PCC: Herald published inaccurate information about rape case, but offered sufficient remedy

The Press Complaints Commission has ruled that Glasgow’s Herald newspaper failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information in reports between 2001 and 2013 about a man charged with and then acquitted of rape.

But it has also said that the newspaper offered a sufficient remedy in the form of a series of corrections and amendments following the breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The complainant, Edward Watt, was acquitted in court in 2001 after the judge ruled that the jury could not find that the “will of the complainer had been overcome by the use of force by the accused”.

It was disputed whether or not the complainer had consented to sexual intercourse or not.

Under Scots law, the use of force was, generally, necessary for a conviction. But when the case was referred to the High Court of Justiciary, it found that in future the law of rape should be restated by reference to the complainer’s lack of consent, rather than the use or threat of force.

Watt complained to the PCC over a reader's letter from 2001, in which it was suggested he had “escaped conviction for rape”. He also complained over two 2007 articles reporting on proposals for changes to the law of rape, and two 2013 articles reporting on comments by his accuser on the issue of corroboration in rape cases.

Here is the PCC ruling in full:

Mr Edward Watt complained to the Press Complaints Commission that The Herald (Glasgow) had published five articles between 2001 and 2013 that contained inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The newspaper had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i) and had published significant inaccuracies, but had offered sufficient action to remedy the breach.

The complainant had been charged with rape in 2001 and acquitted at trial. The judge had ruled that the jury was not entitled to find, on the basis of the evidence, that the “will of the complainer had been overcome by the use of force by the accused”. At that time, such a finding was, generally, necessary for a conviction on a charge of rape under Scots law. Following his acquittal, the case was referred to the High Court of Justiciary, which ruled that – while the judge in the case had acted correctly – the general rule relating to the law of rape should be restated by reference to the complainer’s lack of consent, rather than (as previously) the use or threat of force.

The complaint related to the publication on the newspaper’s website of a reader’s letter that had been published following the complainant’s acquittal in 2001; two 2007 articles, which reported proposals for changes to the law of rape in Scotland and remained on the newspaper’s website; and two articles published in 2013, in print and online, reporting comments by his accuser on the issue of corroboration in rape cases.

The complainant said that the articles published in 2007 and 2013 had inaccurately stated, as fact, that the woman had not consented to sexual intercourse, in referring to his being acquitted “despite the fact that the woman had repeatedly said no”. To the contrary, the court had not made such a finding, and it had always been his position that the woman had consented to intercourse. The 2001 letter had therefore been wrong to suggest that he had “escaped conviction for rape”. Further, a headline to one of the 2013 articles, “Rape accuser: my case shows why need for corroboration should be scrapped” (published online only), had inaccurately suggested that his acquittal had turned on the issue of corroboration. The articles published in 2013 had inaccurately stated that his acquittal had prompted “public outrage” and made him a “hate figure” amongst women’s groups. The public had not been “outraged” – views were mixed – and he was not a “hate figure”.

The newspaper offered to delete the 2001 reader’s letter from its website, and to publish a correction and apology (in print and online) clarifying that the complainant had been acquitted of the charges against him under the law as it stood, explaining that he had maintained that his accuser had consented, and setting out the reasons for his acquittal. The correction it offered also explained that, contrary to one of the 2013 articles, no finding had been made by the court that the woman had not consented to sexual intercourse, and that the complainant had maintained that he had acted with consent. The newspaper further offered to publish corrections online to both of the articles originally published in 2007, again clarifying that the court had not made a finding on this issue. The newspaper did not consider that the headline reference to corroboration was misleading, in the context of the article. Nonetheless, it agreed to amend the headline online in light of the complaint.

The newspaper provided references to comments made by a Member of the Scottish Parliament and a spokesperson for Women’s Aid in Scotland in support of its claim that there had been “public outrage” about the case, and in response to reports that he had considered taking legal action against the woman. It did not accept that this amounted to a breach of Clause 1.

The complainant did not raise specific concerns about the sufficiency of the remedies offered by the newspaper in relation to the accuracy of coverage of his acquittal. However, he in any case requested that the Commission formally rule on his complaint.

Adjudication

Comments made by the judge in court at the complainant’s trial demonstrated that he had been acquitted because the evidence could not support a finding that the complainant had used force; that the court had not ruled on whether the woman had consented; and that the complainant had maintained that she had consented.  Despite the availability of evidence from the trial to the contrary, both the 2007 articles and one of the 2013 articles had suggested, wrongly, that the woman’s position that she had “repeatedly said no” was established fact.

While the Commission noted that in the 2013 article the newspaper had set out the complainant’s position that the woman was a “willing partner”, this was insufficient to correct the misleading information elsewhere in the article. Both the 2007 articles and the 2013 article had breached Clause 1(i). The breach was of particular significance as it would mislead readers about both the complainant’s personal position and the broader issues raised by the case. The newspaper had offered to correct this in a manner which, in the Commission’s view, was sufficient to remedy this initial breach, and those corrections should now be published without delay. 

The newspaper had accepted that the reader’s letter had contained significant inaccuracies regarding the complainant’s acquittal. The publication of the letter, in the context of court proceedings, demonstrated a further breach of Clause 1 (i). The proposed remedy – deletion of the letter and publication of a correction and an apology to the complainant – was sufficient for the newspaper to comply with its obligations under Clause 1(ii), and to remedy the initial breach; the Commission noted that the apology offered was appropriate and necessary, given the potential for the allegations published to affect the complainant’s position. The newspaper should now take these steps. 

With regard to the complainant’s concern about the headline reference, online, to the case “show[ing] why [the] need for corroboration should be scrapped”, the Commission made clear that it considers headlines in their full context. The article had made clear the basis for the complainant’s acquittal, and in the Commission’s view the headline had represented the woman’s comments on her experiences of the criminal justice system. This had not suggested that the court’s decision in the complainant’s case had turned on the issue of corroboration and, in this context, the headline was not significantly misleading.

The Commission did not agree that references to “public outrage” and the complainant as a “hate figure” were significantly misleading. The acquittal had prompted strong criticism, both of the law and of the complainant personally; this was borne out by the terms of the 2001 reader’s letter. The references did not suggest that such a view was universal, but the newspaper was entitled to regard statements by members of the Scottish Parliament and groups that advocate for women’s rights as representative of the views of a section of the public.

There were no further issues to pursue under the Editors’ Code. 

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