Ruling

18263-23 Wilson v Sunday Mail

    • Date complaint received

      7th December 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock, 6 Children

Decision of the Complaints Committee 18263-23 Wilson v Sunday Mail

Summary of Complaint

1. Pauline Wilson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Sunday Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Murdering love cheat launches bid for freedom”, published on 23 April 2023.

2. The complainant is the mother of Lauren Wilson, who was murdered in May 2021. The article reported that the man convicted of her murder had instructed his “legal team to challenge both his conviction and sentence”. The headline of the article – which appeared on page 31 of the newspaper – was followed by the sub-heading: “Appeal against conviction”. The article reported that a “man jailed for killing a woman his wife suspected he was having an affair with is to appeal against his conviction”. The article then stated the “Crown Office has confirmed his appeal bid was lodged at the High Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh and a hearing will take place at a later date”.

3. The article continued by reporting on the details of the complainant’s daughter’s murder. It stated that “at trial, the court heard [how she] was about to reveal the length of their fling and had tried to contact [the man’s] wife” on the morning of the murder. It reported the man had killed her on “the day of his ninth wedding anniversary” to his wife, with whom he had “split” from in 2020.

4. A similar version of the article also appeared online, under the headline “Scots killer who murdered lover to stop her exposing affair to appeal conviction”. The sub-heading read “[the man] who was jailed for killing a woman his wife suspected he was having an affair with is to appeal against his conviction”.

5. On 21 April – and 2 days before the article’s publication – a journalist, acting on behalf of the publication, visited the home of the complainant to ask for comment. As there was no answer, the reporter posted a hand-written note through the door, and then left. The reporter had also sent an e-mail to the complainant with the same request. A copy of this correspondence was shared with IPSO. In both, the reporter introduced herself and the publication she represented, expressed condolences to the complainant for her and her family’s loss, asked whether the complainant wished to speak about the man’s case and the verdict or pay tribute to her daughter, and left her contact details (telephone number).

6. On 24 April – the day after the article’s publication – the complainant contacted the journalist, via telephone, to complain about the article. The complainant said the journalist told her the Editor of the newspaper would contact her directly to deal with her concerns; and the complainant requested that the journalist refrain from contacting her. After this exchange, on 1 July the complainant received a further request for comment from the same journalist, via text message.

7. The complainant said the approaches and conduct of this journalist amounted to harassment and therefore breached Clause 3 of the Code. First, she considered that the newspaper had been informed by court officials, at the conclusion of the man’s trial for her daughter’s murder, that the family did not wish to engage with the media. She also believed that the request for comment – via the note posted and e-mail sent on 21 April – was “manipulative”, as the newspaper suggested that it would proceed with the publication of the story, regardless of her engagement or support. She also said she had made clear her position clear on the telephone to the reporter on 24 April: the reporter should “refrain from contacting” her.

8. The complainant said the article was inaccurate and misleading, in breach of Clause 1. She denied that the man was to appeal against his conviction. While she accepted that he had suggested that he may appeal against his conviction and sentence, she claimed that no formal appeal proceedings had been launched. She also denied that her daughter had an “affair” with the man; they had been in a long-term relationship, and she considered such a description amounted to victim-blaming.

9. The complainant also said the publication of the article – specifically the alleged inaccuracies and its focus on her daughter’s relationship with the man – and the approaches made by the reporter intruded into the grief of her and her grandchild, the child of her deceased daughter, in breach of Clause 4. She said the approach to her home – where her grandchild, who did not know the full circumstances of her mother’s death, lived – lacked the sympathy and discretion required by the Code. Further, she said that the article and approach to her home – where her grandchild could have answered the door to the journalist or read the note, as it was not delivered inside an envelope – breached Clause 6.

10. The complainant was also concerned as to how the publication had obtained her home address, e-mail address, and telephone number. She considered that using her details in this manner intruded into her private life, in breach of Clause 2.

