Decision of the Complaints Committee 03139-14 Hogbin v Herne Bay Gazette
Summary of complaint
1. Joanne Hogbin complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on behalf of her daughter, Bethany Mackie, that the Herne Bay Gazette had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Privacy), Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Boozy trip just days before teen locked up”, published in the 25 December edition of the newspaper.
2. The article reported that Ms Mackie had been jailed for five years for causing death by dangerous driving, and drink-driving. It reported that while Ms Mackie had told the court of her “genuine remorse”, she had “enjoyed a booze-fuelled Christmas trip just days before she was jailed”. The front page article was accompanied by a photograph of Ms Mackie in which she was holding a full wine glass aloft. In the bottom of the photograph, the top of another person’s head is visible, below the wine glass. The photograph was captioned “Bethany Mackie poses with a wine glass days before she was jailed”. The article reported that she “held a full wine glass aloft and posed for the camera as she caught the train”. The complainant had uploaded the photograph onto her Facebook account, along with a number of other photographs of their trip.
3. The complainant said that, in the photograph in question, Ms Mackie had been drinking Coca-Cola from a plastic wine glass. She said that the original picture, as it appeared on Facebook, had been cropped prior to publication, so that the eyes of Ms Mackie’s sister were no longer visible. She said that the photograph was taken on a family day out, as demonstrated by the rest of the photographs which she had uploaded to her Facebook account. The complainant was concerned that the photograph gave a misleading impression of Ms Mackie’s behaviour; rather than suggesting two sisters playing together with soft drinks, the photograph, when seen in conjunction with the front page headline, suggested Ms Mackie had been on a drunken outing. While the complainant confirmed that she and her adult friend had had one alcoholic drink each, as depicted in one of the photographs she had uploaded, she made clear that Ms Mackie had not drunk any alcohol on the trip.
4. The complainant said that the photographs had been taken from her Facebook account, which had its privacy settings set so that her photographs were only available to family and friends. Whilst she subsequently conceded that the photographs may have been accessible to the public, she suggested that her privacy settings may have been altered by someone who had accessed her account. She said that the article intruded into her family’s private life, and expressed concern about the effects of the article on Ms Mackie’s younger sister, and on the family of the deceased.
5. The newspaper said that it had been contacted by a member of the public, who had copied photographs and text from the complainant’s open Facebook profile, and sent them to the newspaper via email. The newspaper had then viewed this profile, which was publically accessible, and saved its own copies of the photographs. The newspaper provided a screen grab of the journalist’s internet history for the day before the article was published, which showed that he had viewed the complainant’s profile, and a number of photographs on Facebook. It noted that the readers’ comments posted on the online article before it had been updated to include the details and photograph of the trip to London, had referred to photographs of Ms Mackie drinking alcohol being posted on Facebook.
6. The newspaper said that the references to a “boozy trip”, and a “booze-fuelled Christmas trip”, were accurate, as evidenced by the photograph of the complainant and her friend drinking alcoholic drinks on the train. It said that the article had not claimed that Ms Mackie was drinking an alcoholic drink, but that she had “held a full wine glass aloft”, which was an accurate description of the photograph in question. It said that it had cropped out the part of the picture which depicted Ms Mackie’s sister in order to comply with its obligations under Clause 6 (Children) and Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
7. The newspaper offered to publish a clarification on page 3 or page 5, cross-referenced from the front page, in which the complainant would be able to state that Ms Mackie was not drinking alcohol on the trip, and that she was genuinely remorseful. It also offered to publish a follow-up story from the complainant’s perspective; a reader’s letter, enabling the complainant to put her point of view in her own words; or an interview with Ms Mackie from prison. The newspaper said that after the Facebook pictures had come to its attention, the original online version of the article had been amended to include the pictures, and the details about the trip to London. After the comments on the story grew increasingly angry, the newspaper reverted to the original article, which did not contain the details of the trip to London, but simply reported Ms Mackie’s sentencing, as a gesture of goodwill.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
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 5 (Intrusion into Grief or Shock)
i) In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests.
Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)
i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent.
Findings of the Committee
9. The photograph did not show whether or not Ms Mackie had drunk alcohol on the trip to London, something which the newspaper appeared to have recognised in the fact it had taken care to avoid making this specific claim. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of this photograph – from which that inference could easily be drawn – with the headline, had clearly suggested that Ms Mackie had drunk alcohol on the trip to London. The newspaper had not sought the comments of Ms Mackie or her family before publishing the photograph, and the decision to accompany the front page headline with the photograph demonstrated a failure to take not to publish misleading information in breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Code. This aspect of the complaint was upheld.
10. Whilst the Committee noted the complainant’s position regarding her Facebook privacy settings, it appeared that the photographs had been publically accessible. The Committee had not been provided with evidence to suggest that this was the result of actions by the newspaper, and did not find a breach of Clause 10. The photograph was taken while Ms Mackie was on a train, and did not depict her engaging in a private activity. In these circumstances, taking into account the apparent public disclosure of the information by the complainant, there was no breach of Clause 3.
11. The Committee recognised that Ms Mackie and her family had been distressed by her conviction and sentencing. However, this was not a case of personal grief or shock such as to engage the terms of Clause 5. In relation to the complainant’s concern about the effects of the article on the family of the deceased, the Committee explained that it would not be appropriate to consider this aspect of her complaint further where she was not acting on their behalf.
12. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial Action Required
13. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee has the power to require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication; the nature, extent and placement is to be determined by IPSO. It may inform the publication that further remedial action is required to ensure that the requirements of the Editors’ Code are met.
14. The newspaper had offered to publish a clarification on either page 3 or page 5, cross referenced to the front page. It said that this clarification would allow the complainant to state that Ms Mackie was not drinking alcohol, and that she was genuinely remorseful.
15. In order to remedy the breach of Clause 1, the newspaper should publish a clarification on page 3, cross referenced to the front page. The clarification should also be published as a stand-alone item, with a headline indicating its subject, linked for no less than 24 hours from the home page of the newspaper’s website. It should then remain online, and searchable. The clarification should explain that it was being published following an upheld complaint from Ms Mackie’s mother. It should state the complainant’s position that her daughter had not drunk alcohol on the trip.
Date complaint received: 22/12/2014
Date decision issued: