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Watchdog raps weekly for calling harassment convict a ‘stalker’

The press watchdog has rapped a weekly newspaper after it described a man convicted of harassment as a “stalker”.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation has upheld a complaint against the South Wales Guardian by Philip Raeburn, who was found guilty of harassment without violence.

The Guardian’s headline in its coverage of the case described Raeburn as a “stalker”, while it did not state the specific offence of which he had been convicted in the accompanying story.

Instead, the paper reported that he had been found guilty of “pursuing and pestering a woman despite her wishes to avoid all contact with him”.

Swansea Magistrates' Court

Swansea Magistrates’ Court

After an investigation, IPSO ruled that the use of the term “stalker” was inaccurate because stalking is defined as a separate offence in law.

Complaining under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, Raeburn said he had originally been charged with stalking, assault, and criminal damage, but those charges were dropped after his first hearing.

He supplied his charge sheet to the Guardian on the same day he complained to IPSO, and said it was therefore inaccurate to report that he was a “stalker” because this was a separate and more serious charge that the court had dropped.

Raeburn added it was inaccurate to report he had been tried in Llanelli Magistrates Court, and the correct position was that the court was West Glamorgan Magistrates Court, in Swansea.

Denying any breach of Code, the Guardian said the story was taken from court documents which included the charge of stalking using an online service, but was unable to provide evidence for this as it no longer had access to this service.

It said the headline was accurate as it considered the word “stalker” was not misleading where Raeburn had been found guilty of harassment and that stalking could be defined as persistent and unwanted attention that makes the victim feel pestered and harassed.

Nearly three weeks after Raeburn sent it his charge sheet, and 10 days after IPSO referred the matter as a possible breach of Code, the Guardian amended its headline to remove the word “stalker”.

An online correction was subsequently published almost two months after Raeburn had initially made the Guardian aware of his concerns and almost six weeks after IPSO referred the complaint.

IPSO found the difference between stalking and harassment to be meaningful given that the former term was itself defined as a separate offence in law.

In addition, as the charge of “harassment without violence” was not referred to in the story itself readers were not able to ascertain what crime Raeburn had been found guilty of, nor that the separate charge of stalking had been dropped.

As such, the characterisation of Raeburn as a “stalker” was misleading as to the nature of his conviction, which IPSO ruled represented a failure to take care not to print inaccurate information.

The Committee added the publication of the wrong court represented a further breach of Clause 1, while the published correction was not sufficiently prompt.

IPSO considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a further correction, rather than an upheld adjudication.

The complaint was upheld, and the full adjudication can be read here.