Decision of the Complaints Committee – 03308-21 Reed v Mail Online
Summary of Complaint
1. Alison Reed complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “EXCLUSIVE: Charlotte Church's biological father Stephen Reed dies from coronavirus, aged 56 - without ever reconnecting with his estranged daughter”, published on 17 February 2021.
2. The article reported on the death of Stephen Reed. It said that he had “walked out on wife [name] and two-year-old [named daughter]” and had not “reconnect[ed] with his estranged daughter”. The article stated that a “post mortem examination was carried out for the Glamorgan Coroner”. It described Mr Reed as having left his wife and daughter “to start a new life with hospital podiatrist Alison”, and gave the first name and ages of their two adult sons. It was reported that it was “understood he later died at his home in Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan with his family at his side”. The article contained several photographs of Mr Reed, his wife, and one from 2000 which included his wife and his two sons when they were under 16.
3. The complainant, the wife of Mr Reed at the time of his death who had been named in the article, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said there had been no post-mortem or coroner involvement, which had been confirmed to her by the coroner. She also said that it was inaccurate to state that her husband had left his wife, as she was his first wife; he had not been married to his pervious partner. She said that he had not died at home surrounded by his family peacefully, but with her only and under distressing circumstances. She also said the article had inaccurately claimed that her late husband had abandoned his previous partner and daughter.
4. The complainant also said that the article breached her privacy under Clause 2. She said that the photograph of her, her husband and their two sons had been taken when she and her family had been interviewed for a separate article. She said that the photograph had been taken in a hotel room in order to accompany the article, but prior to publication of the piece, the publication had requested further information, which caused the family to withdraw consent for the publication of the article and the photograph, which was never published. The complainant said that neither she nor her sons had been comfortable when the photograph was taken. In addition, she said a photo of her and a photo of her late husband which appeared in the article had been taken from her Facebook page, which she believed was only visible to friends. She also said that the article named her and her job, which she said had not previously been published.
5. The complainant also said that the publication of the article intruded into her grief and shock in breach of Clause 4 as it added to her distress at the point where she was grieving her husband. She said the inaccuracies in the article compounded this intrusion into her grief and shock and led her to receive phone calls from members of the public.
6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the fact of a death is a matter of public record and can be published, though it appreciated that the family and friends of the deceased may prefer for a death to be private. It said that the article was accurate and chronicled some significant events in the complainant’s husband’s life, which had been previously reported on, and he had spoken about to reporters. It said, therefore, that the article did not intrude into the complainant’s grief in a manner that would breach Clause 4.
7. It explained that the reporter had contacted the relevant coroner’s office, who stated that there would not be an inquest as a post mortem had shown that he died of natural causes. It said that this information was relayed by phone and there were no notes of the conversation. The publication removed this statement as a gesture of goodwill. It said that the previous partner of the complainant’s husband had frequently been referred to as his first wife in press coverage and that it had taken care not to publish inaccurate information by relying on sustained and repeated publication of this error over the course of 30 years, which had not been challenged. However, it removed this reference. The newspaper also said that it was not inaccurate to describe the complainant’s husband as having died with “his family by his side” where his wife was with him. It said that, in any case, it had used the word “understood” and would amend this sentence to clarify. The newspaper said that the article had never use the term “abandoned”. The publication offered to publish the following as a footnote to the article:
In a previous version of this article, it was reported that Maria Church was married to Stephen Reed and that Mr Reed had a post mortem examination. Alison Reed, Mr Reed’s widow, has advised that he was not previously married and there was no post mortem. We are happy to set the record straight.
8. The publication said that the images included within the article were chosen because it considered them to show the complainant’s late husband at times when he was happy and healthy with his family, and not engaged in any particularly private situation. It said that it did not consider the photographs to depict information for which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The photo that showed the complainant, her husband and their two sons, had been taken by a photographer for the newspaper and had been kept in the archives since 2005. It had contained the advisory note: “not to be used without the permission of Stephen Reed”. The newspaper said it has been unable to seek Mr Reed’s permission as he had died, and that as the image was a flattering and happy family shot, with no information that could be considered to be private, it chose to use it. It noted that the complainant had willingly chosen to pose for this photo, and that their withdrawal of consent for the publication of the photo was not based on concerns regarding the image, but the substance of the article the image was to accompany. Whilst the publication did not consider this to be a breach of Clause 2, it removed the image as a gesture of goodwill. In addition, it noted that the two other images under complaint had been taken from the complainant’s Facebook page where they were public. It supplied screenshots of the images and their privacy settings.
