Ruling

19719-17 Thomson v Sunday Post

    • Date complaint received

      12th March 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 19719-17 Thomson v Sunday Post

Summary of Complaint

1. Joanne Thomson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Post breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “I was very uncomfortable about doing it but scared not to. Then the directors, both well- known in the industry, told me not to tell anyone. I was so terrified I said yes” published on 15 October 2017. The article was also trailed on the front page with the headline, “I never met any men like Harvey Weinstein when I was in Hollywood. I met plenty in Scotland though.”

2. The article was an interview with the complainant, which reported on her experience of the so-called “casting couch culture” while working as an actor in both Scotland and the United States of America. The article was trailed on the front page with a picture of the complainant and the quotation “I never met any men like Harvey Weinstein when I was in Hollywood. I met plenty in Scotland though.” The strapline that appeared at the top of the article said, “Actress speaks out in wake of casting couch scandal and says sexism and harassment in Scotland is    as bad as Hollywood”. The opening paragraph stated that the complainant had claimed “women are routinely harassed and hounded by powerful men in the Scottish screen industry,” and went on to report that the complainant had said “a casting couch culture still exists in Scotland” and that many actors, including her, had endured sexual harassment at the hands of “powerful men” within the industry. The article ended with comments from other industry figures, about allegedly “predatory” behaviour.

3. The article quoted the complainant as having said “there’s this idea that if you don’t sleep with men in the business then you won’t get on,” and went on to report that the complainant and other female actors had an “unofficial self-help group” where they shared details of “male directors, producers and actors” who they believed were responsible for sexual harassment. The article also reported that while the complainant had said that it was unlikely that the scale of allegations that had emerged in the United States would ever be seen in Scotland, as she believed there was “no one figure” who was that powerful in the Scottish screen industry, women working in the entertainment industry in Scotland still “had to be careful”. It quoted her as saying, in relation to her experiences in the US, that, “all I know is that I did not experience the problems there that I have done here.”

4. The article included an account of an experience the complainant had had as a drama student. She said that two “well-known” directors had asked her to dress in lingerie and be filmed in sexual positions with two male actors. She had felt uncomfortable but had been afraid to say no. The directors had told her not to tell anyone about the request, and she had said yes. She had later changed her mind, and said no.

5. The article also appeared online, headlined, “‘I was very uncomfortable about doing it but was scared not to’: Actress Joanne Thomson describes an audition in Glasgow,” and was substantially the same as the print article.

6. The complainant said that the article had misreported the interview she had given. She said that the newspaper had attributed comments to her that she had not made, and omitted a number of points that she had made, in order to misrepresent the views she had expressed. She said that the views expressed in the article were those of the male reporter, not her own. She said that it was ironic that in an article about her own experiences of sexism, she believed her voice had been silenced by a man.  The complainant had recorded the interview, and provided a transcript of the recording to IPSO.

7. The complainant said that the article gave the impression that she believed that the so- called “casting couch culture” was worse in Scotland than in the United States. This was not the case. She had explained that she had had positive experiences while working in Hollywood, but that her experience of the industry in the United States was limited. She denied that she had said that “all I know is that I did not experience the problems there that I have done here,” as reported in the article. The complainant said that the front page strapline did not accurately reflect her views. She said that the journalist had called her prior to publication to check this line, and she had approved it only because she knew that he was facing time pressures.

8. The complainant said that she had told the journalist that there was “no one figure” in the Scottish industry with the power of Hollywood producers, and had made clear that the so-called “casting couch culture” was not rife in the Scottish entertainment industry. In response to the reporter’s statement that the “casting couch culture” seemed to be “alive and well” in Scotland, she had responded, “of course that’s a really interesting story if that’s true, but it’s just, it’s not, it’s not as alive and well as Hollywood… The culture is alive in our society here- absolutely.” She said that she had discussed problems of sexual assault and harassment, but in the context of society more generally, rather than the film industry in Scotland. She accepted that female actors did message each other to warn of the potentially predatory behaviour of men in the industry, but this was in relation to young actors the women may be working alongside, not “male directors, producers and actors” as reported in the article.

9. The complainant denied that she had said that “there’s this idea that if you don’t sleep with men in the business then you won’t get on.” She said that this implied that she believed that women needed to use sex to achieve success, which was not the case.  The complainant accepted that she had once told a fellow actor to “be careful” when working with a particular man, but denied that she had said that women need to be careful more generally. She said that this suggested that she believed that women should take responsibility for sexual harassment or assault.

