Ruling

19679-23 Saunders v walesonline.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      28th September 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 19679-23 Saunders v walesonline.co.uk


Summary of Complaint

1.   Gemma Saunders complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Wales Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Dog owner warned she could be jailed after pet savaged delivery driver”, published on 29 June 2023.

2.   The article reported on a trial in which the complainant was the defendant. It reported that a “large dog belonging to Gemma Saunders got [sic] of the house and proceeded to bite [the victim] as he tried to drop off a package” and that, “as a result of the incident [the victim] sustained lacerations to his wrist, hand, and knuckle and suffered an injury to the top of his thumb”. The article also reported that the complainant’s “daughter also made an unsuccessful attempt to calm [the dog]. Finally Saunders’ son was able to restrain the dog and took him back into the house”. In addition, the article reported that the dog was “still barking and acting aggressively” when police officers arrived. The article further said that the jury “found Saunders guilty of being the owner of a dog which caused injury while dangerously out of control” and that the judge “warn[ed] Saunders a custodial sentence was a possibility”.

3.   The complainant said the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as she said it claimed that she had denied being the owner of the dog. She said that she had not denied ownership of the dog and that, whilst the prosecution had made this claim in court, the judge ordered jurors to disregard the claim. She also said that the article was inaccurate as there was no custodial sentence imposed post-conviction.

4.   The complainant also stated that the article was inaccurate as it described a woman as her “daughter” when in fact she was a child-minder. She said that the woman had not been referred to as her daughter during court proceedings.

5.   The complainant also said that the article omitted information which she considered to be important to the story, and that this made the article inaccurate. She said that the following pieces of information had been omitted, in breach of Clause 1: the victim did not require any stitches for his injuries nor did he have any broken bones; and the medical report did not conclude that there had been dog bites, and had only said that they were “potential” dog bites.

6.   The complainant said her dogs were not aggressive nor did they bark at the victim. She said the latter point meant it was inaccurate to describe the incident as a someone having been “savaged”.

7.   The complainant also said the article had breached Clause 2 as it included her address and a picture taken of her, outside court, without her consent. The complainant felt that, due to personal circumstances, these details should not have been made public.

8.   The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. Turning first to the alleged inaccuracies, it said the article did not say that the complainant denied being the owner of the dog; rather, it said that she denied the charge against her, which was “being the owner of a dog which caused injury while dangerously out of control”. 

9.   The publication also said that the other alleged inaccuracies identified by the complainant – the description of the complainant’s child minder as her “daughter”; the description of the injuries the victim received; and the description of her dogs’ demeanour - were stated in open court by the prosecution. It said that this was shown by contemporaneous shorthand notes by the journalist, which it supplied along with a translation. It also highlighted that the article did not claim that the complainant received a custodial sentence, but that she was warned that a custodial sentence was one of the possible outcomes post-conviction – which was stated in the article.

10. The publication also did not accept a breach of Clause 2. It noted the article did not contain the complainant’s full address and included only the area she resided in, which it said was heard in open court. The publication also stated that the photograph in the article had been taken outside court, in an area accessible to the general public. Therefore, there would have been no reasonable expectation of privacy in this instance and the publication was not required to ask for her permission.

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.

Findings of the Committee

11. The Committee first noted that the role of the newspaper was to report accurately on the complainant’s court case; it was not responsible for the accuracy of claims made during the court case.

12. The Committee was mindful that the article did not claim that the complainant had denied being the owner of the dog or that she had received a custodial sentence. Rather, the article reported that the complainant had pleaded not guilty to the charge of “being the owner of a dog which caused injury while dangerously out of control”. The complainant did not dispute that she had entered a not guilty plea. The article also did not say she had been given a custodial sentence – but that she had been warned this was a possible outcome. This also was not disputed by the complainant. In such circumstances, the Committee did not consider the article to be inaccurate on these points in the manner suggested by the complainant, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

13. The complainant said that the article inaccurately reported that the child minder was her daughter, and that this was not heard in court. The journalist had taken care to accurately report the proceedings by taking contemporaneous notes; the translation of these notes reflected what was reported in the article. Whilst there was a disagreement between what the complainant recalled being heard in court and what was published in the article, where there were contemporaneous notes, the Committee did not find that the publication had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article in relation to this point. It also did not consider that the article was significantly inaccurate on this point, where the publication had been able to provide notes showing that this had been heard in court and where the point was not the person’s identity, but rather that a second person had attempted to control the dog. There was no breach of Clause 1.

14. The complainant had said the article was inaccurate, as it didn’t refer to certain pieces of information. Newspapers have the right to choose which pieces of information they publish, as long as the Code is not otherwise breached. In circumstances where the charges against the complainant and the outcome of the case were accurately reported, and there were no significant inaccuracies within the article, the Committee did not consider that omitting pieces of information breached Clause 1 in the manner described by the complainant.

15. The complainant had said that the description of her dog having “savaged” someone was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. Where a dog owned by the complainant had been found to have bitten an individual who required medical attention as a result, it was not inaccurate, distorted, or misleading for the article to describe this as someone having been “savaged”, where the exact nature of the injury and the events which led to it were made clear in the article.

16. The Committee noted that the Editor’s Code makes clear, when considering whether a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, that account will be taken of the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain. In this instance, the area in which the complainant resided had already been made public in open court. The Committee was also mindful of the fact that, generally, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy when stood outside of court: the complainant was stood on a street, accessible by members of the public and where passers-by could see her, and there was no prohibition on photography in this location. The Committee further noted that the photograph simply showed the complainant’s appearance, and did not disclose any further information about her beyond her physical likeness. Therefore, the publication of the photograph did not represent an intrusion into the complainant’s private and family life. The Committee did not find a breach of Clause 2.

Conclusions

17. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

18. N/A


Date complaint received: 29/06/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 07/09/2023