Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02672-20 A Man v Mail Online
Summary of Complaint
1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into shock and grief) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Liverpool fan who was seen in iconic photo of the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster dies from coronavirus aged 65 days before tragedy's 31st anniversary”, published on 14 April 2020.
2. The article reported on the death of a named man who “was famously pictured sitting on the Leppings Lane terrace at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield with his head in his hands” after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The article reported that the image had been shared thousands of times. The article described the tributes that had been given to the named man after his death, and described his role in the Hillsborough disaster. The article included quotes from the named man’s daughter that it reported as being given to another named newspaper. The article stated that the named man “often denied the harrowing image of the survivor sitting alone with his head in his hands on the afternoon of April 15, 1989, was him” which his family said was because it brought back too many painful memories. However, the article went on to report that “When he moved home and found the jacket he was pictured wearing, [his daughter] said it opened up old wounds”.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because it had named the wrong person as the subject of the photograph. The complainant said that he was the person in the photograph, but that this had been consistently misreported. The complainant supplied contemporary pictures of himself, as well as a video taken on the day of the disaster which he said showed him in the same tracksuit as the person in the photograph was wearing under a coat. He also provided another photograph of the man, which was taken at the same time and positioning as the published photograph but showed the man’s face, rather than it being hidden in his hands. The complainant also noted that the named man had previously denied that it was him in the photograph.
4. The complainant said that as the photo was inaccurate and publishing it without consent caused distress and was a breach of his privacy under Clause 2. He also publishing it made him recall the painful memories of the Hillsborough disaster in breach of Clause 4.
5. The publication said it did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the story had been taken in good faith from another newspaper. Upon receipt of the complaint it contacted the newspaper which it said stood by the identification of the person in the photograph as being the person the article named, and that it had been verified by the named man’s family. It described the steps the other newspaper had taken to verify the image was of the named man, and noted that the article contained quotes from the named man’s daughter confirming it was him. The publication that it was confident after reviewing the steps taken by the other publication that sufficient care had been taken to publish accurate information by the other newspaper. The publication went on to say that the images and video supplied by the complainant were not conclusive proof that he was the person in the image, as the photos were too poor quality and the trainers appeared to be different. It said that on this basis it would not be appropriate to remove the image from the article.
6. The publication said that the concerns raised under Clause 2 related to accuracy, and not privacy, and therefore the Clause was not engaged.
7. The publication said it regretted that the publication of the article had upset the complainant. However, it said that as it believed the photo correctly identified the named man, the complainant did not have standing to complain under Clause 4, and there was no breach.
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 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.
9. 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.
10. 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
11. The Committee acknowledged the very difficult emotions that the Hillsborough disaster still generates for many people, and expressed their sincere sympathies to the complainant, and all those who have been affected by it.
12. The Committee stressed that its role was not to make findings of fact regarding the definitive identity of the man; instead the Committee was asked to consider whether the publication had taken care over the accuracy of the information it had published, and whether any information was significantly inaccurate so as to require correction under the terms of the Editors’ Code.
13. Firstly, the Committee considered the care demonstrated by the publication, prior to publication, in line with its obligations under Clause 1(i). While the information in the article had originally been published by another newspaper, the Code states that each publication is responsible under the Code for the material it publishes. In this instance, the Committee was concerned that the steps taken during the newsgathering process by another publication appeared to only be known to the Mail Online after publication. However, the central claim of the article, that the named man had died and was the one pictured in the photographs, had come from an interview given by the daughter of the named man. The article under complaint had made this clear, and therefore had taken care to accurately report the basis for its claims. Where it was not in dispute that these quotes had been reported accurately, on this occasion there was no breach of Clause 1(i).
14. The Committee then considered whether there was a significant inaccuracy that required correction under Clause 1(ii). The Committee reiterated that it was not in a position to determine who was in the photograph, but to consider the evidence provided by both the complainant and the publication and to make a decision as to whether the newspaper had complied with its obligations under the Editors’ Code. The complainant had provided further images and a video from day of the Hillsborough disaster, however, even with this evidence the Committee was not able to conclusively decide which man was pictured in the photograph, and was therefore unable to make a finding as to whether the article was inaccurate in order to require a correction under Clause 1(ii).
15. The Committee recognised the trauma of the Hillsborough disaster and the impact and distress that the publication of the photograph had caused the complainant. However, the test under Clause 4 relates to whether the publication of information had been handled sensitively. The publication had published the article in good faith on information that was in the public domain. Whilst this was upsetting for the complainant, it was entitled to publish the photograph and there was no breach of Clause 4.
16. In addition, Clause 2 considers the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain. The image was an iconic image of the Hillsborough disaster and, in addition to being shared on social media thousands of times after the named man’s death, and both the complainant and publication accepted that the image had published multiple times over the past 30 years. On this basis the image could not be considered to be private and there was no breach of Clause 2.
17. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 17/04/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 11/11/2020Back to ruling listing