Decision of the Complaints Committee 00278-15, Pearson v Daily Star
Summary of complaint
Summary of complaint
1. Linda Pearson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Star had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Privacy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Too fat to wash! Grubby gran who weighed 27 stone didn’t have a bath for 20 years”, published online only on 16 January 2015.
2. The article was based on an interview given by the complainant to a press agency and reported that the complainant had lost 16 stone.
3. The complainant said the article’s headline had been inaccurate, intrusive and discriminatory. While she had not bathed for 20 years, she had washed; she was not “grubby”. The newspaper had wrongly reported that she had visited a private surgery, and a caption had incorrectly stated that she had a gastric band fitted; rather, she had undergone a gastric bypass. The article had also intruded into her grandson’s private life: he had been taunted as a result of it and had missed school.
4. The newspaper accepted that the article’s headline had been inaccurate and it apologised for the distress this had caused. It had amended the article within hours of publication and it published the following apology on its homepage and alongside the online article:
In our article “Too fat to wash” published on 16 January 2015 we said that Linda Pearson had not had a bath for 20 years because she was too fat and had not therefore washed. This is of course untrue and we apologise to Mrs Pearson for any hurt and distress the article may have caused.”
5. The newspaper also accepted that the complainant had not had a gastric band fitted and had not visited a private clinic. It offered to amend the online article accordingly and to append the following note:
“This article was amended on 29 January 2015. An earlier version of the article stated that Mrs Pearson had a gastric band and that she had approached a private clinic in respect of seeking treatment. Mrs Pearson has advised us that she did not attend a private clinic and actually underwent a gastric bypass rather than having a gastric band fitted, the article was amended to reflect this.”
6. The newspaper did not accept that the remaining issues raised a breach of the Code. While it was sorry that the complainant’s grandson had been bullied, the piece had not named him and so it had not intruded into his private life in breach of Clause 3. Obesity was not a physical disability therefore there was no breach of Clause 12.
7. The complainant said the newspaper had published the online apology without her agreement. While the headline had been corrected promptly, the damage had been done, and other online publications, including a local newspaper, had already republished it. She requested compensation.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
Clause 3 (Privacy)
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.
Clause 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Findings of the Committee
9. The article’s headline had substantially misrepresented information provided by the complainant in the interview: at no point had the complainant said she had not washed for 20 years. This represented a clear failure by the newspaper to take care not to publish inaccurate information, which had caused significant distress to the complainant and her family. This aspect of the complaint under Clause 1 (i) was upheld.
10. Given that this was a serious and avoidable error that had the clear potential to cause distress to the complainant, a correction and an apology were required to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). When the newspaper was alerted to the error, it had corrected it promptly and it had published a correction, which included an apology, on its homepage and alongside the article. The Committee considered that this met the requirement of Clause 1 (ii) and there had therefore been no further breach in this regard.
11. The Committee did not consider that whether the complainant had been fitted with a gastric band or had undergone a gastric bypass was a significant point. These were both types of weight-loss surgery, which involved reducing the amount a stomach can hold. Whether the complainant had visited a private clinic was also not significant in the context of a story that focused on the complainant’s weight loss. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points. However, the Committee welcomed the fact the online article had been revised and a clarification appended due to the complainant’s concerns.
12. With regard to the complaint under Clause 3, the Committee noted that the complainant had disclosed her story to a news agency and had agreed to it being published. Although the publication of inaccurate information had, regrettably, affected her personal life and that of her grandson, this did not represent a breach of Clause 3.
13. Finally, the Committee considered the complainant’s concern that the article had been discriminatory in breach of Clause 12. While it sympathised with the complainant’s position that the inaccurate headline had been derogatory, the description of her as “fat” did not amount to a pejorative or discriminatory reference to a physical or mental illness or disability that would engage the terms of Clause 12.
14. The complaint was upheld in part.
Remedial Action Required
15. Having partially upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee has the power to require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication; the nature, extent and placement is to be determined by IPSO. It may inform the publication that further remedial action is required to ensure that the requirements of the Editors’ Code are met.
16. The article was corrected by the newspaper as soon as it was alerted to the error. It also published a correction, which identified the inaccuracy and made clear the true position, and which had included a suitable apology. As the article had originally appeared on the newspaper’s homepage, the publication of the correction on the home page and alongside the article was appropriate. No further action was required.
Date complaint received: 19/01/2015
Date decision issued: 26/03/2015Back to ruling listing