Ruling

13042-22 Muir v Barrhead News

    • Date complaint received

      20th July 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 13042-22 Muir v Barrhead News


Summary of Complaint

1. Michael Muir complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Barrhead News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Teacher found guilty of domestic abuse following ‘toxic’ relationship”, published on 16 November 2022.

2. The article reported on the complainant’s sentencing, reporting that he “ended up with a criminal record after he bombarded his former lover with abusive messages and followed her.” It went to say that the complainant:

“…sent texts and a letter to the woman after the end of their ‘toxic’ relationship. Glasgow Sheriff Court heard how 35-year-old Muir also pushed her and threw keys at her, as well as removing her from a bed and threatening her with violence. Muir also repeatedly walked past the victim and followed her to her home, as well as a friend’s house. He was found guilty after trial of a single charge which also states that he ‘persistently contacted the victim and sent her messages of an abusive nature’.”

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “Teacher Michael Muir bombarded ex with abusive texts”.

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 in his case had referred to the allegation concerning the keys which the Sherriff accepted did not happen.

5. During IPSO’s investigation, 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 as follows:

[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 past 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.”

6. 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.

7. He then said that the use of the phrase “bombarded” did “not reflect the truth of the matter”, as “there was a handful of messages sent during the relationship and zero abusive messages after relationship ended”.

8. The publication did not accept that the article breached the Code, first noting its position that the article was a fair and accurate account of the case against the complainant. Turning to the specific inaccuracies alleged by the complainant, the publication said that – while some parts of the charge had been altered and deleted – the only details included in the article were what remained as part of the charge. It also provided what it said was the precise wording of the charge after amendments; it said it was not authorised to provide a copy of the final charge sheet:

“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.”

9. However, “in an effort to bring th[e] matter to a conclusion”, the publication removed the references to the complainant having pushed his ex-partner on the body, thrown keys at her, and attempted to forcibly remove her from a bed from the online version of the article.

10. After having received a copy of the letter from the complainant’s solicitor during IPSO’s investigation, the publication proposed to publish the following clarification in its print edition on the same page as where the original article appeared:

“In a previous edition of The Gazette (November 16, 2022), we published details of Michael Muir's conviction for an offence under Section 1 of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018. We have since been asked to clarify that elements of the original charge specifically those which stated that Mr Muir pushed his victim, threw keys at her, removed her from a bed and threatened her with violence were deleted before he was found guilty. We are happy to make this clarification.”

11. The publication said that it would not add a clarification to the online version of the article, where the disputed parts of the charge had been removed from the article.

12. It also said that it stood by its description of the complainant having “bombarded” his ex-partner, where he had been convicted of having "persistently contacted [the victim] and sent her messages of an abusive nature”. To support its position on this point, the publication provided a transcript of the reporter’s notes from the sentencing. These notes included the following quote from the complainant’s lawyer: “In this case, as far as messages are concerned, the messages he was convicted [of] were sent over a period of time on multiple occasions. Beyond these messages there was contact sending the letter, which was sent after communication from the complainer saying she didn't want contact from him.”

13. The publication then said that it was not standard practice to refer to whether or not an appeal will later be lodged in the context of a sentencing report – which is what the article under complaint was. It noted that it was not aware, at the time of the article’s publication, that the complainant intended to appeal his conviction.

14. During the IPSO process, another publication provided an email from the court, which it said verified 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.

15. 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 of the email was redacted; the portion of the email which was not redacted said 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”

16. The publication said that the further email did not change their position; the press agency had maintained that the article accurately reported the complainant’s charge and it had – at any rate – removed the disputed parts of the charge from the online version of the article early in the IPSO process.

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

17. There were a number of points of dispute in this complaint with regard to what the final charge against the complainant comprised of. The Committee was not in a position to resolve these discrepancies between the respective positions of the complainant and the publication. 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 the charge 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 over the accuracy of the article on this point, and there was therefore a breach of Clause 1 (i).

18. 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 expressly 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 on this point.

19. 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 guilty. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The complainant said that the article’s use of the word “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.

Conclusions

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

Remedial action required

22. With regard to the print version of the article, the correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.

23. Turning to the online version of the article, the Committee noted that the newspaper had not published a correction, as the disputed information was removed from the article soon after the publication was made aware of the complainant’s position. However, where the terms of Clause 1 (i) had been breached, the publication was required to remedy the breach – regardless of whether the disputed information was subsequently removed from the article.

24. 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.

25. 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 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