Ruling

20455-23 Chafe v Knutsford Guardian

    • Date complaint received

      16th November 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 20455-23 Chafe v Knutsford Guardian


Summary of Complaint

1. Daniel Chafe complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Knutsford Guardian breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Dad left ex 'unable to leave her home'”, published on 17 August 2023.

2. The article reported on the complainant’s conviction for “harassment without violence” of his ex-partner. It reported that the complainant’s “former partner stopped the children going to his flat because he was taking cannabis”. It went on to report that the complaint “called her [his ex-partner] 19 times, sent text messages and visited her place of work during the course of four days” – actions which left his ex-partner “anxious and depressed”.

3. The article also included quotes from the complainant’s legal representative, and included the following direct quote: “Chafe was ‘very contrite’ about what had happened and realises he ‘should have dealt with this matter better’”, and that his former partner’s “concern about his cannabis use is understandable but she was aware he had been medically prescribed cannabis to assist his mental and physical disabilities.” It also reported that the complainant’s representative told the court that the complainant “saw one of his sons yesterday and was very excited as he hopes this is the start of better things ahead for his relationship with his children”; and he “hopes there may even be a reconciliation with his former partner.”

4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline “Knutsford dad appears in court for harassing ex-partner”. This version of the article was published nine days prior to the print version of the article, on 8 August 2023. The online version of the article reported that the complainant “called at his victim's home 19 times”.

5. The complainant said that the article contained several inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. Firstly, the complainant noted that the online article specifically inaccurately reported that he “called at his victim's home 19 times”. He said this was inaccurate, as it had been heard in court that he called her phone 19 times – as reported in the print version - and had not attended her house 19 times.

6. The complainant also said the article inaccurately reported that he wanted to reconcile with his ex-partner – he said this was not heard in court. He also stated that the article was inaccurate because it omitted to mention he changed his initial plea of guilty to a plea of not guilty, as advised by his solicitor, before ultimately deciding to plead guilty.

7. The complainant also said the article was misleading as it reported that he used cannabis; he did not consider that it made sufficiently clear at the beginning of the article that he used cannabis due to his disability and mental health issues, and believed it ‘implied’ that he was taking cannabis recreationally, and around his children. He noted that the article did state further on that the cannabis was prescribed, but believed that the reference to cannabis was stigmatising. The complainant also considered the reference to cannabis to be discriminatory, in breach of Clause 12.

8. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It acknowledged that the online article inaccurately reported that the complainant called at his ex-partner’s home 19 times. It said that its reporter’s notes, taken during the complainant’s hearing, said the complainant called his ex-partner 19 times – which left her wanting to ensure her doors were locked – and called at her place of work, and because of this, it had been misinterpreted by the reporter that the complainant had physically called at his ex-partner’s home.

9. To support its position, the publication provided a copy of the reporter’s shorthand notes and a plain-English translation to IPSO. The notes said that the complainant’s ex-partner “told the court that the defendant called her 19 times between September 21 and 22, called at her place of work on September 22 and sent her text messages.”

10. However, while the publication accepted that the article was inaccurate on this point, it said that this was a minor inaccuracy in the context of the article as a whole, and did not change the fact that the complainant plead guilty and was sentenced for harassment.

11. While the publication did not accept that the Code had been breached, as a gesture of goodwill, the publication amended the text of the article on August 14 – this was two days after the complainant first contacted the publication to make it aware of his concerns. The amended version of the article said that the complainant had “called [his ex-partner] 19 times”. It also added the following footnote correction at the same time:

“This article initially stated Chafe called at his victim's home 19 times. This is incorrect as he called her 19 times. We apologise for the error.”

12. Turning to the other alleged inaccuracies, the publication said it was not inaccurate to report the complainant wanted to reconcile with his ex-partner. It stated that this was heard in court during mitigation by the complainant’s solicitor, and was reflected in its reporter’s notes. A translation of the notes from the hearing stated: “[the complainant’s legal representative], defending, said the defendant was very contrite about what had happened and wanted to move on, realising there were other ways to deal with the situation. He told the court: ‘He saw one of his sons yesterday and was very excited as he hopes this is the start of better things ahead for his relationship with his children. He hopes there may even be a reconciliation with his former partner’”. The publication said that its use of the term “reconcile”, in the context of the article, was not a claim that the complainant would recommence a relationship with his ex-partner – but rather, that they would be “friendly again”.

