Ruling

17394-17 Bramwell v Express & Star

    • Date complaint received

      19th December 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee 17394-17 Bramwell v Express & Star

Summary of complaint

1.    A family member of Oliver Bramwell complained on his own behalf, and on behalf of Mr Bramwell that the Express & Star breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published on the newspaper’s website on 4 August 2017. 

2.    The article, which was headlined “Cavalry trooper guilty of supplying drug that cost life of Wolverhampton best friend”, reported that Oliver Bramwell had been convicted of supplying cocaine to a friend. The article did not name the complainant, Mr Bramwell’s close family member, but in the opening sentence, it specified his relationship to Mr Bramwell, and gave his job. The article reported Mr Bramwell’s street level address.

3.    The complainant said that the article reporting that Mr Bramwell had been convicted of supplying drugs was published at 10:30am, three and a half hours before the jury returned a unanimous verdict that he was not guilty, at 1pm that day. He said that the article was therefore entirely inaccurate. The complainant said that the article was seen by a number of people, and that even after it was removed from the newspaper’s website, it appeared in Google search results with the inaccurate headline for over a week.  

4.    The complainant said that although he was not named in the article, by specifying his distinctive job, and his relationship to Mr Bramwell, he was identified. He said that the article’s reference to him was a breach of Clause 2 and Clause 9, as he had no relevance to the story, having never been involved in the court proceedings in any way. He was concerned that by referencing him, the article exposed him to a risk of attack; a risk he believed was heightened because of the nature of his work. The complainant was concerned that the article contained Mr Bramwell’s street level address.

5.    The newspaper accepted that the article was inaccurate. It explained that a “holding piece” written ahead of the jury’s verdict had been accidentally published onto the site in a very unfortunate human error. It said that the article was not visible on the homepage of the site, that it was not promoted on social media, and that as soon as the mistake was realised, it was taken down, four hours after first publication. It said that at this point, the article was invisible for the vast majority of browsers, but that it contacted its internet hosts in the USA to ensure it was fully cleared from the last few servers by 2:49pm on the day of publication.  It said that the correct version of the article, stating that the defendant had been cleared, was published as the lead story on the homepage, on the same day, accompanied by a footnote noting the inaccurate first version of the article.

6.    The newspaper said it repeatedly asked for Google to speed up removal of the old version of the article from its search results, including contacting them by the online action form, by email, and by telephone. It said that while it remained in search results on 11 August, its continued requests for removal were met with an error message, saying that it had already been removed. The newspaper said that on the same day the article was published, it made a change so that anybody clicking on the search result on the earlier article would be directed to the article reporting Mr Bramwell’s acquittal.

7.    The newspaper said that the defendant’s address was provided by the clerk of the court, from the court papers. In response to the complaint under Clause 9, the newspaper apologised for the reference to the complainant, and accepted that there was no wider public interest to justify this. The newspaper offered its apologies to the complainant in correspondence. It also offered to publish an apology on the homepage of its website, and while the article did not appear in the print edition of the newspaper, it offered to publish the apology in the print edition as well. It said that further training would be given to ensure that the same mistake did not happen again, and that new systems were in place to prevent any repeat.

Relevant Code provisions 

8.    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.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Clause 2 (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. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. 

Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime)

i) Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story. 

Findings of the Committee 

9.    The publication of a court report before the jury had reached its verdict, wrongly reporting that a defendant had been convicted of criminal offence, was a serious failure. The article had been published online by accident. However, this did not reduce the seriousness of the breach, indeed it underlined the critical importance of establishing and implementing systems that acknowledge and address the risk of such an event. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (i). 

