01641-19 Adomaityte v Mail Online

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01641-19 Adomaityte v Mail Online  

Summary of Complaint

1. Toma Adomaityte complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “ISIS bride lawyer's Lithuanian beautician wife says it's 'a difficult time' for her and her husband and claims the furious public 'don't really understand what's going on'”, published on 18 February 2019, and that the conduct of a journalist acting for Mail Online breached Clause 3 (Harassment) in relation to the preparation of this article.

2. The complainant was the wife of the lawyer who, at the time of publication, was representing a woman seeking to return to the UK after having travelled to Syria to support so-called Islamic State.

3. The article reported that the complainant, who was named and described as a beautician, had told the publication that she understood “’why some people are angry’” about her husband’s efforts to bring the woman back to the UK, and that she had said that the controversy had “’had a huge impact on me and the whole country’”. The article reported that the complainant had said that it was a “’difficult time’” for her and her husband, but that they were “’coping’”, and that “’people don’t really understand what’s going on’”. The article included an image of the complainant’s home, showing only one house, which was captioned “The lawyer and his beautician wife live in a Victorian terrace in North London”. The article appeared in the top half of the publication’s homepage.

4. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) because it had attributed statements to her which she had not made, and misrepresented her exchange with the journalist.

5. The complainant said that the journalist had arrived at her home at approximately 4.20pm on 18 February. She said that the reporter had asked her to confirm her husband’s phone number, to which she had said “I don’t want to comment”. The complainant said that the reporter had then asked how she was feeling and whether the situation was stressful, to which she had said “I am fine”. She said that the reporter had continued to ask questions, including “Are you and your husband discussing the case?” but she had made no comment, and on her friend’s advice had eventually said “I’m not going to talk about it”, and shut the door. She said she had also confirmed, during a second approach by the journalist which she said had taken place approximately 40 minutes later, that she and her husband were married - but had made no other substantive response to any questions asked.

6. The complainant said that she had not said any of the following: “'We are OK. It's a difficult time but we are coping... people don't really understand what's going on…I've not been involved in any of this but obviously it's had a huge impact on me and the whole country…This is a very important issue, I understand that and why some people are angry. I'm sorry, I don't want to say any more'”.

7. The complainant said that she had been on the phone to other individuals during both interactions, and these individuals provided accounts of the conversations to IPSO which she said supported her account. The complainant also provided call logs of her interactions with these individuals which she said supported this version of events.

8. The complainant also said that the publication had breached Clause 3 (Harassment) in the preparation of the article. She said that she had made clear that she did not wish to give a comment, when she was first approached by the journalist, by stating “I don’t want to comment”. Despite this, the reporter had continued to question her. She had then told him “I’m not going to talk about it”, and had closed the door. Forty minutes later, the reporter had knocked on her door for a second time; the complainant said that she had opened the door intending to tell him to go away, but he had begun to ask her questions. She had answered a question in relation to whether she was married, but had then stated “I told you I don’t want to make any comment” and closed the door. The complainant said that fifteen minutes later, she had left the house to travel to work, and had noticed that the reporter was following her by car when she left. She said that this course of conduct represented intimidation and harassment, and that her statement during the first approach by the journalist that she did not want to talk about the situation represented a clear request to desist from questioning.

9. The complainant also said that the article had breached Clause 2 (Privacy), because it included an image of her home, and reported its general location.

10. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), and disputed the complainant’s account of the interactions at her home. It said that a freelance reporter had been engaged to make contact with the complainant’s husband; contrary to the complainant’s account, it said that this reporter had not called at the complainant’s home for the first time until shortly before 5.00pm. The publication did not therefore accept that the first interaction had happened at the time proposed by the complainant, which it said called into question whether she had been on the phone to her friend as suggested.

