Ruling

19789-23 Rothon v Basildon Echo

  • Complaint Summary

    Benjamin Rothon complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Basildon Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Revenge porn victim praises ‘amazing’ Georgia Harrison”, published on 4 April 2023, and an article headlined "Revenge porn victim ‘lost dignity’ amid court process", published on 4 July 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      15th February 2024

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 19789-23 Rothon v Basildon Echo


Summary of Complaint

1. Benjamin Rothon complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Basildon Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Revenge porn victim praises ‘amazing’ Georgia Harrison”, published on 4 April 2023, and an article headlined "Revenge porn victim ‘lost dignity’ amid court process", published on 4 July 2023.

2. Both articles reported on comments made by a woman – whom the articles described as a “victim of revenge porn” – in response to a recent high-profile court case relating to the sharing of intimate pictures, in light of her own experiences. The articles reported that the woman, who was named and pictured, “was stalked and harassed by” the complainant. Both articles also reported that the complainant had been “found […] guilty on one account of stalking causing serious alarm or distress, which included an offence for disclosing sexual photographs with the intent to cause distress”, and also referred to the complainant as being “of Great Wakering, Essex”.

3. The first article under complaint – which appeared on page 16 – included further details about the relationship between the woman and the complainant, and said that the woman “had been working in the accounts department for her local council when she met Rothon”. It also reported that the woman had said that the complainant “’showed absolutely no remorse’”, and went on to say that, during the relationship, the woman:

“[S]a[id the complainant] showed ‘a number of insecurities’. She claims he would show up unannounced on her nights out with friends, and ‘repeatedly’ asked her if she’d slept with men at work.

“After she’d left the relationship, [the woman]’s friend and family member were followed by an Instagram account Ben had created, using her full name.

The account posted ‘countless’ naked photos and videos.”

4. The second article under complaint – which also appeared on page 16 – reported that the complainant had “posted ‘countless’ intimate images of [the woman] on an Instagram account – which was shared to her friends and family”. It also reported further comments from the woman, who reportedly said: “’I was told by a barrister I’d have to talk through my victim statement in court to prove the Instagram account as damaging to me’.”

5. Both articles also appeared online, in substantially the same format. The first article under complaint appeared under the headline “Essex revenge porn victim praises Georgia Harrison”, while the second article appeared under the headline “Revenge porn victim wants more done after abuse by Rochford ex-lover”.

6. The complainant said that both articles included several inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. He said that there had never been any videos, nor was there any ‘metadata’ which had linked him to the Instagram account. He said that, as a result, he had not been convicted of an offence involving ‘revenge porn’, and the articles were inaccurate to report that he had been convicted of a crime in relation to the sharing of intimate images; he had been convicted of stalking causing serious alarm or distress contrary to section 4A(1)(b)(ii) and (5) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. He also said that he had not been “found” guilty; he had pleaded guilty on the advice of his barrister.

7. He also said the name used to identify the woman was not the one she had gone by when she knew him; this, he said, was inaccurate reporting. He also said that the woman had never worked for the local council, and that – as he had pleaded guilty – there had been no trial; therefore, he did not accept that the woman would have been told by her barrister that she would have to speak in court. He also disputed that he would “show up unannounced on her nights out with friends” or that he had “’repeatedly’ asked her if she’d slept with men at work”. He also said that the woman had no way of knowing whether or not he felt “remorse” and the article therefore inaccurately reported her view that he wasn’t remorseful.

8. The complainant also said that both articles were inaccurate to describe him as being “of Great Wakering, Essex” – this was where his mother lived, and he no longer lived with her.

9. The complainant also said that the articles breached Clause 2, as they included inaccurate information which he considered intruded on his private life. He further said that the two articles under complaints were part of “numerous spurious articles” about a crime for which he had not been convicted, and that this was harassment in breach of Clause 3.

10. The publication initially said that it had inaccurately reported the complainant’s conviction; the agency who had supplied it with the original copy for both articles under complaint had confirmed with the court that, while the complainant had been convicted of stalking causing serious harm or distress, a further charge of disclosing sexual photographs with intent to cause distress had been quashed at sentencing. It said that this information had been provided to it by a reputable news agency, and that other publicly available articles – including one from 2019 – had also reported that the complainant had been convicted of a crime relating to the disclosure of sexual photographs, therefore it had not known prior to publication that there may have been an issue with the accuracy of its reporting.

11. The newspaper therefore removed the online versions of both of the articles under complaint, and proposed to publish the following correction in print and online:

“The Echo has removed two stories from our website published in April and July 2023 regarding the subject of revenge porn. In the articles, also published in the paper, we incorrectly stated that Benjamin Rothon, from Wickford, had been convicted of disclosing private sexual photographs with intent to cause distress when he was sentenced for another charge at Basildon Crown Court in 2019. The charge was quashed by the judge after he admitted one count of stalking, causing serious alarm or distress. He was sentenced to 25 months' imprisonment with a restraining order for 10 years. We apologise for any confusion and are happy to set the record straight.”

