A professional counsellor yesterday won an apology from the Daily Mail, which admitted in court that it had harmed and distressed her by publishing defamatory allegations about her medical history. Baylissa Frederick, author and founder of the charity Recovery Road, which helped people suffering from addiction to tranquillisers, sleeping pills and anti-depressants, also received undisclosed damages.
The case is a vivid example of the damage that grossly inaccurate reporting can cause to ordinary people.
The article in March 2013, under the headline ‘Drug that steals women’s lives’, alleged incorrectly that Ms Frederick had been addicted to Valium since 1998 and that the drug ‘blighted her life’. The true facts were that she had once been addicted to a different drug which she had been prescribed for a physical condition and crucially that she had made a full recovery – a recovery which formed the subject of her books and was the basis of her reputation as a counsellor.
As a result of the Mail article many people accused her of lying about her past and betraying victims of addiction to tranquillisers, sleeping pills and antidepressants.
Today, 14 months after the damage was inflicted and nearly a year after Ms Frederick first contacted the paper seeking a correction, the paper’s lawyer, Louise Turner, appeared at the High Court while an agreed statement was read [pdf]:
‘The defendant [the Daily Mail] is here today by its solicitor to acknowledge that the allegations which it published about Baylissa Frederick were incorrect. In particular it is happy to accept that she has recovered fully from her former addiction and that she has not given a misleading or contradictory account of her experiences.
‘The defendant has agreed to apologise to Ms Frederick for the harm and distress caused by the article. It has made Ms Frederick’s requested changes to the online article and agreed to pay her damages together with her legal costs.’
Although the original article appeared in the print edition of the paper, the settlement does not include a correction in print.
Ms Frederick issued a statement through her solicitors, Simons Muirhead & Burton, expressing her relief at being vindicated and looking forward to rebuilding her career.
‘My only intention was to promote awareness of prescribed drug addiction. Instead I was faced with a most embarrassing, distressing and emotionally draining situation that left me reeling and at a loss as to how to salvage my reputation. But I knew I could not and would not give in. I persisted because of a strong sense of responsibility to ensure the right and ethical thing was done.’
Frederick is the author of ‘Recovery and Renewal: Your Essential Guide to Overcoming Dependency and Withdrawal from Sleeping Pills, Other Benzo Tranquillisers and Antidepressants’ and ‘With Hope in my Heart: a Memoir’. Her experience, her public speaking and the Recovery Road website had made her and her charity prominent both in Britain and the US.
The Mail contacted her in 2013 about addiction to prescription drugs and she spoke to a reporter. The article which followed alleged that she had been prescribed Valium in 1998 and this had ‘blighted her existence’. It said:‘Valium had left her suffering around 40 seizures a day’. It also quoted her saying: ‘I haven’t had a complete night’s sleep since 2005, so I am constantly exhausted and forgetful.’ And it said: ‘Her neurologist has confirmed that her enduring health problems are caused by her taking Valium for nearly a decade, but says there is nothing that can be done to help her.’
None of this was true. On seeing the article, some readers of her books and supporters of Recovery Road felt betrayed, and comments flooded on to the Mail website.
At first Frederick thought this would blow over but months later she was still writing rebuttals and had to delete her twitter account and disable comments on Facebook and YouTube. When she contacted the Mail and pointed out the inaccuracies, the paper did not accept the article was defamatory, nor would it retract or correct it.
A Hacked Off spokesperson said:
‘The case of the Mail’s libelling of Baylissa Frederick is a shocking one. This is another instance of dogged refusal by the Mail to correct errors when they are pointed out. As the Daily Mail has acknowledged, the life and career of someone who is striving to do good in our society were gravely damaged, but it is just as shameful that she was forced to start a legal battle and had to wait a year to be vindicated.
‘This country needs far quicker and better remedies for wrongdoing of this kind, and it also needs to know that the wrongdoer learns from experience. The Mail has paid damages in this case, but will that stop it libelling some innocent person again next week or next month?
‘To uphold press standards we need an effective, independent system of press self-regulation, on the lines recommended by Lord Justice Leveson and embodied in the Royal Charter. Not only will this ensure that papers learn lessons, but it will provide arbitration, giving ordinary people quicker, cheaper access to justice. Sadly and again shamefully, the Daily Mail and some other papers are backing a fake regulator, IPSO, that will cheat the public of fair treatment like its predecessor the PCC.’