Decision of the Complaints Committee 00974-18 Vosper v The Times
Summary of complaint
1. Pippa Vosper complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The hardest part was the final goodbye”, published on 20 January 2018.
2. The article was a first-person account, written by the complainant, in which she detailed her experience of miscarriage at five months pregnant with her second child.
3. The article contained a post which the complainant had published on her Instagram account, in tribute to her son, which showed a cast that had been taken of his footprints. The article also contained a photograph of the complainant smiling in a dress, which had been taken in 2016.
4. The article was published in substantially the same form online , under the same headline.
5. The complainant said that she had written this highly personal story for another publication; she had not consented for it to be published by the newspaper.
6. The complainant said that she had been extremely distressed to discover that the newspaper had bought the article from the original publisher, and had republished it without her knowledge or consent. The original publisher had admitted to selling the story to the newspaper without her permission; the agreement was for single-use in print, but the item had also appeared on the newspaper’s website for three days. She said that the newspaper’s failure to inform her of its intention to publish the article had been insensitive.
7. The complainant also raised concern at the newspaper’s presentation of her story. She said that it was insensitive to publish her Instagram post; this had been a deeply personal and loving tribute to her son which she had not consented to being placed in a national newspaper. It was also insensitive to publish a historic photograph of her wearing a gown and smiling. The image had been taken for an unrelated purpose; its selection was inappropriate as it gave the impression that she had “recovered” and was at ease with the fact that only seven months previously, she had lost her son.
8. The complainant considered that the manner in which the newspaper had engaged with her complaint had also been insensitive. She had initially expressed her concern on Instagram, but had only received a brief comment from the newspaper in response. She then contacted a senior member of staff directly; they said that what had happened was “terrible”, but had offered no explanation for the story’s presentation or an apology. She also said that the subheadline: “Stylist Pippa Vosper was five months pregnant when she lost her son, yet she believes something positive can come from the darkest experience”, trivialised the grief she had suffered.
9. The newspaper expressed its condolences to the complainant for her loss and expressed regret that the article had caused her further distress. However, it did not accept that there had been anything insensitive about the way in which publication had been handled. It explained that it had bought the article from the original publisher in a perfectly proper manner; it was the seller’s responsibility to settle terms with the author of the article before it was syndicated, not the buyer.
10. The newspaper also noted that the article had originally been published in a magazine with a circulation of 200,000, and it remained available on that magazine’s website which attracted three million readers each month. It therefore strongly denied the suggestion that republishing the piece – with or without the writer’s prior knowledge –had breached Clause 4.
11. The newspaper also denied that it had presented the story in a manner that was insensitive. The original article had been accompanied by a number of specially commissioned photographs. It was open to the original publisher, or the complainant, to make the use of those images a condition of sale. In the absence of any such condition, the newspaper had been free to accompany the piece with whatever images it had considered appropriate.
12. It said that the complainant had posted hundreds of images of herself on social media, and many photographs taken by professional photographers were also publicly available. It disagreed with the complainant’s opinion that the image of her, which it had selected for publication, had made her look inappropriately “carefree”.
13. With regard to its use of the image of the baby’s footprints, the newspaper said that the complainant had posted this photograph on a public Instagram account, which had more than 46,000 followers. It noted that in her original article, the complainant had made specific reference to the impact of this post, and the number of women who had been prompted to share their own stories as a result of it. As such, the newspaper considered that the image was an important part of the experience the complainant had described in the article; its publication was neither intrusive nor gratuitous.
14. The newspaper also denied that it had failed to handle the complainant’s concerns with sensitivity. The weekend the article was published, the complainant had posted a number of angry comments on social media. In response, the newspaper had explained the position regarding syndication, and senior staff had subsequently apologised for any distress caused, but all overtures had been rejected.
Relevant Code provisions
15. Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)
In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.
Findings of the Committee
16. The Committee wished to express its sincere condolences to the complainant and her family for their loss.
17. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s distress that the article, which was deeply personal in nature, had been republished in a national newspaper without her knowledge or consent. However, the newspaper had bought the piece from the original publisher on the understanding that the author of the article had provided her consent. The fact that the newspaper had not contacted the complainant separately to ensure that she was content with the agreement did not represent insensitive handling of the story in breach of Clause 4. Furthermore, any dispute regarding the specific contractual arrangement in place was a legal matter that was not for consideration under the Code.
18. The Committee understood that the photograph the complainant had taken of her son’s footprints was extremely personal to her, and it acknowledged that she was distressed by its publication in the newspaper. However, the complainant had put the image in the public domain by posting it on her public Instagram account. Furthermore, she had agreed to the original publication of the article itself, which made specific reference to this image. Using this publicly available image, which was not gratuitous and which was referred to in the article, did not represent handling publication with insensitivity in breach of Clause 4.
19. The Committee also noted the complainant’s concern that the sub headline and photograph, which showed her wearing a gown in 2016, had given the impression that she had recovered from the tragic death of her son, which had taken place only seven months previously. The Committee noted her concern that the selection of a glamorised photo suggested that she was carefree, despite her loss. However, the image showed the complainant posing for a photograph; it was not embarrassing; nor had it- or the article’s s sub headline-mocked or diminished the tragedy of the story being told. The selection of this photograph and the article’s sub headline did not represent insensitive handling of the story in breach of Clause 4.
20. Finally, the Committee considered the way in which the newspaper had handled the complaint. The complainant had initially expressed her concerns about the article on Instagram, and the newspaper had responded by saying that it was “very sorry” for the complainant’s “shock and distress”, and explaining that it had bought the piece from the original publisher on the understanding that clearance from the author had been obtained. When the complainant then contacted the newspaper directly, a senior member of staff responded apologising again, and offered to meet the complainant to discuss the matter. The complainant declined and then contacted IPSO. While the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that the newspaper had not offered a prompt explanation for the presentation of the story, it did not consider that its handling of the matter had been insensitive. There was no breach of Clause 4.
21. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 29/01/2018
Date decision issued: 13/04/2018
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