11. The newspaper denied that the conduct of its reporter represented harassment. It denied that any request to desist had been communicated by the complainant, or a representative acting on her behalf, to the newspaper. It said newspapers were entitled to contact the bereaved to offer them the opportunity to speak. It also said its approaches to the complainant were proportionate and handled sensitively in line with its commitments under the Code. The newspaper said the journalist was conscious of the sensitivity of the story, and in light of the man’s indication to appeal his conviction and sentence, contacted the complainant on 21 April to see whether she wished to speak about the case.

12. The publication strongly disputed the complainant’s recollection of the telephone call on 24 April. It denied that the complainant said she did not wish to be contacted again. Instead, the publication said the complainant had expressed concern at the reference to an “affair” within the article and the lack of attention given to addressing violence against women. In response, the reporter had repeated the publication’s offer to give the complainant a platform to speak about the man’s case and her daughter. The publication said the complainant had declined the offer of an interview, with the reporter informing her that she would keep the complainant informed of developments regarding the man’s appeal.

13. The publication said the reporter had then contacted the complaint on 1 July – after it received confirmation from the court that the man had not submitted his appeal within the required timeframe – to check whether she wished to comment; it did not receive a response.

14. The newspaper maintained that the article was an accurate report of the man’s intentions, at the time of the article’s publication. The publication had received confirmation from Solemn Appeals at Edinburgh High Court, – on 21 April, 2 days before the article’s publication, and which it provided to IPSO – that “an intimation of intention to appeal against conviction and sentence has been lodged” by the man; this was the first step in the appeal process.

15. The newspaper added it had subsequently been informed by the court, on 30 June, that the man had not submitted his appeal, within the necessary timeframe. It had therefore published a further article, under the headline “Killer love rat drops appeal bid”, on 2 July, which confirmed that the man had “abandoned plans to appeal his conviction”.

16. The newspaper also denied the article was inaccurate to report the complainant’s daughter had an “affair” with the man: they had been in a relationship before her death and while the man was still married to another woman. It added that it was heard during court proceedings that her daughter was about to reveal the length of their relationship to the man’s wife on the day of the attack. To support its position, the newspaper provided contemporaneous shorthand notes taken during proceedings and a transcript of the notes. While it did not accept that its use of this term represented a breach of the Code, it said that, in light of the complainant’s concerns, communicated directly to the reporter via telephone on 24 April, it had not used this term since.

17. The publication did not accept that the terms of Clause 6 were engaged: the article did not identify the complainant’s grandchild. It noted that it had been unaware that the complainant lived with her grandchild until the reporter spoke with her on the telephone on 24 April.

18. The publication also did not accept a breach of Clause 2. It said that the complainant’s contact details were obtained via a journalistic search tool provided by an external company, and used legitimately in order to seek comment.

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.

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 their private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

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

Clause 3 (Harassment)*

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Clause 6 (Children)*

i) All pupils should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.

ii) They must not be approached or photographed at school without permission of the school authorities.

iii) Children under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents.

iv) Children under 16 must not be paid for material involving their welfare, nor parents or guardians for material about their children or wards, unless it is clearly in the child's interest.

v) Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child's private life.

Findings of the Committee

19. The Committee first wished to express its condolences to the complainant and her family for their loss.

20. The Committee first considered the concerns raised under Clause 3 regarding the contact between the complainant and the journalist working on behalf of the publication. The terms of Clause 3 do not seek to prevent journalists from making enquiries in sensitive circumstances. Rather, the terms of Clause 3(i) make clear that journalist must not engage in harassment or persistent pursuit.

21. The reporter had first attended the complainant’s home on 21 April. As the complainant had not answered, the reporter had left a hand-written note and then sent a further e-mail; this correspondence set out the purpose of the reporter’s visit and her request to the complainant. While the complainant considered that she had made clear to the court – during proceedings against the man – that she did not wish to engage with media, no such request to desist had been communicated to the publication. Therefore, the reporter had not failed to respect a request to desist, and these approaches did not amount to harassment in breach of Clause 3.

