Decision of the Complaints Committee 03097-14 Ambridge v Essex Chronicle
Summary of complaint
1. Robert Ambridge complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Essex Chronicle had breached Clause 3 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published on 19 December 2014, headlined “Twitter troll Old Holborn leaves town…and moves to Chelmsford”.
2. The article reported that the complainant had recently moved from his home in Braintree to Chelmsford, after his name, picture, home address and workplace were revealed online. It detailed the complainant’s reputation as an internet “troll”, under the identity “Old Holborn”. It noted that he had posted “distasteful tweets about the Hillsborough stadium disaster and murdered children”, leading to death threats after his identity was revealed online a few months previously. It included the partial address of his new home.
3. The complainant said that the inclusion of his partial address, when the newspaper knew that he had received death threats, posed potential safety concerns for him and his family, and therefore breached Clause 3. He provided examples of some of the threatening messages he had received since the article under complaint was published, and said that his wife’s employer had introduced protective measures in her workplace to prevent her from receiving further abuse. He also said that it was the eighth article concerning him which had been published by the newspaper, despite the fact that he had committed no crime. He said that this constituted harassment and was a breach of Clause 4.
4. The newspaper said that the complainant was a notorious Twitter troll, who had had 36 different Twitter accounts over an 18-month period, as his accounts are regularly suspended. He refers to himself as “Britain’s vilest troll”, and has previously appeared in television documentaries defending his actions. The newspaper said that because of his notoriety, the complainant’s full address had previously been published on social media sites, and he had been “doxxed”, which meant that his identifying personal details – including his address, mobile telephone number, and a link to a photograph of the exterior of his home – had been published online. The newspaper did not accept that its publication of his partial address posed any intrusion, or that the incidents cited by the complainant since the article’s publication could be linked to its article. It noted that the complainant was regularly tweeting for up to 18 hours per day, and that this included dozens of comments which could be deemed offensive, and could provoke a hostile response.
5. The newspaper said that it was central to the article that the complainant lived in Chelmsford, as that was what gave the story news value for its readers. It said that it was standard practice in regional newspapers to publish the addresses of subjects of articles, and that the complainant’s house number was omitted; there were around 20 houses on the road. Several “R. Ambridges” were listed locally, and so it had been important to publish his address in order to correctly identify him. In April 2014 the complainant had received abusive messages and death threats via his employer, but the newspaper was not aware of any more recent threats, and it noted that the complainant had not supplied any evidence of death threats, nor had a report been made to the police. Nonetheless, when the newspaper had been contacted by the complainant directly, it had removed his address from the online article, as a gesture of goodwill.
Relevant Code Provisions
6. 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 4 (Harassment)
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
The Public Interest
iii) The Regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain, or will become so.
Findings of the Committee
7. The Committee generally takes the view that newspapers are entitled to publish the partial addresses of subjects of articles. Nonetheless, it considers each case on its merits, and in this instance, serious consideration had to be given to the fact that the newspaper had been aware that the complainant had previously received death threats. This had clear potential relevance to the question of whether the publication of his address would intrude into his private life by posing a safety risk to him and his family.
8. The Editors’ Code requires that the Committee considers the extent to which material is already in the public domain, as this has the potential to mitigate the intrusion posed by publication of material which could otherwise breach Clause 3. The complainant’s full address had already been placed in the public domain, prior to publication of the article under complaint, by virtue of postings by other internet users. Extensive personal information had been published about the complainant online, including his full new address. In this context, it was not clear that the publication, in the newspaper, of the partial address posed a specific threat to his safety. It was notable in any case that none of the hostile activity cited by the complainant in the period since the article was published appeared to have been directed to his home address; rather, he had referred to concerns about a threat to his wife’s workplace, information which had not been published by the newspaper, and threats directed to his Twitter account. The Committee concluded that there was no breach of Clause 3.
9. The terms of Clause 4 generally relate to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. The publication of a number of articles about the same person would not usually amount to harassment under the terms of the Editors’ Code. The newspaper had been entitled to report on the on-going controversy regarding the complainant’s online activities. This did not amount to a breach of Clause 4.
10. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 19/12/2014
Date decision issued: 20/02/2015Back to ruling listing