10. The newspaper apologised for any frustration or upset the publication of the article had caused the complainant, but did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the article formed part of its wider coverage of sexual harassment in Scotland, which was a matter of public interest and said that the complainant’s interview had been endorsed by others in the screen industry. The newspaper considered that it had substantially reported the complainant’s comments accurately and did not believe the article mispresented her views.

11. The newspaper said that the use of the term “casting couch culture” referred not only to the idea that in order to get a certain role in the entertainment industry, the actor had to perform sexual favours for the person in control of casting, such as the director or producer, but also covered more general instances in the industry of men of power abusing their influence in relation to women. It provided screenshots of the conversation between the journalist and the complainant before the interview, where the journalist had made clear that he wished to speak to her specifically about the “casting couch culture” in Scotland. It said that in these circumstances, it was reasonable for the journalist to assume that the experiences the complainant had described in the interview had taken place in the Scottish screen industry.

12. The newspaper accepted that the recording and transcript provided by the complainant were an accurate representation of the 50 minute interview between the complainant and the journalist. However, it said that the journalist had spent almost two hours with the complainant, and had continued to ask questions and take notes throughout. The newspaper considered that the comments made by the complainant after the recorded interview were more personal and relevant for the purposes of the article.  It provided a copy of the journalist’s notebook and a transcript of his notes. It said these notes represented the interview in its entirety, and had been written by the journalist either at the time of the interview, or within 15 minutes of leaving the complainant.

13. In relation to the direct quotations the complainant believed to be inaccurate, the newspaper highlighted a section of the reporter’s notes which stated “there’s this idea that women sleep with men to get ahead. It’s crazy” which it said supported the quotation that “there’s the idea that if you don’t sleep with men in the business then you won’t get on.” It said that this quotation had come from the part of the interview that was not recorded, and had been written down by the reporter within 15 minutes of leaving the complainant. The newspaper maintained that this quotation accurately reflected what the complainant had said, and denied that this quotation suggested that women regularly sleep with men to progress their career in the screen industry.

14.  The newspaper did not have a note of the complainant stating “All I know is that I did not experience the problems there that I have done here”; however, it maintained that the article had been written by the journalist immediately after the interview, and was an accurate reflection of what the complainant had said, as it had an identical meaning to the front page quotation the complainant had approved. It also said that the reporter had recorded the complainant as referring to a need for women to “be careful” three times during the interview, which it said was accurately reported in the article.

15. It denied that the article suggested that the scale of sexual harassment within the film industry in Scotland was as bad as in America; only that when it happened it was as bad as in America. It pointed out that Scotland does not have a single film studio and that the article had stated several times in the article that the problem was not on the same scale in the Scottish screen industry. Rather, it said that the inside strapline was used to make the point, as the complainant did in her interview, that the problem is not limited to Hollywood, and that men abuse their power in Scotland as well. It said that the front page quotation was a distillation of this broader point. Due to the personal nature of the article, it had taken the unusual step of contacting the complainant prior to publication, to ask her to approve this quote, which she had done.  The newspaper claimed that, when taken in context with the front-page headline, the size of Scotland’s film industry, and the complainant’s quotes, the meaning of the strapline was clear.

16. Nevertheless, as soon as the complainant contacted the editor to express her concern, the newspaper apologised that the article had caused her frustration, offered to remove or edit the online article and offered to publish an opinion piece penned by the complainant on the subject. The newspaper also offered to publish a number of clarifications in print, and suggested the following wording:

“After an interview published on 15 October, actor Joanne Thomson complained that she made none of the statements attributed to her. She would like to make clear that she does not believe sexual harassment is as widespread in the Scottish screen industry as it is in Hollywood; does not believe it is a woman’s responsibility to be careful in casting couch situations; and does not believe women in the Scottish screen industry need to sleep with men to get ahead. We are happy to make her position clear.”

17. The complainant did not accept these offers of resolution, as she believed a printed apology was appropriate.

Relevant Code Provisions

18. 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

19.  In considering the accuracy of the article, the Committee had regard for the reporter’s notes and the recording and transcript of the interview provided by the complainant. The Committee acknowledged that it was important for women’s experiences of sexual harassment to be accurately reported and gave serious consideration to the complainant’s concern that her voice had been silenced by the reporter. In these circumstances it was particularly helpful for the Committee to be able to consider the recording and transcript she had supplied. However, the Committee was required to consider, independently, whether the article had inaccurately reported the complainant’s comments.