It proposed to publish this on the same page where both stories appeared in their respective editions, or further forward. Online, it proposed to publish the correction as a standalone web-page, given that the two original articles had been removed.

12. However, while the publication initially accepted that the article had been inaccurate in its reporting of the complainant’s conviction, this position changed after the agency who had provided the publication with the original articles reached out to the court to obtain transcripts of the court proceedings against the complainant. The publication said that, while the transcripts showed that the second charge against the complainant had been quashed, that was because the ‘revenge porn’ elements of the second charge against the complainant were “encompassed” by the first charge; the second charge had not been dropped because the court had not found that the complainant had distributed sexual images of the woman, but rather because the second charge was not needed.

13. The publication provided the transcripts to IPSO to support its position; these contained the following excerpts:

Prosecution barrister: […O]n the last occasion, the defendant, I understand, entered a guilty plea to count 1 on this indictment, the harassment charge. Count 2, charged in relation to what’s commonly known as “revenge porn” but sharing sexual material online; and the representations were made and, with respect, your Honour concurred that, in fact, the way that count 1 was drafted rather encompassed that which was alleged in count 2 […] It was made clear that the plea to count 1 was on a full facts basis and did encompass that which had been cited as the subject of count 2…

[…]

The complainant’s barrister: It can simply be dismissed or quashed, I think, with an open indictment. We can amend the indictment by the removal of count 2; accepting, as we do, that it’s encompassed […] within count 1.

[…]

The Judge: Right; so will you upload an amended indictment, then, that just has the one count on it, please [...] So we’ll just say that that has been – because no plea was ever taken […] that’s been dismissed. Right.

[…]

Prosecution: And then comes that which was encompassed by what had been count 2: naked pictures and a video of the [woman…] and they were shared over the social media.

The Judge: They’re on the Instagram account, aren’t they?

Prosecution: Your Honour, yes.

14. The transcripts provided by the publication also included the following sentencing remarks from the Judge, which were addressed to the complainant:

“Her friend received a message on the 21st of October via Instagram which contained, as we know, naked photographs and a video. […]. Family members and work colleagues and any followers of hers on Instagram will, of course, seen that material.”

15. Taking the above into account, the publication did not accept that either article inaccurately reported that the complainant had been sentenced in relation to a ‘revenge porn’ crime, or that the woman had been a victim of such a crime. It therefore withdrew its proposal to publish corrections.

16. The publication did not accept that referring to the woman by a different name impacted the accuracy of the story in a manner that would breach the terms of Clause 1, particularly given the woman was pictured in both articles and it was clear who was being referred to. It noted that it was not uncommon for victims of crime, when sharing their story publicly, to use a different surname or a pseudonym – for instance, a maiden name. It said this was particularly the case in crime involving domestic abuse or sexual violence.

17. While the complainant disputed the accuracy of the claims the woman had made about his behaviour during the relationship, the publication said that this did not render the article inaccurate: it was clearly framed as her view of the relationship, and must be read in the context of a story about domestic abuse within a romantic relationship and her experience of her relationship. It said it did not consider it appropriate to contact the woman to ask her for further evidence to support her claims, as the woman had an active restraining order against the complainant and reaching out could be considered indirect contact by the complainant and inadvertently breach the terms of this order.

18. Turning next to the address given for the complainant in both articles, the publication said that this was taken directly from the court listings for the complainant’s 2019 magistrates court hearing. It provided a copy of the listing to IPSO to support its position on this point and noted that this town had been referenced in previous coverage about the complainant as the complainant’s location.

19. The publication did not accept that the terms of Clause 2 or Clause 3 had been breached by the article under complaint.

20. The complainant said that he disagreed with the publication’s position, and “would suggest” that the phrase “revenge porn” had not been used by the court or police. Turning to his address, while he accepted that the court listings gave Great Wakering as his address, he said that a search through the electoral roll records would have shown his current address, where he had lived since 2009.

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.

