00252-21 Cohen v basingstokegazette.co.uk

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00252-21 Cohen v basingstokegazette.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Charlotte Cohen complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that basingstokegazette.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 6 (Children) and Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) in an article headlined “School staff accused of holding New Year's Eve party” published 5 January 2021.

2. The article described how a concerned parent had reported “members of staff from two [local] schools…for a possible Covid-19 rule break” after “photographs [emerged] allegedly showing [them] enjoying a New Year’s Eve party together”. The photographs had appeared with a Facebook post. The article showed the text of the Facebook post: “If you don’t know then you don’t need to say anything…great New Year’s with these people. Xmas bubble, childcare bubble, house moving bubble, food delivery bubble, hospital transporter bubble…not seen anyone else…all I need to say.” The article also showed the photographs that had appeared in the Facebook post although the faces of the individuals pictured were pixilated. The article reported that the concerned parent had said, “The post clearly shows a New Year’s Eve party indoors with zero social distancing and zero regards to ours and other children and families”. It also went on to report that a local councillor had advised a local resident “to report the alleged breach [of Covid rules] to the police”.

3. The complainant, a woman who attended the gathering and was pictured in the photographs, said the article breached Clause 1 as she considered that it alleged that she and her family had breached Covid rules. The complainant said that in fact the family were visiting a terminally ill relative, which she said was allowed by the rules. The complainant also said the article breached Clause 2 as the pixilated photographs published in the article had originally been published in a Facebook post made by her sister. The post was only accessible to around 140 Facebook friends of her sister. She also said the photograph led to a breach of Clause 6 as it showed her child. Finally, the complainant said that by alleging a breach of Covid rules, leading to hostility from members of the public, the article had also breached Clause 9.

4. The publication did not accept it had breached the Code. It emphasised that it did not claim as fact that the complainant and her family broke lockdown rules, but rather made clear that there were allegations of a rule break. It said its reporter had contacted a local councillor, the police, county council and the schools that employed the complainant and her sister. The county council confirmed that the matter was being investigated and the councillor had recommended that potential evidence of the alleged breach be forwarded to the police. In any event, it said that at the time of publication, it appeared likely that a breach of the rules had been committed due to the sarcastic nature of the Facebook post, the fact that no social distancing or mask wearing was evident in the image, and the fact that multiple households appeared to be engaged in a party.

5. With regard the complaint of intrusion, the publication accepted that the photo had only been shared to the complainant’s sister’s approximately 140 Facebook friends, one of whom had forwarded the post to the publication. However, the publication noted that it had pixilated and not named the individuals in the photographs, and highlighted that other material on the sister’s Facebook profile was publicly accessible. Further, it noted the public interest in illustrating an alleged Covid-19 rule breach by council employees who worked with local children. It emphasised that this public interest had been discussed and carefully considered prior to publication. Finally, with regard to Clause 6, it noted that no children were visible in the photographs or named in the report.

6. The publication offered to include a post-publication right of reply.

7. The complainant and publication were unable to agree the wording for the right of reply.

Relevant Code Provisions

8. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be correction, promptly and with due prominence, and –where appropriate– an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

9. Clause 2 (Privacy)

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

10. Clause 6 (Children)

i) All pupils should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.

11. Clause 9 (Reporting of crime)

i) Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.

12. Public interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

Findings of the Committee

13. The article did not claim as fact that the complainant or her family had broken lockdown rules, rather it clearly distinguished these claims as allegations made by a parent on the basis of the photographs, which it republished. It made clear what was alleged, namely household mixing during a New Year’s Eve party when Tier Four regulations did not allow this. The publication had also taken steps to check the accuracy of the claims before publication, including by contacting the complainant’s employer for comment. In light of the fact that the publication had presented the claims as such and had taken appropriate steps to verify them before publication, there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article and so there was no breach of Clause 1(i).

14. The Committee next considered whether the article contained a significant inaccuracy or misleading statement. The Committee noted that it was not its function to determine whether or not the rules had been breached. In any event, the claims that the family may have broken the rules had been clearly distinguished as allegations. There had been no confirmation that the allegations had since been dismissed or found to be ill-founded. The Committee was of the view that it was not significantly inaccurate to describe there having been allegations that the complainant had breached Covid rules. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii). Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s efforts to resolve the complaint. 

15. The Committee noted the limited intrusion into the complainant’s private life caused by the publication of the photographs from the Facebook post. However, the complainant was not named and she was heavily pixilated in the photograph; she would not have been identifiable to most readers. The photograph had also been visible to around 140 people on Facebook in any event and only showed family members engaged in a New Year’s Eve party. Such information was not especially private. Any intrusion caused by the publication of the photograph was limited given the extensive pixilation and clearly justified by the public interest of illustrating alleged wrongdoing and in making clear the nature of the evidence for the alleged Covid-19 rule breaches. There was no breach of Clause 2.

16. The article was about the alleged wrongdoing of the complainant and other adult attendees at the party. It did not discuss the actions of the complainant’s child nor did it even mention she had children. The photographs had pixilated the faces of those in the photograph, including the complainant’s child, and in the view of the Committee, the extent of the pixilation prevented the child from being identifiable either individually or as being a child. There was no unjustified intrusion into the complainant’s child’s time at school and no breach of Clause 6.

17. Clause 9 prevents the identification of relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime in circumstances where they are not genuinely relevant to the story. The article under complainant did not name the complainant or her child, and their faces were heavily pixilated. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that they were identified. In addition, with respect to the complainant, the Committee noted that the article reported allegations that she might have breached Covid regulations; she had not been presented as the relative or friend of a person so accused. There was no breach of Clause 9.

Conclusions

18. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

19. N/A

 

Date complaint received: 05/01/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 16/07/2021

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