Ruling

22804-23 A woman v The Gazette (North East, Middlesbrough & Teesside)

  • Complaint Summary

    A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Gazette (North East, Middlesbrough & Teesside) breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published in late 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      5th June 2024

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 11 Victims of sexual assault, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 22804-23 A woman v The Gazette (North East, Middlesbrough & Teesside)


Summary of Complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Gazette (North East, Middlesbrough & Teesside) breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published in late 2023.

2. This decision has been written in general terms, to avoid identifying an alleged victim of a sexual offence.

3. The article reported on a court case against the complainant. The article included the complainant’s street level address and included an image of her. The article described biographical details about the complainant, her offence, and her feelings towards the victim. It quoted the prosecution in the case, as well as the victim.

4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form and was shared on Facebook.

5. The complainant said the online article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as it had inaccurately presented a comment made by the victim in relation to an allegation made by the complainant as a statement of fact – she said this was his opinion and should have been presented as such. She also complained that the article had used inaccurate terms to describe her behaviour and feelings towards her victim. She also said it had included a misleading photograph of her, which she believed had been edited and cropped to create a negative impression of her.

6. The complainant said the article had identified her as a victim of sexual assault in breach of Clause 11. She said that only the Police, her GP, counsellors and a few of her family and close friends knew about the assault. She said that the article had referred to the road where she lived – which only had a small number of residents – and therefore readers would know she was a victim and where she lived. She said she had faced cruel comments from strangers and questions from friends and acquaintances who did not previously know about the assault.

7. The complainant complained under Clause 2, Clause 4 and Clause 12 for the same reasons noted above.

8. Prior to contacting IPSO, the complainant contacted the publication directly and requested an apology and for the article to be taken down. 14 days after the complainant contacted the publication, having investigated her claims, it accepted that the online article had had inaccurately presented the comment from her victim as fact, rather than as his view of the complainant. The publication therefore amended the online article to make this clear this was a comment and not a statement of fact, and published a footnote correction.

9. The complainant then complained to IPSO. In her complaint to IPSO, she also flagged that the article had been shared on Facebook. During the IPSO investigation, and in the publication’s first substantive response to IPSO during the process – 53 days after the complainant first contacted the publication – it added an apology to the existing correction.

10. The publication also offered to republish the amended article with the correction wording as a new post on Facebook, should the complainant accept that this would resolve her complaint. It also proposed to remove the original Facebook post.

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 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault)

The press must not identify or publish material likely to lead to the identification of a victim of sexual assault unless there is adequate justification and they are legally free to do so. Journalists are entitled to make enquiries but must take care and exercise discretion to avoid the unjustified disclosure of the identity of a victim of sexual assault.

Clause 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

11. The publication accepted that the online article and Facebook post had presented the victim’s comment as fact. The article therefore had not distinguished between comment and fact and for this reason, there was a breach of Clause 1 (iv).

12. The Committee also acknowledged the importance of accurately reporting court proceedings, given the important role newspapers play in providing the public with an insight into the criminal justice system. For these reasons, presenting this claim as fact was significantly inaccurate and therefore required correction under Clause 1 (ii).

13. The Committee considered whether the breach of the Code had been sufficiently remedied, in line with the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The publication had published a footnote correction 14 days after the complainant had made it aware of her concerns, and added an apology once the IPSO investigation had begun. The wording corrected the original article and put the correct position on record. The Committee also considered an apology was appropriate and was satisfied that the publication had added an apology to its correction. The Committee was satisfied that the correction corrected the record and was suitably prominent, given where the original inaccuracy appeared, and the article had been amended to remove the inaccurate information at the same time the correction was published.

