Ruling

21092-23 Joyce v Mail Online

  • Complaint Summary

    Drew Joyce complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Cowboy builder who swindled £30,000 out of his clients to carry out 'dream' renovation projects but left their houses filled with rubble is spared jail”, published on 4 October 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      24th April 2024

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 21092-23 Joyce v Mail Online


Summary of Complaint

1. Drew Joyce complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Cowboy builder who swindled £30,000 out of his clients to carry out 'dream' renovation projects but left their houses filled with rubble is spared jail”, published on 4 October 2023.

2. The article – which appeared online only – described the complainant as “a cowboy builder who swindled customers out of over £30,000 and left their homes filled with piles of rubble” and said he had “been spared jail.” It said the complainant “targeted one of his victims with promises of a £2,100 with a kitchen renovation” and went on to report that clients of the complainant "reported [him] to Trading Standards at Bridgend Council before he was arrested." The article quoted from the prosecution, who said the complainant “provided attractive quotes to secure work and when deposits were paid work slowed down” and in the case of one “he asked for further money” and “then said he was unavailable to work”. It stated “the court heard the total amount transferred” to the complainant by this client “came to £27,140.”

3. The article also reported that the complainant “pleaded guilty to two counts of dishonestly making false representations, two counts of aiding and abetting dishonesty and two counts of misleading commercial practice.” The article was accompanied by close-up images of the complainant’s face which seemed to have other people cropped out of them; they showed what appeared to be a few strands of hair.

4. The complainant said the article breached Clause 1 because it inaccurately reported he had been arrested.

5. The complainant also said that the article inaccurately reported the charges to which he had pleaded guilty: he denied that he had been found guilty of fraud. During the course of IPSO’s investigation, on 27 November, the complainant’s solicitor confirmed the charges against the complainant were: “Under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 - one count of failing to finish the work by February 2020”; “Under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 - one count of failing to finish the work by the 25th of December 2019”; and “one count of fraud for the sum of £1400.00 for windows and doors”.

6. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report he “targeted one of his victims with promises of a £2,100 with a kitchen renovation”. He denied anything was mentioned in court to this effect. The complainant also disputed that he had been found guilty of having “swindled £30,000 out of his clients”. He said he had not been charged with having “swindled” this money; his books were up to date and the money had been spent on materials.

7. The complainant also said the photographs included in the article intruded into his private life, in breach of Clause 2. He said the photographs were from his WhatsApp profile, and he therefore considered that the publication must have used his phone number to access the images. He believed this to be intrusive. The complainant said, although the photograph had been cropped, his partner and daughter were still visible.

8. The publication accepted the complainant had not been arrested, and said it was unsure why this information had appeared in the article. However, although it accepted the information was inaccurate, it did not accept that it was significantly so and therefore in need of correction under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code. It said it was an understandable error on its part to assume the complainant was arrested, as a person would nearly always be arrested when charged with a serious crime of this nature. As the complainant was ultimately convicted by a court, it did not consider whether or not the complainant had been arrested to be significant.

9. Notwithstanding the fact the publication did not accept the error was significant, on 13 November, 13 days after the complaint was referred to the publication, it agreed to remove the reference to Mr Joyce having been arrested, and to add the following footnote to the article:

“A previous version of this article reported that Drew Joyce had been arrested. This was incorrect. We are happy to clarify that Joyce was not arrested and we have removed reference to this from the online article.”

10. The publication accepted the charges provided by the complainant’s solicitor differed from the ones reported in the article and that this signified an inaccuracy in the article. It was not able to state how the error occurred, but said the article was based on an piece provided by a press agency which included this error. However, it did not accept the inaccurate charges were significant; it said the substance of the charges (fraudulent and improper commercial practice) was fundamentally the same, even if the precise wording differed.

11. While the publication did not accept that it was required to correct this point under the Code, the day after being presented with the correct charges by the solicitor, it amended the charges in the article and it proposed to change its footnote correction to:

“A previous version of this article reported that Drew Joyce had been arrested. This was incorrect. We are happy to clarify that Joyce was not arrested and we have removed reference to this from the article. The article also originally said that Mr Joyce had pleaded guilty to two counts of dishonestly making false representations, two counts of aiding and abetting dishonesty and two counts of misleading commercial practice. In fact, he pleaded guilty to two counts of engaging in an unfair commercial practice, and one count of fraud. The remaining charges were left to lie on file. The article has been amended to make this clear.”

