Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01887-21 Rahnama v The Mail on Sunday
Summary of Complaint
1. Ali Rahnama complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Farcical”, published on 7 February 2021.
2. The article reported that asylum seekers were being housed in a hotel near Heathrow despite the shortage of accommodation for passengers required to enter quarantine after arrival in the UK as part of measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. It was illustrated with a large photograph of three men in a group, two of whom were wearing face masks, standing or crouching on a curbside. The photograph was captioned: “LAX: Asylum seekers in hotel grounds”. The article also quoted several comments by residents of the hotel, such as: “It’s not a good system – people are too close together”; and “We can walk around wherever we want. There are lots of people here.” The article reported that “Groups of migrants can be seen chatting on smartphones outside the hotel or strolling to a parade of shops in nearby West Drayton”. It also noted that the “apparent freedom afforded to the migrants contrasts with the draconian measures awaiting passengers who will be placed in quarantine after flying in to Britain.”
3. The article also appeared online under the headline “As Government scrambles to find hotel rooms for its border quarantine plan, a [named hotel chain] two miles from Heathrow is home to 400 asylum seekers... and two nearby migrant detention centres stand almost empty”, published on 6 February in substantially the same form. The same image was used, with the caption: “Hundreds of asylum seekers are being housed at a large hotel near Heathrow as the Government struggles to find accommodation for passengers forced to quarantine after arriving from virus hotspots”.
4. The complainant was one of the men who appeared in the photograph, wearing a facemask, which accompanied the article. He said that the publication of the photograph intruded into his private life, as it revealed his status as an asylum seeker, and placed him at risk of serious harm, as he was vulnerable for reasons which he explained during IPSO’s investigation. He said that his friends and family abroad had been contacted repeatedly by those who had identified him from the photograph, and he worried that the global reach of the article placed his family in his home country at increased risk of harm. He also said that he had, since the publication of the article, been identified while out in public by individuals with anti-immigration views, who had verbally abused and pointed at him. He said that, therefore, even though he was wearing a face mask, he was identifiable from the photograph.
5. The complainant said that the image had been taken in the car park of the hotel in which he was housed; this was not a public space and he considered it to be his home. On this basis, he believed that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy not to be photographed whilst standing there. He said that he had not been aware that he was being photographed.
6. The publication apologised if the publication of the photograph caused the complainant distress or inconvenience, but did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the fact of being an asylum seeker was not information in respect of which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. The article did not describe the complainant’s arrival in the UK or asylum claim, but merely pictured him outside a residence housing asylum seekers. The newspaper maintained that the publication of images of asylum seekers in which they were identifiable was common practice in the media.
7. The publication stated that the image had been taken while the complainant was standing in the hotel car park, in clear view of the public. It noted that there was a hoarding around the hotel and part of the car park, but the complainant was standing outside this protected area. Furthermore, a car wash business, which was signposted from the nearby motorway, was also present in the car park. The publication said that the complainant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in these circumstances. It also provided an email from the photographer who said he was taking photographs of the complainant and his companions for around 10-15 minutes; he believed that they were aware of his presence, as he was standing only about 40 metres away, but did not turn away or request that he stop taking photos. The publication said that there was no private information about the complainant in the image – it showed only his likeness, and half his face was obscured by a mask. The publication also noted that upon receipt of a complaint from another representative of the complainant, and prior to the complaint to IPSO, the photograph had been removed from the online article.
8. Furthermore, the publication stated that the publication of the image served to illustrate comments in the article about the free circulation of residents in the hotel despite Covid restrictions.
9. The publication said that whilst no public interest defence was necessary, as there was no reasonable expectation of privacy, there was a public interest in showing how the residents of the hotel had freedom to come and go, and how they were gathering in groups. It said that, prior to publication, discussions had taken place as to whether the faces of the men should be pixelated. Upon viewing the final draft of the article and the manner in which the photograph was presented, an editorial decision was made that there was no reason to obscure the faces of the complainant or his companions, as the publication did not believe the photograph amounted to an intrusion into their private lives. The publication said that, in any case, the publication of the image was covered by the public interest exception of raising or contributing to a matter of public debate.
Relevant Code Provisions
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.
Findings of the Committee
10. Clause 2 states that everyone is entitled to respect for their private life, home and health and that it is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in places where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The photograph of the complainant had been taken while he stood in the car park of a hotel, outside the protected area surrounded by hoardings, and in full view of anyone visiting the car park. The photograph did not contain any information over which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy: it simply showed him among a small group of people standing outside whilst his face was partially obscured by a mask. The Committee concluded that the complainant had not been in a location in which he had a reasonable expectation of privacy: while the hotel was his current home, the surrounding car park was accessible to members of the public, and he would have been visible to anyone visiting the space, including residents of the hotel and patrons of the car wash. The publication of the photograph did not breach Clause 2.
11. The caption of the photograph in the print edition of the newspaper stated “LAX: Asylum seekers in hotel grounds” and the caption to the photograph in the online edition began “Hundreds of asylum seekers are being housed….” The complainant said that these captions, in conjunction with the photographs, revealed that he was an asylum seeker, which he said was private information. The Committee acknowledged that details concerning an individual’s immigration status may, in certain circumstances, be information in respect of which they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, in this instance, the complainant had been pictured outside a hotel which, according to the report, housed hundreds of asylum seekers and in a location in which he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. No additional details about the complainant or his immigration status were included in the caption or in the article. The Committee concluded that, in these circumstances, the publication of the article did not amount to an intrusion into the complainant’s privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 23/02/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 10/09/2021Back to ruling listing