verify the final wording of the charge; the court verified, via email, that the following was the correct wording of the charge:

Between June 1 2019 and 13 July 2020 at [three addresses] you Michael Muir did engage in a course of behaviour which was abuse of your partner or ex-partner […] in that you did push her on the body, throw keys at her, attempt to forcibly remove her from a bed and utter a threat of violence towards her, repeatedly walk past her, follow her to her friend's home address and follow her to her home address, persistently contact her and send her messages of an abusive nature.

11. The publication did not accept that the article claimed the complainant had sent his ex-partner messages after the end of the relationship – therefore it did not consider the article contained an inaccuracy on this point.

12. The complainant said that, having discussed with his solicitor, there was no reference to “violent charges” in the court’s response because they had been removed completely rather than being “edited”. Towards the end of IPSO’s investigation, the complainant provided an email from the court which had been forwarded to him by his solicitor’s office. A large portion if the email was redacted; the portion of the email which was not redacted email as follows:

“’MICHAEL MUIR did engage in a course of behaviour which was abusive of your partner or ex-partner […] in that you did (iii) repeatedly walk past her, follow her to her friends home address amd [sic] follow her to her home address; (iv) persistently contact her and send her messages of an abusive nature

“CONTRARY to the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, Section 1’

“I trust this if [sic] help.

regards”

13. The publication said that this further email did not alter its position, and noted its concern that an email from the court would include a spelling error in the wording of the charge, and that the charge did not specify the dates and location of the offence – as would be expected.

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.

Findings of the Committee

14. Both the complainant and the publication had provided information from third-parties to support their respective positions regarding the charge: the complainant had provided a letter from his solicitor, which said that the charge as reported in the article was inaccurate, as well as a redacted email from the court which appeared to support his position; while the publication had also provided an email from the court itself, confirming that the charge as listed in the article was what had been given in the court minutes.

15. The Committee was not in a position to resolve this discrepancy. However, it noted that – under the terms of Clause 1 (i) – it is the responsibility of newspapers to take care over the accuracy of its articles. The publication had not been able to demonstrate that it had taken care over its reporting of the crime for which the complainant had been convicted, where the contemporaneous notes provided by the newspaper did not include any reference to the charges themselves. In addition, the article itself was ambiguous in its reporting of the charges faced by the complainant. Based on the material put before the Committee, and absent contemporaneous court notes showing what had been heard in court, the Committee considered that the publication had not been able to demonstrate care taken, and there was therefore a breach of Clause 1 (i).

16. Notwithstanding the fact the newspaper had not been able to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of the article, the Committee noted that there was contradictory information as to what had been heard in court in relation to the charge. The court had appeared to accept that the court minutes showed that the charge against the complainant explicitly included references to throwing keys, pushing the ex-partner on the body, and pushing her on the bed. However, the complainant’s solicitor had also provided a copy of an amended charge sheet which omitted these charges, and the complainant had provided a redacted email from the court which appeared to support his position as to what was put before the court. In such circumstances, the Committee did not consider that there was sufficient information to support a finding that the article was significantly inaccurate, distorted, or misleading in its reporting of the charge. It particularly considered this to be the case where the article did not outright state that the complainant had been convicted of a violent offence; rather, it reported that he “engaged in a course of conduct which was the abuse of” his ex-partner – which was not in dispute – and reported the Sheriff’s comment on the offence for which he had been convicted, namely “You sent abusive messages and kept persistent contact and followed her. I deem such conduct as criminal”. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii) on this point.

17. Newspapers are allowed to select material for publication, and to omit certain details from articles – provided that doing so does not render an article significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. Therefore, there was no obligation for the publication to include the Sheriff’s comment that the complainant’s messages had been “diluted” by the “behaviour” of his ex-partner, or that the complainant intended to appeal his sentence; these pieces of information did not materially affect the accuracy of the article, where the complainant had – regardless of any comments from the Sheriff and an intention to appeal the sentence – been found to have “engaged in a course of conduct which was the abuse of” his ex-partner. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. The complainant said that the article’s use of “terrorised” and “bombarded” was inaccurate. However, in circumstances where both parties accepted the complainant had been found guilty of abusing his ex-partner by way of following her, sending her abusive messages, and persistently contacting her, the Committee did not consider the use of the words “terrorised and bombarded” to be inaccurate – the behaviour was clearly unwelcome and had persisted for a year, according to the charge. Therefore, there was no breach of Clause 1.

19. The Committee accepted that the online headline’s reference to the complainant having “sent former lover abusive messages and followed her after break-up” could be understood to mean that the complainant had sent his ex-partner abusive messages after they ended their relationship. However, it did not accept that this was a significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted summary of the charge or what had been heard during court – regardless of whether the complainant considered the messages to be complimentary, the Sheriff had deemed them “abusive” and the complainant’s legal representative had referred to “persistent contact after the split”. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

20. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (i).

Remedial action required

21. 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.

22. The Committee considered that there had been a breach of Clause 1 (i); the publication was therefore required to remedy this breach. However, the Committee had not established that the breach had led to the publication of information that was significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. In such circumstances, the Committee considered that the publication of a correction to be the appropriate remedy. The wording of the correction should make clear that the complainant disputed that he had been charged with any offence relating to having: pushed his ex-partner on the body; threw keys at her; and removed her from a bed. The correction should make clear that it has been published following an upheld complaint. The wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

23. Where the information that raised a breach of Clause 1 (i) appeared on page of the print edition, the Committee considered that the appropriate placement for the print correction was on page four or further forward.

24. In relation to the online version of the article, the breach of Clause 1 (i) appeared in the text of the article. The appropriate location for the online correction, the Committee therefore considered, was as a footnote to the article.

 

Date complaint received:  16/11/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  22/06/2023

 

Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.