9. The publication also said that the article was published seven weeks after the complainant’s husband’s death, and chronicled some significant events of his life. It said these had been covered in previous articles, and that the complainant’s husband had publicly spoken about them previously. It also noted that a reporter had approached the family for comment in December, just after the death, and had spoken to a person it believed to be the complainant’s son, but had left after the man had refused to comment. It said that Clause 4 was not engaged.
Relevant Code Provisions
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.
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.
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
10. The Committee expressed its condolences to the complaint for her loss, and the distress she felt.
11. The article reported that a “post mortem examination was carried out for the Glamorgan Coroner”, which the complainant said was not the case. The newspaper had no notes or other record of the conversation and had therefore not been able to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of the article on this point when challenged by the complainant. The Committee therefore found a breach of Clause 1(i). In an article reporting on the death of the complainant’s husband, whether or not he had a post-mortem was a significant inaccuracy which required correction under Clause 1(ii).
12. The article had described the complainant’s husband as leaving his “wife” for her; however, it accepted that he had not been married to the woman referred to. The newspaper was able to demonstrate that it had been widely reported in the past that the woman had been his wife. In these specific circumstances, where the claim had been repeated as fact for over three decades without apparent challenge, the Committee concluded that reliance on extensive past publication of this piece of information was sufficient to demonstrate that the publication had taken care not to publish inaccurate information over this claim. The Committee noted that the term marriage may be used in a more general way than specifically in connection with a legal contract of marriage, and it noted that it had no information about the position of Mr Reed’s former partner on the status of the relationship. Nonetheless, the publication had accepted that it did not have proof of Mr Reed’s previous marital status. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that it was appropriate for the publication to offer to correct this claim, which related to a significant detail of Mr Reed’s life, in accordance with the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
13. The publication had offered a footnote clarification to the article which represented due prominence. It had offered to clarify this point, and other contested points of accuracy within the article, upon receipt of the complaint, and specified the exact wording during IPSO’s investigation which represented due promptness. The wording acknowledged the initial inaccuracies and put the correct position on record, and therefore there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).
14. The Committee acknowledged how upsetting the circumstances of the complainant’s husband’s death had been and that she considered the reference to him dying “with his family at his side” to be misleading. However, where the complainant accepted that she, his wife, had been with her husband whilst he died, it was not inaccurate to report that it was “understood” that her husband had died “with his family at his side“. Finally, there had not been a version of the article with the term “abandoned” in it, and therefore the Committee was unable to make any findings on this point. There were no further breaches of Clause 1.
15. The Committee acknowledged the situation regarding the press photo, and that there had been a specific request not to use it without the consent of the complainant’s husband. The question for the Committee was whether the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over the photograph.
16. The image showed the family together in a hotel room. There was no private information within the photo itself – the complainant and her family had willingly posed for it, and it simply showed a family group. The complainant’s husband had withdrawn consent for the publication of the photograph alongside the article it was taken for; however, this was not due to concerns about privacy, but rather due to concerns about the basis of the article. The photograph had not formed part of the complainant’s private correspondence, or digital communications, as it had been taken and stored by the media company. In the circumstances where the photo did not contain any information for which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy and had not formed part of any correspondence by the complainant, she had no expectation of privacy and there was no breach of Clause 2.
17. The other photographs in the article were available on the complainant’s Facebook page and were open to the public. Where these images were in the public domain, there was no reasonable expectation of privacy and no breach of Clause 2.
18. The Committee acknowledged that the publication of the article caused the complainant distress at what was already a very difficult time, and that revisiting past events and press coverage of the complainant’s husband’s relationship with his daughter was upsetting in the wake of his death. However, a factual report of matters relating to his life that were well-established in the public domain as a result of reporting during his lifetime, including his own disclosures did not amount to insensitive handing of publication. Whilst it was a matter of regret that members of the public had contacted the complainant, this did not result in a breach of Clause 4. Where publication had been handled sensitively, there was no breach of Clause 4.
19. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1(i).
Remedial Action Required
20. The correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.
Date complaint received: 13/04/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 16/09/2021Back to ruling listing