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Complainant Name:
Julie Johnson

Clauses Noted: 1, 3

Publication: The Echo (Basildon)


Julie Johnson complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined "Dad jailed for 21st birthday wishes to son", published by The Echo (Basildon) on 7 June 2013, was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) and intrusive in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) 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, but had offered sufficient action to remedy the breach. The complaint under Clause 3 was not upheld.

The article reported that the complainant's former husband, Gary Johnson, had been found in contempt of court and imprisoned in May 2013 for breaching a 2007 "gagging order" by posting a 21st birthday greeting to his son on Facebook. The article, which named the complainant and the town she lives in, also reported that, following their "bitter divorce" in 2005, the complainant had made "unproven claims" about Mr Johnson's mental health and his ability to care for their two sons.

The complainant said that the article contained a number of inaccuracies. Most significantly, 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. The complainant denied that she had raised concerns about her former husband's mental health, or that she had complained to social services that he was "neglecting" their children. She also considered that her identification in the report was an intrusion into her privacy and the privacy of another immediate family member, who was not directly connected with the proceedings but would; the complainant believed, be associated with them within their local community because of the reporting.

The newspaper said it had seen the judge's notes from the May hearing, which demonstrated that the Facebook greeting had been mentioned; Mr Johnson maintained that it had been a factor in his case, and that it was cited during the proceedings as an example of a further breach of the court-imposed "gagging order". Mr Johnson had been serving a suspended sentence following a judgement in September 2011 that he had breached the order by posting about his children on Facebook. The newspaper also noted that a Member of Parliament had expressed public concern about the Facebook aspect of the case. Nevertheless, it accepted that the birthday greeting had not been the primary basis on which he had been sentenced, and it offered to publish a correction on page 5 of its print edition acknowledging that "Mr Johnson was not jailed for the Facebook message alone", and that he had "made earlier postings which were not on Facebook", along with an apology for any upset caused.

The newspaper said that documentation released by the local council by order of the court proved that the complainant had raised concerns about her former partner's mental health, as well as the cleanliness of his home, and his ability to care for their children. On these points, therefore, the newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It also did not accept any breach of Clause 3. The complainant was directly relevant to the proceedings and the other family member about whom the complainant was concerned had not been identified or referred to.

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 said it had relied upon Mr Johnson's belief that his Facebook greeting was taken into account by the judge in his case, and it also said it had sight of the judge's notes from the hearing, which demonstrated that the message had been mentioned. In a highly contentious and disputed case such as this, however, the Commission was of the view that this material was not sufficient to demonstrate that the newspaper had taken proper care over the accuracy of the story, which had claimed as fact that Mr Johnson had been jailed over the Facebook message and made no mention of the earlier breach.

As a transcript of the May proceedings was not available, the Commission was ultimately unable to establish the extent to which the judge in Mr Johnson's case had been influenced by his Facebook message. Nonetheless, it was plain and accepted by the newspaper that the committal hearing followed on from proceedings that predated the message, and that it had not been the sole reason for Mr Johnson's imprisonment. The newspaper's offer of remedy, which correctly stated the basis for Mr Johnson's imprisonment as well as noting the Facebook greeting, struck an appropriate balance on this point, and its prompt publication would be sufficient to meet the newspaper's obligation to correct significantly misleading information.

The remaining issues related to the complainant's concerns under Clause 1 and Clause 3 about references to her in the report. Documentation from the local council showed that it had recorded the complainant registering concerns about her 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 a breach of Clause 1 on these points.

Clause 3 (Privacy) states that "everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life". As the complainant had argued as part of her complaint, the legal proceedings against Mr Johnson were not "secret". His imprisonment stemmed directly from their dispute over custody of the children; in this context her identification by name and the rough area in which she lives did not raise a breach of Clause 3. There was also no breach of Clause 3 in relation to her other, unnamed, family member, who had not been identified or referred to in the coverage. The complaint under Clause 3 was not upheld.

Date Published:

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