20. The reporter had taken a large number of notes, which were a useful contemporaneous account of what had been said during the interview. Notes are often sufficient to show the care taken by a newspaper over the accuracy of an article. The Committee also welcomed the efforts made by the reporter, prior to publication, to ensure that the complainant’s views were accurately reported, by calling her to obtain her confirmation that the front page strapline accurately represented her experiences. While there was some variation between the transcript which the complainant had provided, and the reporter’s notes, the newspaper’s obligation to take care over the presentation of direct quotations does not require it to reproduce an interviewee’s comments word for word. In such circumstances, the question is whether the quotations had been reported in such a way as to change the meaning of what the complainant had said.

21. The newspaper had contacted the complainant to specifically discuss the “casting couch culture” and her experiences both in the UK and the United States. The term “casting couch culture” is a broad term and relates not only to female actors being expected to perform sexual favours in return for professional roles, but also encompasses the general culture of powerful men implicitly abusing their influence in the industry to make women feel objectified and harassed. Reporting on this issue is a matter of considerable public interest.

22. The complainant had recounted her experience, while at drama school, of being placed in an uncomfortable situation by experienced members of the industry. The Committee noted her position that, by telling this story, she intended to show the sexism in the types of roles available for young female actors. However, the newspaper had accurately reported her account, and was entitled to present it as support for the suggestion that some powerful individuals in the industry were taking advantage of young women. Given the complainant’s comments, it was not inaccurate for the article to report that the complainant was concerned about the actions of some powerful men in the industry. There was no breach of the Code in relation to the presentation of this wider point.

23. The newspaper had taken the unusual step of asking the complainant to approve the front page strapline. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that she had approved the quotation because she believed the reporter was facing time pressures, she had not raised any concerns about its accuracy, and so the newspaper was entitled to publish it as an accurate summary of the interview. However, the situation in relation to the strapline published inside the article was different. The complainant had made clear, throughout the conversation, that she did not believe that the situation in Scotland was comparable to that in Hollywood, noting that figures in the Scottish industry did not have the same level of power, and that her experiences in the United States were limited; indeed, the article had included her comment that “the problem in Scotland…may not be as bad as it is in Hollywood”. The  inside strapline claimed that the complainant had said that sexism and harassment was as bad in Scotland as in Hollywood which represented a failure to take care to present the complainant’s position on this point accurately. This was a breach of Clause 1 (i).

24. The complainant had not made the claim which was attributed to her in the inside strapline, which was an inaccurate representation of her views, and was not supported by the text. Reporting this, in the context of widely reported allegations about various figures in Hollywood, misrepresented the comparison the complainant had made between the two industries, and suggested that the allegations she had made were more serious than those included in the article. This represented a significant inaccuracy, requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

25. Neither the reporter’s notes, nor the transcript, included the complainant saying “all I know is that I did not experience the problems there that I have done here,” as reported in the article. The reporter said he had noted this down when writing the article, shortly after the interview had finished. However, the Committee observed that there was no note of the comment, and it seemed to contradict the complainant’s position in the recorded section of the interview, and in the reporter’s notes. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that the newspaper had failed to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of the report of this comment, in breach of 1(i). The inclusion of this quotation added to the significantly misleading impression created by the inside strapline, in breach of Clause 1 (ii).

26. The reporter’s notes recorded that the complainant had said “there’s this idea that women sleep with men to get ahead. It’s crazy” and it was the newspaper’s position that this comment had been made after the formal section of the interview had concluded, and when the complainant was no longer recording the conversation. By producing the reporter’s contemporaneous notes, the newspaper had demonstrated that it had taken care so as to report this comment accurately. Paraphrasing this comment as “there’s this idea that if you don’t sleep with men in the business then you won’t get on,” did not suggest, as the complainant contended, that she believed that women could not be successful if they did not sleep with men. Nor did reporting that she had said “you have to be careful”, where the recording and transcript showed that she had given this advice to one woman facing these issues, suggest that she believed women were responsible for sexual harassment. There was no breach of the Code on these points.