12. The publication did not accept it inaccurately reported on the complainant’s alleged offer of a kitchen renovation. It provided a press release from the complainant’s local council, which detailed the court proceedings against the complainant. The press release said that one of the complainant’s former clients “explained how a small pension had been cashed in to pay Joyce to fit a new kitchen diner, but the work was never completed.” The same press release also referred to one of the complainant’s client’s homes having been left “uninhabitable”. The publication said the complainant’s concern around the use of the word “swindled”, did not engage Clause 1, as they noted that he did not dispute his actions left his victims at least £30,000 out of pocket.

13. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 2. It said the images simply showed the complainant’s likeness and did not reveal anything that could be considered private. It said the images were not obtained via the complainant’s WhatsApp profile, but through a combination of images from a previously published article by another publication, a local council press release, and the local authority.

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.

Findings of the Committee

14. Both parties accepted it was inaccurate to report the complainant had been arrested. The publication was unable to supply evidence that it had taken care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information on this point, as it was not aware of how the inaccuracy had occurred and had not set out what steps it had taken to prevent such inaccuracies from occurring. Therefore, there was a breach of Clause 1(i).

15. The Committee did not accept the publication’s argument it was not significantly inaccurate to report the complainant had been arrested as it was an “understandable error” and he had ultimately been convicted. Reporting accurately whether someone has been arrested ensures that the public are fully appraised of the facts of a case, in line with the principle of open justice. In these circumstances, the Committee considered this inaccuracy was significant and, as such, a correction was needed under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

16. Allowing for the time the publication needed to correspond with the complainant to ensure that the correction was accurate, the Committee considered the correction (and the amendment made to the article) was offered sufficiently promptly – 13 days after it was made aware of the potential inaccuracy. It considered a footnote correction to be sufficiently prominent, taking into account the fact the article had also been amended to remove the original inaccurate information, and the fact that information had only appeared in the text of the article – rather than in the headline. The wording of the correction also put the correct position on record, by making clear the complainant had not been arrested. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii) on this point.

17. By the end of IPSO’s investigation, it was not in dispute the publication had inaccurately reported the charges to which the complainant had pleaded guilty. The publication was also unable to supply evidence it had taken care not to publish inaccurate information on this point. Therefore, there was a breach of Clause 1(i).

18. The inaccuracy in question related to legal proceedings; the Committee noted the importance of ensuring such proceedings are reported accurately, to ensure the public are not misled as to the findings of the criminal justice system. Furthermore, the complainant was pleaded guilty of three charges and the article reported he had been found guilty of six, creating a worse impression of the outcome of the case. In such circumstances, the inaccuracy was significant and in need of correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). One day after receiving confirmation from the complainant’s solicitor as to the charges the complainant had pleaded guilty to, the publication had offered to correct this information. The Committee considered the correction identified the inaccurate information on this point – the incorrect charges – and put the correct position on the record in a sufficiently prominent position (as a footnote to the article). Given the correction was offered the day after the publication was made aware of the actual charges, the Committee considered it to be sufficiently prompt. There was no further breach of Clause 1(ii).

19. The Committee turned to whether it was inaccurate to report the complainant had “targeted” one of his clients with a kitchen renovation or “swindled them out of over £30,000”. The complainant did not dispute that he had been transferred approximately £30,000 by his client for work and that regardless of whether this money had been spent on materials, and that the work in question had not been completed. In such circumstances the Committee did not consider it inaccurate to state the client had been “swindled” out of £30,000. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The Committee noted that the images of the complainant did not appear to have been obtained directly through WhatsApp, but from a combination of material which had entered the public domain prior to the article’s publication. Additionally, the Committee did not consider the images of the complainant included any information over which the complainant would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, where they showed his likeness and did not reveal any private information about him. Though the Committee understood the complainant had concerns his other family members could be seen in the images, it noted that they were not visible in the images, beyond a few strands of hair. Considering these factors, there was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1 (i).

Remedial action required

22. The correction offered by the publication put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence. The correction should now be published.


Date complaint received: 02/10/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 10/04/2024