Decision of the Complaints Committee – 03737-18 Jones v walesonline.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Wendy Jones complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that walesonline.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Man abandoned in a cinema as a baby is reunited with his family 60 years later”, published on 18 October 2017.
2. The article reported that a man who had been abandoned by his birth mother in a cinema as a baby more than 60 years ago had “finally found his family…thanks to a researcher specialising in DNA”. It said the man had since met his older brother, half-brother and half-sister [the complainant]; it gave the names of these individuals and explained where they lived. The article said that these brothers had taken the man to see the grave of their mother, who was named in the article. It said that the man’s father, who was also named, had met this woman in Rugby, Warwickshire. The article went on to describe how the woman had then moved to Wales “shortly after her son was found abandoned at the cinema…and settled down with a local man who raised [the man’s older brother] as his own”. It said that the man had told another publication that, subsequent to this, the man’s half-brother and half-sister had been born. The article also stated that the man, whose search for his family had been the subject of a 2006 television documentary, had recently located other family members in Scotland. The article also included pictures of the man with his older brother and half-brother.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) because she had never met the man who was the subject of the article. She also considered that the article had been damaging to her and her mother’s reputations. In addition, she said that there was no DNA evidence to prove a connection between her mother and the man; indeed, the man had confirmed to her after publication that he had not obtained DNA from her or her brother (the man’s half-brother). As such, the article effectively found the complainant’s mother ‘guilty’ of abandoning the baby when she had not, and when she could not defend herself of this accusation. She was concerned that the purported relationship between the man and herself and her mother was reported as fact, rather than as the account of the man himself.
4. The complainant also felt that the article breached Clause 2 (Privacy) because it quoted the man as saying that he had seen “the house where he was brought up”; this was her house, and she found this intrusive. She also said the article breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) because it reflected a trend of media coverage to be condemnatory of mothers, but not fathers.
5. The publication denied any breach of the Code. It said that the article was not significantly inaccurate in its presentation of the relationship between the complainant’s mother and the subject of the article. It said that a DNA researcher had contacted the man after seeing a social media appeal in which he sought to find his family. It said that the researcher had then arranged a DNA test, and linked the man to his Scottish family. At the same time, the complainant’s older half-brother had been looking for a sibling that his mother had told him was female; he had taken a DNA test and was also linked to the same Scottish family, and through it, to the man who was the subject of the article. Separately, further investigation by the DNA researcher linked the man to the complainant’s brother (the man’s half-brother).
6. The publication accepted that it had been inaccurate to state that the complainant had met the man; this error had arisen from a misreading of a similar piece in a different publication. However, it did not consider that this represented a significant inaccuracy. Nevertheless, as a gesture of goodwill, it offered to remove the reference to the complainant’s name from the article, and add the following footnote clarification to the online article:
A previous version of this article suggested that [the man] had met with his half-sister Wendy Jones. We are happy to clarify that [the man] only met with older brother [name] and half-brother [name].
7. The complainant said that, while there may be a connection between the man and her older half-brother, this did not indicate a connection between the man and her mother, and no DNA evidence showed such a connection.
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.
Clause 2 (Privacy)
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.
Clause 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Findings of the Committee
9. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant had found the article deeply distressing, and was upset by its portrayal of her mother. It noted that the article reported on a complex series of relationships, which were subject to dispute within the family. The question for the Committee was whether sufficient care had been taken over the article’s claims.
10. The complainant disputed that her mother had abandoned the baby referred to in the article, and that there was evidence to link her and her mother to the subject of the article. The publication explained how research – including, but not limited to DNA research - had suggested a link between the man who was the subject of the article, and the complainant’s brother and half-brother. It was not obliged to include this evidence in full in its article, and the article did not state that it was DNA evidence that had linked the subject of the article to the complainant’s mother. The Committee noted that the man who was the subject of the article had the right to tell his story and to give his account of his background. It was apparent that the complainant’s brother and half-brother had accepted that the man was related to them and, consequently, their mother. In circumstances where the complainant’s immediate family appeared to have accepted the relationship outlined in the article, and the man’s account of his mother’s actions, there was no obligation on the publication to seek further verification of this, and it was not for the publication to dispute the veracity of a relationship which family members appeared to have accepted as established. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the claim that the man was related to the complainant’s mother, and no breach of Clause 1(i) on this point. Similarly, the Committee was not in a position to dispute the existence of a relationship which appeared to have been accepted by members of the complainant’s family, and the complainant herself had not provided sufficient grounds for disputing the alleged relationship. She was also not in a position to dispute the article’s account of her mother’s actions. In these circumstances, the Committee did not have grounds to find that the article was significantly inaccurate such as to require correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
11. The complainant had not met the man who was the subject of the article. The publication had taken this claim from an article in another publication, which its journalist had misread. The Committee did not consider that this human error represented a failure to take care under the terms of Clause 1(i) – particularly where it was evident that the complainant’s brother and half-brother had met the man. The claim that the complainant had met the subject of the article was not a significant element of the story, and nor was it personally or reputationally damaging to the complainant, and this did not represent a significant inaccuracy that required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to clarify this point.
12. The complainant’s concern that the article referred to the man having seen her home was not a concern which engaged with Clause 2 (Privacy): this claim did not reveal anything of a private nature about her or the home. Similarly, her concern that the article was discriminatory towards women in general did not engage the terms of Clause 12 (Discrimination), which offers protection to individuals. To the extent that she was concerned that the article discriminated against her mother as an individual woman, the article did not make any pejorative or prejudicial reference to the complainant’s mother on the basis of her being a woman. Neither Clause 2 nor Clause 12 was breached.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.
Date complaint received: 17/05/2018
Date decision issued: 29/08/2018
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