Findings of the Committee

21. The complainant had pleaded guilty to the first count on the indictment, the harassment charge, and the second count – the offence commonly known as ‘revenge porn’ – was not pursued at the complainant’s sentencing hearing. The court considered which of the complainant’s acts had amounted to harassment and that these had been “encompassed” by the acts which had been cited in support of the second count, including the sharing of naked pictures and a video on an Instagram account which the court heard had caused huge distress. The judge had also made clear that this ‘global offending’ could be dealt with under the single count. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant had pleaded guilty to only one offence of harassment, given the acts of the complainant which the court took into account when sentencing the complainant for this offence, it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading to report that the complainant had been convicted “on one account of stalking causing serious alarm or distress, which included an offence for disclosing sexual photographs with the intent to cause distress”. Similarly, in these circumstances, it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading to report that the complainant’s ex-partner was a “victim” of “revenge porn”. In light of the remarks made by the judge at the hearing, the Committee considered that the court transcript did not substantiate the complainant’s claim that the offence for which he had been convicted had not involved the distribution of sexual images; the articles were not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted on this point, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

22. While the Committee did not consider that the articles had inaccurately reported the charge faced by the complainant, it noted that whether or not someone pleads guilty or not guilty would have an impact on legal proceedings; a guilty plea would have meant that no trial would have been held. In such circumstances, reporting that the complainant was “found guilty” was misleading. This was a failure to take care not to publish misleading information, and there was a breach of Clause 1 (i).

23. Given the importance of correctly reporting on legal proceedings in the interest of open justice, the Committee considered that the inaccuracy was significant and therefore required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The publication had not corrected the articles on this point, nor proposed any correction, and there was therefore a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

24. The Committee noted that people may go by different names in different aspects of their life. Provided care is taken to ensure articles are not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted, and any significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information is corrected promptly and prominently, the use of pseudonyms or non-official names would not generally represent a breach of the Code. In this case, there was no dispute that this was the name the woman had provided. In addition, any discrepancy between the two names did not represent significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information: it was clear who was being referred to, as she was photographed. There was no breach of Clause 1.

25. The Committee did not consider that the location of the woman’s workplace at the time of the beginning of the relationship represented a possible significant inaccuracy in need of correction; it did not materially affect the accuracy of the article, where its focus was on her experience as a victim of a crime rather than her professional history or biography. In such circumstances, there was no possible breach of Clause 1 on this point.

26. The complainant was not in a position to know what the woman had been told by her legal representatives, or whether she had been warned that she may have to speak in court about the impact of the crime on her. In addition, this claim was clearly presented as the woman’s personal account of her experience, rather than a claim of fact on the part of the publication – in line with the publication’s obligations under Clause 1 (iv) of the Code. The Committee did not establish an inaccuracy on this point, and there was therefore no breach of Clause 1.

27. It was clear from the article that the woman’s view that the complainant had not shown remorse was based on her perception of his actions – it was clearly attributed to her as her view, in line with the terms of Clause 1 (iv). While the complainant disputed this perception, it was not inaccurate, distorted, or misleading for the newspaper to publish the woman’s perspective on the complainant’s response to the events following their relationship, and doing so was not a breach of Clause 1.

28. The Committee noted that the publication may have faced some difficulty in establishing the accuracy of the woman’s claims about what happened during her relationship with the complainant, given the passage of time and where the claims related to matters only the complainant and his ex-partner would have been aware of, and that its obligation was to take care over the accuracy of what it published, and to distinguish between the woman’s comments on her relationship and established fact. In this case, the Committee felt that, by clearly attributing the quotes about the relationship to the woman, and presenting them as her perspective on the relationship – separate to the criminal charges against the complainant – the publication had met this obligation, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

29. The publication was entitled to rely on the magistrates’ court listing as the most accurate record of the complainant’s address at the time of the court proceedings against him, and doing so was not a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article under complaint. In addition, where this was the address given to the court, the Committee did not consider the article to be significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted on this point. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1.

30. The complainant had argued that the articles intruded into his private life as they included inaccurate information. The Committee noted both that the terms of Clause 1 relate to the publication of inaccurate information, and that the complainant’s concerns on this point had been appropriately dealt with under this Clause; and that the majority of the information in the article about the complainant related to court proceedings in the public domain. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 2.

31. The publication of two articles, three months apart and focusing on public court proceedings involving the complainant, did not represent harassment on the part of the publication; this did not reach the bar of a pattern of behaviour on the part of the publication which could be said to be harassing. There was no breach of Clause 3.

Conclusions

32. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii).

Remedial action required

33. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

34. The articles reported that the complainant had been found guilty, when he had in fact pleaded guilty; the Committee considered this to be significantly misleading given the importance of accurately reporting on court proceedings, and where whether or not someone enters a guilty plea will affect whether or not a case goes to trial. However, the Committee noted that the inaccuracy arose from a single word in both articles, and that the charge against the complainant was otherwise accurately reported. Therefore, on balance, the Committee considered that a correction was the appropriate remedy. The correction should acknowledge that the complainant was not found guilty, and make clear the correct position; namely, that he entered a guilty plea.

35. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. Both print articles were published on page 16; therefore, the Committee considered that a duly prominent position for the correction would be page 16 or further forward.

36. As both online articles had been deleted, the online correction should appear as a standalone correction.

37. The wording of the corrections should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.


Date complaint received: 06/07/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 25/01/2024