Ruling

13429-16 Turner v Get Surrey

    • Date complaint received

      11th May 2017

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 13429-16 Turner v Get Surrey

Summary of Complaint

1. Richard Turner, on behalf of Levi Bellfield (now known as Yusuf Rahim), complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Get Surrey breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Serial killer Levi Bellfield may have lied about other murders to hurt victims’ families”, published on 10 November 2016.

2. The article reported that Mr Bellfield was “feared to have lied about having other victims simply to hurt families grieving over unsolved cases”. It reported the comments of a retired detective who had helped put Mr Bellfield in prison who said “he likes this kind of attention, and to inflict pain on other people”. It said that last year Mr Bellfield told police “he was guilty of other crimes he was never charged with, then withdrew the claims”. It reported a statement from the police saying that there was no evidence to link him to any case for which he had not already been convicted, and said that “the ‘confessions’ came to light as Surrey Police interviewed Bellfield at Wakefield Prison over fears an accomplice assisted him in the abduction of Milly in 2002”.

3. The complainant said that Mr Bellfield had never confessed to other murders; he said that the police assumed that he may have been responsible for other unsolved murders, and began a number of investigations. He said that the reason why this claim had not been previously challenged by Mr Bellfield was because the initial report about the “confessions” went unnoticed by the family, who were under a lot of strain in relation to other publicity relating to Mr Bellfield. He provided press releases from the Metropolitan Police on the “alleged involvement of Levi Bellfield” in a number of serious crimes; however, he said that none of these press releases said that Mr Bellfield had confessed to these crimes.

4. The publication said that the article was primarily based on a press release from the Metropolitan Police which said that investigations into Mr Bellfield's involvement in other serious crimes had been closed. It said that the allegation that Mr Bellfield may have confessed to other crimes was based on information reported by The Times in January 2016, and on information provided by Surrey and Metropolitan Police at the same time. It said that the reporter contacted the Surrey police press office at that time, and asked specifically if Mr Bellfield had admitted to other murders; it said that he was told that Mr Bellfield had made a “number of admissions”. It said that the reporter then contacted the Metropolitan Police who provided a statement saying that it was “liaising with a number of other UK police forces in relation to information which has been passed onto us regarding a number of criminal investigations”.

5. The publication also highlighted a number of other articles which reported the “confessions”, and said that as far the publication was aware, the information had gone unchallenged. It said that on this basis, the newspaper was satisfied that the information was accurate. It said that Mr Bellfield was not contacted prior to publication as he was in prison at the time, and said that no attempt was made to contact Mr Bellfield's legal representative. Nonetheless, it said that it was happy to mark its internal content system with a message to make staff aware of the complaint, and to include the following clarification to the online article, and in the print edition:

We have since been contacted by the family of Levi Bellfield who have asked us to make clear that while Mr Bellfield was interviewed by police regarding other offences, he did not confess to any other crimes, nor subsequently deny them. We would like to clarify that the police statements on the matter said that all lines of enquiries regarding Mr Bellfield's involvement in additional crimes had been exhausted.

Relevant Code Provisions

6. 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.

Findings of the Committee

7. The fact that there had been a further police investigation, in January 2016, into allegations that Mr Bellfield had been involved in further offending was not disputed by the complainant. The existence of that investigation had been confirmed, on the record, by the Metropolitan Police, as had the fact that the investigation had subsequently been closed – a decision which formed the basis of the article under complaint.

8. In reporting that this investigation had resulted in Mr Bellfield having “confessed” to other murders, the newspaper had relied on the fact that this claim had been widely reported in January 2016, without challenge. Those earlier reports had attributed the claim to sources within the police, and newspaper explained that it had been told by Surrey police – having asked specifically if Mr Bellfield had “confessed” to other murders – that he had made a “number of admissions”.

9. The newspaper had not, in publishing the article under complaint, taken any additional steps to verify the accuracy of the claim that Mr Bellfield had “confessed”. Nonetheless, given that the allegation was a significant one, which had been widely reported, the Committee concluded that the newspaper was, in these particular circumstances, able to take account of the absence of any challenge by Mr Bellfield or his family to the accuracy of the earlier reports in taking the care required under Clause 1.

10. In coming to this view, the Committee acknowledged the difficulties faced by the newspaper in seeking additional information which could corroborate the “confessions”, given the nature of the police investigation and the fact that Mr Bellfield is in custody.

11. The Committee was therefore satisfied that, in republishing the claim, the newspaper had taken a reasonable level care over the accuracy of the material published, such that there was no breach of Clause 1 (i).

12. The Committee was not in a position to reach a finding as to whether or not Mr Bellfield had made any confession or admission in his interviews with police. In the circumstances, and in the absence of a breach of Clause 1 (i), it did not consider that a correction was required under Clause 1 (ii). Nonetheless, it welcomed the newspaper’s offer to put the complainant’s denial on record. It trusted that this would now be published, and that the newspaper would have regard for the fact that the complainant had now denied making any confession, when considering future coverage. The Committee noted that its decision on this complaint related to circumstances in which the newspaper had been unaware of the complainant’s denial.

13. The article did not suggest that Mr Bellfield was guilty of further offending, and the allegation that Mr Bellfield had “lied…to hurt families” was clearly presented as conjecture on the part of a retired police officer, who was not involved in the further investigation. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

14. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

15. N/A

Date complaint received: 21/11/2016
Date decision issued: 11/05/2017