22. The Committee noted that the parties had provided differing accounts as to what had been said during the telephone call on 24 April and following the article’s publication. It was accepted that the complainant had expressed concerns about the content of the article. However, while the complainant contended that she had explicitly told the reporter not to contact her again about the story, this was not accepted by the newspaper who said no such request had been made and that the reporter said she would keep the complainant abreast of any updates to the case. The Committee considered that if a request had been made a further approach may have represented a failure to respect a request to desist. However, in doing so, it also noted that requests do not last indefinitely; and can be displaced by subsequent developments in a story that justify renewed attention. What constitutes a development in a story must be judged based on the individual circumstances of the case.

23. In this case, the reporter had contacted the complainant, via text message, on 1 July – over 2 months after the telephone conversation – in order to obtain a comment from the complainant following a development in the story: the man had not submitted his appeal within the required timeframe and was therefore unable to appeal his conviction. In the Committee’s view, this constituted a sufficient development in the story to allow for further journalistic approach, and the Committee did not consider the fact of the approach, nor its nature, constituted harassment. There was no breach of Clause 3.

24. Further, after reviewing the correspondence sent by the journalist – including the handwritten note and e-mail on 24 April and the text message of 1 July – and the accounts of the conversations that took place on the phone, the Committee did not consider that any of the contact was either intimidating or harassing where the language used by the newspaper was sympathetic and professional. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 3.

25. While the Committee acknowledged that the publication of the article – and the approaches for comment – had caused the complainant distress, this in and of itself does not represent a breach of Clause 4. It was not insensitive for the publication to have reported on the man’s intention at the time of the article’s publication to appeal his conviction or to seek the complainant’s views on the matter. Nor did the Committee consider that the approaches made were unsympathetic to the complainant or manipulative as she suggested. There was no breach of Clause 4.

26. The Committee next considered the concerns raised under Clause 1. The Committee did not consider that the article misrepresented the man’s intentions at the time of the article’s publication; it was not inaccurate to report that he had “launche[d] a bid for freedom”. The Committee noted that the article did not report that any judgment had been made by the court; instead, it reported on the man’s intentions to appeal. In these circumstances, and where the publication had received confirmation from the court that it had received an intimation of intention to appeal from the man, the Committee was satisfied that the publication had taken sufficient care under Clause 1 not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and that no inaccuracy was established. There was no breach of Clause 1.

27. The Committee acknowledged how upsetting the circumstances of the complainant’s daughter’s death had been and that she considered the reference to the “affair” inaccurate. However, it did not appear in dispute that the man had been married to another woman while he was in a relationship with her daughter, or that this information had been heard during court proceedings. To support its position, the publication had provided contemporaneous shorthand notes taken during the proceeding in which it was heard that her daughter had planned to tell the man’s wife about their relationship. In these circumstances, while the Committee acknowledged the distress the inclusion of this term had caused the complainant, it did not consider that it represented a failure to take care or was a significant inaccuracy requiring correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

28. Given that the grandchild had not been identified or referred to within the article, nor contacted by the publication, it was not a breach of Clause 6 to publish a story concerning potential legal proceedings involving the man. While the complainant’s concerns regarding the delivery of a hand-written note by the reporter to her home did not in itself breach Clause 6 – particularly where the publication was unaware that the child was living with the complainant at the time – the Committee considered that it may have been more appropriate to have placed this letter in an envelope directly addressed to the complainant given the personal and sensitive nature of the story. There was no breach of Clause 6.

29. With regard to the complainant’s concerns under Clause 2, the Committee found that the acquisition of her contact details, that were not published, in order to provide her with the opportunity to comment on the story, did not amount to an intrusion into her privacy. There was therefore no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusion

30. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A


Date complaint received: 1/5/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 21/11/2023