Local paper censured over “lesbian lover” headline

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The Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint that a newspaper printed an inaccurate headline about a lesbian woman.

“Man attacked girlfriend’s lesbian lover,” which appeared in the January 26th edition of the Isle of Wight County Press, was judged to breach the PCC Code of Practice.

Ms Leila Mahmoud, of Ryde, had been the subject of an assault by her friend’s boyfriend, who had pleaded guilty at his trial.

In court the man claimed he was upset because he had discovered his girlfriend and Ms Mahmoud were having an affair.

Although his claim was completely unfounded, the weekly Isle of Wight County Press printed it as fact.

The newspaper said it had accurately reported what was said in court and a subsequent report on the man’s sentencing made reference to the girlfriend’s unhappiness at her boyfriend’s “disgusting and embarrassing allegations, which caused her family to question her sexuality.”

However, the paper refused to publish a letter from Ms Mahmoud setting out her denial of the affair on the basis that it lacked legal privilege and could leave the newspaper open to defamation proceedings.

Ms Mahmoud complained to the PCC, who agreed that the reporting was inaccurate.

While the Commission agreed that the editor was not responsible for the accuracy of what was said in court, the PCC Code’s requirements on accuracy in this area relate to how proceedings are reported, not to the actual comments made during legal hearings.

“Clause 1 (Accuracy) states that newspapers ‘must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.'” the PCC ruling stated.

“In the headline and the first paragraph of the article, the newspaper had stated as fact that the complainant (Ms Mahmoud) and the man’s ex-girlfriend had been lovers, when the correct position was that this was an allegation presented to the court in mitigation.

“The Commission considered that there was a material distinction between these positions, and that readers may have been misled into believing that the claim had been accepted as established fact.

“This should have been enough for the editor to engage with the Commission in trying to find an amicable resolution to the complaint.

“The Commission saw no reason why a flexible approach on the matter, depending on the particular circumstances of this case, would deprive the editor of his discretion in the future to deal with complaints about court reports as he wished.”

The complaint was upheld.