10. The newspaper quickly realised the gravity of the error, and took steps to remedy the mistake, including prompt removal of the article, and publication of an article reporting Mr Bramwell’s acquittal on the same day. It was unfortunate that the inaccurate headline persisted in appearing in Google search results, and the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s efforts to speed up the process of these being removed. It also welcomed the newspaper taking action to direct readers clicking on the links to the article reporting Mr Bramwell’s acquittal. The newspaper’s offer to publish an apology was clearly appropriate in this case. While the article had not appeared on the homepage, it was appropriate for the newspaper to offer to publish the apology on its homepage given the seriousness of the inaccuracy. This was sufficient action to correct the inaccuracy, and there was no breach of Clause 1 (ii). 

11. Clause 9 of the Code provides specific protection to relatives and friends of those accused or convicted of crime from identification, where they are not genuinely relevant to the story. However, the Committee noted that in a report such as the article under complaint, which may contain detail about the background of the accused, family members or friends may well be identifiable to those who know of the family or chose to seek out further information, even if they are not explicitly identified. However, there is a public interest in reporting on the background of those accused of crime. Such reporting assists our understanding of the context in which crime takes place, including the circumstances of the defendant. The terms of Clause 9, and what constitutes identification for the purposes of this Clause, should not be interpreted so broadly as to unduly restrict the reporting of broader circumstances which have led to a crime being potentially committed. 

12. The Committee recognised that the complainant may have been identifiable from the brief reference to his occupation and relationship with Mr Bramwell, to readers who were already aware of the family or sought additional information, even though he was not named. The Committee made clear that “identification” under the terms of Clause 9 is not limited to cases where a person is identified by name. However, in this case, where the article simply noted the complainant’s relationship to Mr Bramwell and occupation, and did not otherwise focus on this relationship, the information contained in the article was not sufficient to represent identification under the terms of this Clause. The terms of Clause 9 were not engaged. 

13. The newspaper had simply reported Mr Bramwell’s street level address, as it had been given in open court proceedings. The newspaper was entitled to report this information in accordance with the principle of open justice, and the Committee noted that reporting this information contributes to the accurate identification of the defendant. The Committee did not find a failure to respect the privacy of either Mr Bramwell or the complainant, and there was no breach of Clause 2. 

Conclusions 

14. The complaint was upheld 

Remedial Action Required 

15. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1, the Committee considered the remedial action that should be required. 

16. The newspaper had complied with its obligation to correct significant inaccuracies, but given the seriousness of the breach of Clause 1 (i), the appropriate remedy was publication of the Committee’s adjudication. The Committee recognised that the article had not appeared on the newspaper’s homepage, but considered that publication of the adjudication on the newspaper’s website, without a link appearing on the homepage, would not be an effective remedy to the breach of the Code. The Committee therefore required the newspaper to publish the adjudication on its website, with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing on the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against The Express & Star, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance. 

17. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:  

Oliver Bramwell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, via a representative, that the Express & Star breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published on the newspaper’s website on 4 August 2017.  

The article, which was headlined “Cavalry trooper guilty of supplying drug that cost life of Wolverhampton best friend”, reported that the complainant had been convicted of supplying cocaine to a friend. 

The complainant said that the article had been published three and a half hours before the jury returned a unanimous verdict that he was not guilty. He said that the article was therefore entirely inaccurate. The complainant said that the article was seen by a number of people, and that even after it was removed from the newspaper’s website, it appeared in Google search results with the inaccurate headline for over a week. 

The newspaper accepted that the article was inaccurate. It explained that a “holding piece” written ahead of the jury’s verdict had been accidentally published onto the site in a very unfortunate human error. It said that the correct version of the article, stating that the defendant had been cleared, was published as the lead story on the homepage, on the same day. 

IPSO’s Complaints Committee found that publication of a court report before the jury had reached its verdict, wrongly reporting that a defendant had been convicted of criminal offence, was a serious failure. The article had been published online by accident. However, this did not reduce the seriousness of the breach, indeed it underlined the critical importance of establishing and implementing systems that acknowledge and address the risk of such an event. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (i). 

The Committee welcomed the steps the newspaper took to address the error, but the complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.  

The Committee required publication of this ruling as remedial action for the breach.  

Date complaint received: 07/08/2017

Date decision issued:  23/11/2017