The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by a front-page headline published in print by Woman’s Day on 27 May 2019 “PALACE CONFIRMS THE MARRIAGE IS OVER! WHY HARRY WAS LEFT WITH NO CHOICE BUT TO END IT”, leading on to an article on page 12 headed “THIS IS THE FINAL STRAW! Bombshell revelations about Meghan push a distraught Harry to breaking point”.
The article said “Prince Harry has been left ‘enraged and humiliated’ by a series of shock revelations about his wife’s past – now it’s feared the sensational developments could spell the end of his year-long marriage.” The article went on to outline what it said was the Duchess of Sussex’s “online relationship” with British singer Matt Cardle. The article also refers to Meghan as being “absent from royal duties” and reportedly urging “close friends to say positive things about her in a documentary” which defies “royal protocol.” The article quoted a source revealing that the Prince “has finally reached breaking point” about these “new revelations” and that he “finds it all so demeaning and humiliating”. The article also said “Until now Harry has been giving Meghan the benefit of the doubt“, says our source. “But he’s only willing to take so much and it’s reached the stage where enough is truly enough.”
Following a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the front-page headline breaches the Council’s Standards of Practice.
In response, the publication said that weekly celebrity publications provide light entertainment and that readers of those publications understand this is the case. It said it would be unreasonable to hold such publications to a standard similar to that of other news media.
The publication also said that, given the entertainment focus of such magazines, readers expect a level of exaggeration in coverlines and headlines. It said that a similar complaint could be made of almost every issue of every celebrity weekly publication and click-bait headlines which are common within the digital news media. The publication also said it had received no complaint in relation to the article from any person—or representative of any person—referred to in the article.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate, misleading, unfair or unbalanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council acknowledges that celebrity and gossip magazines are purchased for light entertainment, with readers not necessarily assuming that everything presented is factual. Accordingly, some latitude is given for factual exaggeration and inaccuracies in publications of this kind and whether statements are really “factual material” for the purposes of applying General Principle 1 and 3. The Council also acknowledges that the reasonable steps required to be accurate and not misleading in an article concerning royalty or celebrities can, depending on the circumstances, be different to those required in respect of other persons, particularly those who are not usually in the public eye.
However, in this case the headline made a statement that was blatantly incorrect and not supported by the article’s contents. While an entertainment publication can be expected to use some exaggeration, the headline was expressed as an unqualified fact that the Palace had confirmed the marriage was over. The Council considers that the statement in the headline was such that it was more than just an exaggeration, and that it was misleading. Accordingly, General Principle 1 and 3 were breached. Given the arguments available to the publication about the application of the Council’s Standards and that the Palace did not make a complaint to the Press Council, it was reasonable for it to not publish a correction or response during the Council’s complaints process and there was no breach of General Principles 2 or 4.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.