27. While it was accepted by the Committee that the complainant had not said that all women need to be careful, she had made clear that she believed sexual harassment was widespread in society, and could potentially affect any woman. The Committee found that the reported claim that women still needed to be careful was a reference to the complainant’s view that sexual harassment was prevalent in all sections of society, and did not suggest that she believed it was women’s responsibility to ensure sexual harassment did not occur. There was no breach of 1 (i) on this point.

Conclusion

28. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

29. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

30. The newspaper had published a significantly misleading inside strapline, not supported by the text of the article, which was compounded by an inaccurate quotation reported in the article. The newspaper had offered to publish a correction, setting out the complainant’s position. However, the misattribution of quotes given as part of an interview, was a serious failure to take care, and so the appropriate remedy was the publication of an upheld adjudication.

31.  The print article had been trailed on the front page and appeared in full on pages 4 and 5. Where the Committee upheld the complaint in relation to information that appeared on pages 4 and 5 only, the Committee decided that adjudication should be published on page 4 or further forward. The Committee noted that the misleading strapline had not appeared on the online article; however, it had still carried the inaccurate quotation in the body of the article. In these circumstances, the adjudication should also be published online, with a link 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 Sunday Post, and refer to its subject matter. It must be agreed with IPSO in advance. 

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

Joanne Thomson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Post breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “I was very uncomfortable about doing it but scared not to. Then the directors, both well- known in the industry, told me not to tell anyone. I was so terrified I said yes” published on 15 October 2017. The article was also trailed on the front page with the headline, “I never met any men like Harvey Weinstein when I was in Hollywood. I met plenty in Scotland though.”

The article was an interview with the complainant, which reported on her experience of the so-called “casting couch culture” while working as an actor in both Scotland and the United States of America. The strapline of the article said, “Actress speaks out in wake of casting couch scandal and says sexism and harassment in Scotland is as bad as Hollywood,” and the article went on to report Ms Thomson as stating, “All I know is that I did not experience the problems there that I have done here.”

The complainant said that the article had misreported the interview, and had given the impression that she believed that the so- called “casting couch culture” was worse in Scotland than in the United States. This was not the case. She also denied that she had said that “all I know is that I did not experience the problems there that I have done here,” as reported in the article. The complainant provided a recording, and transcript of the interview.

The newspaper apologised for any upset the article caused but did not accept it had breached the code. It denied the article suggested the scale of sexual harassment within the film industry in Scotland was as bad as in America only that when it happened it was as bad as in America. It pointed out that Scotland does not have a single film studio. In addition, Ms Thomson was repeatedly quoted in the article saying the scale of the problem in Scotland was not the same.

The newspaper did not have a note of the quote “All I know is that I did not experience the problems there that I have done here” but claimed it was accurate. It also claimed the quote had an identical meaning to the front-page headline “I never met any men like Harvey Weinstein when I was in Hollywood. I met plenty in Scotland though.” This was approved by the complainant before publication. The newspaper provided the reporter’s notes of the interview and claimed that, when taken in context with the front-page headline, the size of Scotland’s film industry, and the complainant’s quotes, the meaning of the strapline was clear.The complainant had made clear throughout the conversation that she did not believe that the situation in Scotland was comparable to that in Hollywood, noting that figures in the Scottish industry did not have the same level of power, and that her experiences in the United States were limited. The newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the inside strapline claim that she had said that sexism and harassment was as bad in Scotland as in Hollywood. This was a breach of Clause 1 (i).

Reporting this, in the context of widely reported allegations about various figures in Hollywood, misrepresented the comparison the complainant had made between the two industries, and suggested that the allegations she had made were more serious than those included in the article. This represented a significant inaccuracy, requiring correction under the terms of 1(ii).

Neither the reporter’s notes, nor the transcript, recorded the complainant saying “all I know is that I did not experience the problems there that I have done here”. While the reporter said he had written the article shortly after the interview, the Committee observed that there was no note of this, and it seemed to contradict the complainant’s position in the recorded section of the interview, and the reporter’s notes. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that the newspaper had failed to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of the report of this comment, in breach of 1(i). This quotation also added to the significantly misleading impression created by the inside strapline, in breach of Clause 1 (ii). The complaint under Clause 1 was upheld.

Date complaint received: 09/11/2017

Date decision issued: 19/02/2018