Ruling

20887-17 A Man v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      22nd March 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20887-17 A Man v Mail Online

Summary of complaint

1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) in an article headlined “Mother who fell for a '£25K-a-month' IT consultant she met online reveals how her life was 'ruined' when she learned he was actually BANKRUPT - as she warns against 'no strings' dating sites”, published on 8 December 2017.

2. The article reported a woman’s account of a relationship she developed with a man through a “no strings” affairs website. The article reported the man’s first name, age, job, home town and number of children, and described the course of their relationship. It said that the man “said he earned £25,000 a month but the reality was he was bankrupt”. The article included numerous pictures of the couple, including full body images; the man’s face was pixelated. It reported how the man had broken off the relationship abruptly, after which the woman found the man “listed as a bankrupt” online. The article reported the woman’s view that the man was a “fantasist”, and said she was “telling her story to warn women not to join no-strings websites”.

3. The complainant was the man featured in the article. He said that the article had identified him through the amount of information it shared about him, and that he had suffered professional damage as a result. He said that the details of his relationship were private and that, while the story might be in the public interest, his identity was not, as he had committed no offence.

4. The publication denied that it had breached the Code, and said there was a clear public interest in the publication of the article. It maintained that the complainant was not identified in the article, except possibly to close family members and friends – many of whom would already have been aware of the circumstances of his relationship. It denied that the article revealed private information about the complainant: the fact of his relationship was not a private matter.

5. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that he was bankrupt, when his bankruptcy had expired several years previously; this claim was presented as fact, not as the woman’s opinion, and, in combination with his identification in the article, raised the possibility of considerable professional harm. He was also concerned that the article suggested that the woman was single at the time the relationship began, when she was married, and said that his alleged earnings were incorrectly reported. In addition, the complainant was concerned that he was only contacted by the publication after the article had been published, so did not have the opportunity to address these inaccuracies.

6. The publication said that it was a matter of public record that the complainant had been subject to a bankruptcy order, but acknowledged that he was no longer on the bankruptcy register. It did not consider that this represented a significant inaccuracy, because, in other ways, the complainant had purported to live a lifestyle he had not. The publication said that the article did not suggest that the woman was single, but made clear that her marriage had “broken down”; any claims regarding the complainant’s earnings were presented as the woman’s claims, and not adopted as fact. The publication also said that, because the complainant was not identified, there was no obligation to contact him prior to publication. Nonetheless, it offered to remove the article and perform a flush to remove links to the article online. It also offered to send the complainant a private letter of apology and to publish a standalone clarification on its News homepage as follows:

An article dated 8 December and entitled “Mother who fell for a '£25K-a-month' IT consultant she met online reveals how her life was 'ruined' when she learned he was actually BANKRUPT - as she warns against 'no strings' dating sites” stated that the IT consultant was subject to a current bankruptcy order when, in fact, the order was made in 2012 and discharged the following year. We apologise for the error.

Relevant Code 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 his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

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

The Public Interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.

Findings of the Committee

7. The woman who was the subject of the article had the right to tell the story of her relationship, as part of her right to freedom of expression. However, the publication had a duty to balance this right with the complainant’s competing right to privacy in relation to private information about him, and to consider whether revealing any such information was justified by a public interest. The article included a range of information about the complainant, including his first name, age, home town and occupation, and included numerous photos of the complainant in which his face was pixelated.

8. The Committee considered that the amount of information revealed, and the nature of the photographs included meant that, in addition to being identifiable to his family and friends, the complainant could be identified to a wider group of people than only his immediate friends and family. The Committee therefore had to consider whether the information revealed about him was sufficiently private in nature to disclose a breach of Clause 2. The complainant had argued that the fact of his relationship was private. However, it appeared that it had been conducted in public, with the apparent awareness of both parties’ immediate families. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the fact of such a relationship represented information over which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Given the nature of the information included about the complainant revealed in the article, there was no intrusion into the complainant’s private life in breach of Clause 2.

9. The claim that the complainant was bankrupt was presented as fact, and included prominently, in capital letters, in the headline. The article suggested that this bankruptcy was ongoing, and this claim was central to the idea that the complainant had acted deceitfully in his relationship. It appeared to also form the basis for the woman’s claim that the complainant earned less than he had originally claimed. In this context, the fact that the bankruptcy had expired several years prior to the publication of the article was significant. Where it had failed to contact the complainant prior to the subject of the article, and where the facts of his bankruptcy order were publicly available, the publication had failed to take care to avoid an inaccuracy in the article, in breach of Clause 1 (i). This required correction to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). The clarification the publication offered stated the true position accurately, and was offered with sufficient promptness. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

10. The Committee was not in a position to adjudicate on the woman’s marital status at the time the relationship began, in the absence of her input. The article said that the woman’s marriage had “ended”, but did not state that she had gone through a divorce. In a context where the article reported that both parties to the relationship were knowingly using an “affairs” website, the Committee did not consider that the precise legal status of the woman’s marriage was a significant point in the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 with respect to this.

Conclusions

11. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

12. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1 (i), the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The publication’s offer of a clarification addressed the inaccuracy within the article. In the light of the Committee’s decision, this should now be published both as a stand-alone correction on the publication’s website and, amended appropriately, as a footnote to the online article. In addition, the publication had previously offered to amend the online article to reflect the fact that the complainant was no longer bankrupt. In the light of this decision, these changes should now be made.

Date complaint received: 24/12/2017
Date decision issued: 06/03/2018