11. The publication provided the reporter’s shorthand notes of his conversation with the complainant, recorded immediately after the first approach, which read “We are OK. We are trying not [to] think about it. It’s been quite a difficult time. [Husband’s name] has been very busy with what’s going on. I have not been involved with what’s going on but obviously it’s had an impact on me”. The publication noted that this was not a complete record of the conversation, but said that the journalist had immediately returned to his car and had filed the full quotations to his editor, at 5.01pm. The email he sent to his editor, which was provided to IPSO as part of its investigation, stated that the complainant had said the following: "We are OK. It's a difficult time but we are coping. [Named individual] has been very busy and people don't really understand what's going on. I've not been involved in any of this but obviously it's had a huge impact on me and the whole country. This is a very important issue, I understand that and why some people are angry. I'm sorry, I don't want to say any more".

12. The publication said that, after the journalist had filed these quotations, his editor had called him and asked him to return to confirm the complainant’s full name and her marital status. The journalist said that he had engaged in a conversation with the complainant on these issues, and she had confirmed both her marital status and her surname; he had then left.

13. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 3 (Harassment); it said that at no point during either conversation had the reporter been asked to leave. It said that, having provided the quotations reported in the article, during the first interaction, the complainant had said “I’m sorry, I don’t want to say any more”, at which point the reporter had left. The publication denied that the complainant having said “I don’t want to say any more” represented a request to desist from all further contact. It said that when the journalist returned for a second time it had been to check the two biographical details, rather than to continue to seek further comments from her in relation to her husband’s case; the journalist said that the complainant had seen him first through a window before answering the door to him and engaging with his questions - suggesting that she was not distressed by the prospect of a further interaction. It said that, had she not wished to talk, she would not have engaged in this further conversation. The publication said that the reporter’s exchanges with the complainant had been pleasant and frank, and that he denied any suggestion that he had followed her in his car at any point: he said that he had driven away from the house and not returned.

14. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy). It said that the image of the complainant’s house had been closely cropped to remove any details which might allow its precise location to be identified; the article had only referred to the house as being in “North London”. It also said that the image was taken from a public street, and that there was no inherent right to privacy over the publication of images of a home.

Relevant Code Provisions

15. 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 corrected, 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.

16. Clause 2 (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. 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.

17. Clause 3 (Harassment)*

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii)  Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Findings of the Committee

18. The Committee noted that the complainant and the publication had provided differing accounts of the content of the first conversation. The complainant accepted that questions had been asked of her regarding her feelings in relation to her husband’s case, and whether she was discussing the matter with him – questions which reflected the content of the quotations attributed to her - but denied having made any substantive responses other than confirming that she was “fine”. However, the publication was able to supply a contemporaneous shorthand note of the conversation, which had been taken minutes after the conversation had taken place. This note supported several of the quotations attributed to the complainant in the article, including the headline claim that this was a “difficult time” for her and her husband. The note was supported by a subsequent email – which could also be considered contemporaneous ­– which set out in full the quotations reported in the article. Notwithstanding that this account was disputed, where the publication was able to provide contemporaneous support for the quotations attributed to the complainant, there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point, and the Committee did not find that the quotations attributed to the complainant were inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1.

19. The Committee then considered the complaint made under Clause 3. It noted that the Code does not insist that individuals use a particular form of words in asking journalists to desist from contacting them further; in this instance, it was accepted that, at the end of the first conversation, the complainant had said “I’m not going to talk about it” or “I’m not going to say any more”. While the complainant had not asked the journalist to leave, or stated that she did not wish to be contacted, she had stated her position that she did not wish to talk further about the matter of her husband’s case. In these circumstances, there was a risk that a further approach could give rise to a breach of the terms of Clause 3 (Harassment). However, it was accepted that the second approach was a brief discussion of biographical details about the complainant, not a discussion of the complainant’s husband’s case, and the complainant had willingly engaged in this discussion by answering at least one of the questions posed to her. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the nature of the second approach was such that the journalist’s course of conduct breached Clause 3.

20. The photograph of the complainant’s house showed only its outward appearance and was also cropped in such a way so as to reduce the likelihood of the house being identifiable to members of the general public who were not already familiar with its location. The photograph did not contain any private information about the complainant in respect of which she had a reasonable expectation of privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) in relation to the publication of the photograph.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was not upheld

Remedial Action Required

22. N/A

Date complaint received: 21/02/2019

Date decision issued: 10/07/2019

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