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Complainant Name:
Julie Johnson

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: Daily Mail


Julie Johnson complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined "Secret court jails father for sending son Facebook greeting on his birthday", published by the Daily Mail on 1 June 2013, was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.

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

The article reported that the complainant's former husband, Gary Johnson, had been given a prison sentence at a "secret hearing" in May 2013 for posting a 21' birthday greeting on Facebook to one of their two sons. This followed a lengthy dispute over custody arrangements between Mr Johnson and the complainant and the imposition of a court order in 2007 prohibiting Mr Johnson from publishing material about their sons online. It claimed further that Mr Johnson had not been told that the hearing was about the greeting or that he was entitled to have a lawyer present, and had not known that imprisonment was a possible outcome. hi a brief leader comment inset in the coverage, the newspaper described the case as a "terrifying" example of the threat posed by the erosion of "the principle of openness that has underpinned British justice for centuries" and described Mr Johnson as having been "sent to prison in secret".

The complainant said that the coverage contained a number of inaccuracies. Contrary to the published claims, Mr Johnson had not been imprisoned for the Facebook incident; he had been sentenced based on a court's finding in November 2012 - before the incident - that he was in breach of a court order for having failed to remove material he had posted on the internet about their sons. Mr Johnson had been aware of the nature of the hearing in advance, and he would have been informed that he had a right to legal representation. Moreover, the proceedings were not "secret". She denied having previously started "private care proceedings" in order to obtain custody of their sons or having complained to social services that Mr Johnson was "neglecting" the children and had mental health problems. In addition, the children had not been subject to a "living at home with parent" care order, which did not exist. She considered that the newspaper should have contacted her to verify its story before publication.

The newspaper said its story had been based on information provided by Mr Johnson through the two sons, who had also commented on their concerns about his experience. The newspaper said it had "no reason to disbelieve Mr Johnson's account especially when it was confirmed by third parties connected to him". A solicitor who had acted for the sons had confirmed the story, as had two Members of Parliament who had provided assistance to Mr Johnson during the lengthy dispute and had commented on the case publicly. The newspaper did not accept that it had failed to take care over the accuracy of the coverage generally, nor that it had published any inaccuracy in relation to the complainant's actions or the custody issues. It provided documents - obtained during the course of the PCC investigation - which it said substantiated these claims.

The newspaper emphasised that Mr Johnson maintained that he had believed that the court hearing related to another legal issue; that he had never received a copy of the 2012 judgment finding him in contempt of court; and that the Facebook greeting had been referred to by the judge at the committal hearing, of which no transcript existed. Journalists from other publications could not find the hearing despite requests to the courts service, and Mr Johnson himself had trouble finding it. The courts service had appeared unsure in correspondence with Mr Johnson about where and when the hearing would take place. The Judicial Office of the Royal Courts of Justice had accepted in direct correspondence with the newspaper, following the publication of the report, that the case "may not have been listed as publicly as it should have been". It had not been listed at the court or online. The complainant had not been at the hearing, so was not in a position to know what happened.

Nonetheless, the newspaper accepted that it had published inaccuracies about the proceedings: notwithstanding Mr Johnson's position, the custodial sentence had in fact been imposed based on events that predated the Facebook incident, and the hearing was not "secret" in the sense that it was closed to members of the public. At an early stage in the correspondence - following a separate complaint from another body - it had offered to publish an item in its page 2 Clarifications and corrections column accepting that "although no press were present and there were no public listings of the hearing, it was not meant to be secret and the father was jailed for failing to abide by court orders requiring him to remove particular references to his children from the internet" and apologising for having suggested otherwise.

Sufficient remedial action offered


The Code does not prescribe how publications must fulfil the requirement set out in Clause 1 (i) for publications to "take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information". In this instance, the newspaper had sought comment from a number of parties, but all were connected to Mr Johnson or his sons, who had supported him in the dispute. It had not tested the claims against alternative views of this exceptionally and obviously contentious case, such as the complainant's, or referred to some of the most relevant documentation of the legal proceedings. Given the nature of the claims, the Commission was not persuaded that the newspaper had taken sufficient care over the accuracy of the story. It established a breach of Clause 1 (i).

The newspaper had accepted that it had published significant inaccuracies in relation to the reason for Mr Johnson's prison sentence and the status of the hearing and proposed to publish a correction and apology. The Commission considered carefully the adequacy of this offer, noting that by highlighting the case as an example of "secret justice" and using it as the basis for a leader comment, the newspaper had given the claims particular weight.

Counterbalancing this, however, were a number of factors. First, the newspaper's criticism had rested on a broader set of facts, many of which remained unchallenged. It was accepted that Mr Johnson's custodial sentence had been imposed in relation to internet postings that remained online at a time when both of his sons were adults. Second, Mr Johnson's sons, who had direct knowledge of the circumstances, had actively sought to publicise their father's position; their concerns about the case raised matters of public interest, and the Commission had no indication that they or Mr Johnson regarded the coverage as inaccurate. In particular, Mr Johnson maintained that he had not received critical information about the case in advance of the hearing, and that the Facebook message had been cited in the context of his sentencing; neither the complainant nor the Commission was in a position to establish conclusively that these claims were inaccurate. Finally, although it fell far short of justifying the claim that this was an example of the "secret courts" system, the Commission placed some weight on the courts' apparent acceptance that the hearing "may not have been listed as publicly as it should have been".

On balance, the Commission concluded that the publication of the correction and apology the newspaper had offered would be sufficient to meet its obligation under the Code to correct misleading information on these points.

It remained for the Commission to consider the complainant's denials that she had "started private care proceedings"; that the boys had been under a "living at home with parent" care order; and that she had raised concerns with social services that Mr Johnson was neglecting the children and had mental health problems. Documentation provided by the newspaper showed that the complainant had applied for a Contact Order for her two sons under "private law proceedings" in February 2006. The newspaper had also shown that social services had written to Mr Johnson referring to the two boys as being under a "Placement at Home Agreement" and that a record had been made by the local council that the complainant had registered concerns about the children's wellbeing and Mr Johnson's mental health. The Commission had also been provided with copies of evaluations of Mr Johnson's mental health which showed that medical professionals regarded these concerns as unfounded. The Commission did not establish any significant inaccuracies on these points, and there was no further breach of Clause

Date Published:

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