14. The Committee next considered the promptness of the remedial action. It noted that the complainant had made the publication aware of her concerns regarding the inaccurate claim. However, it had taken the publication 14 days to add a correction and a further 39 days to add an apology. In the Committee’s view the apology was not sufficiently prompt and this represented a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

15. The Committee then considered whether the Facebook post, which also contained the inaccurate information, had been appropriately corrected as required by Clause 1 (ii). The Committee considered that the proposed Facebook post – which would include corrective wording – corrected the inaccurate Facebook post. The Committee also considered that the apology included in the proposed post was appropriate, given the reasons outlined. The Committee also considered that the proposed Facebook post was a suitably prominent location for the correction, where the original inaccurate information had appeared in a Facebook post. Turning next to the promptness of this corrective action, the publication had proposed a Facebook correction once IPSO had made it aware of the complainant’s concerns regarding the Facebook post – albeit this was several weeks after it was first made aware of the complaint. However, on balance, it considered this was sufficiently prompt, where the complainant had not particularised her concerns around the Facebook post until she made her complaint to IPSO and the publication did not therefore appear aware that the social media post was under complaint until this point. Notwithstanding this, the Committee wished to stress the importance of ensuring that all versions of an article are corrected promptly. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii) in relation to the proposed correction to the inaccurate Facebook post.

16. While the online version of the article and accompanying Facebook post included significantly inaccurate information, the print article made clear that the allegation was the claim of victim, who was quoted directly. While the Committee appreciated the complainant disputed this position, the article had sufficiently distinguished between comment and fact and it was not in dispute that the victim had said this. Therefore, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The Committee next considered the accuracy of a term the article had used to describe the complainant’s age. In such circumstances, the Committee was of the view that, read in the context of the article as a whole, the reference under complaint was not inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. The Committee also considered whether the article breached Clause 1 by using a description of the complainant’s behaviour in regard to her offence. It noted that the article made clear the complainant had been convicted of and set out the nature of her offence. The Committee did not consider the term to be inaccurate, as the basis that this description was set out in the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The Committee next considered another term used to describe the complainant feelings towards her victim. The Committee noted the article was entitled to characterise the complainant in this way and did not consider this term to be significantly inaccurate. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The Committee also considered the image of the complainant. The Committee noted that it did not appear that it had distorted the image so much that she was unrecognisable. Further, it was not inaccurate to depict only the complainant where she was the defendant in the court case which the article reported. For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1.

21. Turning to Clause 11, the complainant said the article had identified her as a victim of sexual assault. The Committee firstly wished to express its sympathies to the complainant. However, the Committee did not consider that the article identified the complainant as a victim of sexual assault, where the article made no reference to such an assault. Where the complainant was not identified as a victim of sexual assault in the article, the publication was entitled to identify the complainant as a defendant in open court. There was no breach of Clause 11.

22. The Committee considered the complainant’s concerns that the article was misogynistic and ageist. The Committee noted that age is not a protected characteristic under the Code and therefore concerns that the article was ageist or used pejorative or prejudicial terms about the complainant’s age did not engage Clause 12. The Committee then considered the terms used to describe the complainant in relation to her sex, and whether these references breached the terms of the Clause. While the complainant highlighted a term she believed referred to her sex - the Committee did not accept this term referred to her sex in a prejudicial or pejorative way. The Committee noted that the term under complaint could be used for any gender, and that there was a factual basis for this description which resulted in her being found guilty of the offence. The Committee therefore considered that the use of the term under complaint was a reference to the complainant’s behaviour, rather than her sex. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 12.

23. The complainant also complained under Clause 2 and Clause 4, although she did not explicitly explain how the article breached these Clauses. The Committee noted that the information included in the article had already been heard in open court. As this information was already in the public domain, publishing the information did not mean that the publication had not respected her private life. Further, the complainant did not produce any correspondence prior to publication which suggested the publication had approached her in an insensitive way. The Committee acknowledged the complainant had concerns about the accuracy of the article, however, it did not report the court case in a manner which was insensitive. There was no breach of Clause 2 and Clause 4.

Conclusions

24. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

25. 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.

26. The Committee considered the online article inaccurately reported a claim as fact. The publication had amended this reference once it had been made aware of the inaccuracy and published a correction; it had therefore taken clear steps to remedy the complainant’s concerns. However, the corrective action was not undertaken with due promptness, given the lapse in time between the publication being made aware of the complainant’s concerns and the publication of the online correction and apology. It further noted that the inaccuracy arose from a single reference in the article.

27. Therefore, on balance, the Committee considered that a correction was the appropriate remedy. It considered that the wording and placement of the existing correction already published corrected the inaccuracy. However, in light of the fact that the complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (ii) the correction should be amended to make clear that IPSO had upheld a complaint in relation to the inaccuracy. The wording of this addition should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

28. The Facebook correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.


Date complaint received: 21/12/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 20/05/2024