13. The publication then said it was irrelevant how many times the complainant had changed his plea throughout legal proceedings, where he had ultimately pleaded guilty, and this was reflected in the article under complaint. It noted that it would not be privy to advice passed between a solicitor and their client, and said that omitting to report that the complainant had changed his plea multiple times did not make the article inaccurate or misleading. The publication also did not accept that the article didn’t make clear that the complainant’s cannabis usage was due to his disability and his mental health issues. It said the article quoted the complainant’s solicitor as having said his ex-partner was "aware he had been medically prescribed cannabis to assist his mental and physical disabilities".

Relevant Clause Provisions

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.

12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

14. The Committee recognised that, by the publication’s own admission, the online version of the article had inaccurately reported that the complainant physically called at his ex-partner’s house 19 times. The publication had been able to provide contemporaneous notes, taken during court proceedings, and the Committee acknowledged that these notes did not tally with the information reported in the article. The notes stated that “the defendant called [his ex-partner] 19 times between September 21 and 22, called at her place of work on September 22 and sent her text messages”.

15. Where the information reported in the article failed to reflect the reporter’s notes, and inaccurately reported that the complainant called at his ex-partner’s property 19 times, the Committee was not satisfied that the publication had taken care not to publish inaccurate information. There was a breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point. Furthermore, where the article misreported the circumstances leading to the complainant’s conviction this was considered a significant inaccuracy, and therefore required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).                      

16. The Committee next considered whether the remedial action taken by the publication was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The publication took action to amend this error upon being made aware of it by the complainant, by way of amending the article and adding a footnote correction two days after the complainant first raised his concerns. This correction identified the inaccuracy and made clear the correct position – and the Committee was satisfied the correction was offered promptly and, given the inaccuracy appeared in the text of the article, its location at the foot of the online article was sufficiently prominent. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

17. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that he had no intention to reconcile with his partner – and recognised that there was a disagreement between the complainant and the publication as to whether it had been heard in court that he wished to do so. While the Committee appreciated that the complainant disputed that this statement was heard in court, contemporaneous notes provided by the publication supported what was reported in the article – that he “hopes there may even be a reconciliation with his former partner” – and the Committee was therefore satisfied that the publication had taken care over the accuracy of this information. The Committee did not therefore consider that, on balance, there was sufficient basis to find that the article was inaccurate on this point, and these was no breach of Clause 1.

18. The Committee then considered whether omitting that the complainant changed his plea rendered the article inaccurate. Where this article reported on the outcome of the complainant’s trial, and accurately reported that he had “admitted a charge of harassment without violence”, the Committee did not consider it inaccurate or misleading to omit to report that his plea had previously changed. It also noted that the publication would not be privy to information regarding why his plea had been changed. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s view that the article was inaccurate as it did not initially clarify his cannabis usage was medical. However, it noted that the article did reference the reasons for the complainant’s use of cannabis: “[…S]he was aware he had been medically prescribed cannabis to assist his mental and physical disabilities.” The Committee therefore considered that the article made clear that the complainant’s cannabis usage was medically prescribed to aid his physical and mental disabilities. On this basis, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concerns under Clause 12. Clause 12 bars irrelevant, pejorative or prejudicial references to certain protected characteristics of an individual. In this case, the Committee recognised that the article reported on the complainant’s conviction for harassment against his ex-partner, and that it was heard in court that his use of medically diagnosed cannabis had been a contributing factor to issues between the two. In this context, the Committee was of the view that references to the complainant’s disability were genuinely relevant to the story.

21. The Committee also considered that the article did not include any references to the complainant’s disability that could be considered prejudicial or pejorative; the reference to the complainant’s cannabis usage and reasons for using it were reported on using straightforward and matter-of-fact language. There was no breach of Clause 12.

Conclusions

22. The complaint was upheld in part under Clause 1.

Remedial action required:

23. The published correction put the correct position on record and was offered promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required.


Date complaint received: 13/08/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 31/10/2023