Decision of the Complaints Committee 04324-19 Macdonald v Evening Telegraph (Dundee)
Summary of Complaint
1. Ian Macdonald complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Evening Telegraph (Dundee) breached Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Ambulance called for ‘slumped’ man in Dundee city centre” published on 14 May 2019.
2. The article reported that an unnamed man had been found unresponsive in Dundee city centre, and included a photograph which showed this; the man was slumped on a bench, with his face in his lap. The image was not pixelated and the photograph appeared to be taken from a distance of approximately 15 feet away from the man.
3. The article reported that it was believed that the man had been drinking heavily and that onlookers had called an ambulance – when two ambulances and a police car arrived, he was escorted to one of the ambulances for further treatment. The article included a quote from the person who called the ambulance, who said that he had been concerned for the man’s welfare, and was surprised that other passers-by had not stopped to help. The person quoted also said that it was not the first time he had seen something like this in Dundee, and that he suspected the man had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The article included a confirmation from the police and ambulance staff that they had attended, and reported that it was understood that the man did not require hospital treatment.
4. The article appeared online in substantially the same form as the print version.
5. The complainant was the man pictured in the article, and was represented by his mother in making his complaint to IPSO. He said that the publication of the photograph which showed him in an unresponsive state was an intrusion into his privacy. He noted that he was unaware that the photograph was being taken, and did not consent to it being published. In addition, he said that family and friends had identified him from the article, which caused them much distress. His mother said that her son had longstanding personal problems, and there was no justification in publishing this image – although they recognised that Dundee had issues with alcohol and drug abuse, the publication of this photograph was not necessary to highlight these problems.
6. The publication did not accept that there was any breach of the Code. The publication said that the photograph was taken in the middle of the day in a public place where the complainant had a very limited expectation of privacy. In addition, it argued that as the man’s face was largely obscured, he was not easily identifiable. It said that a reporter had spotted the complainant in an unresponsive state, tried to rouse him, and having failed to do so, called an ambulance. Suspecting that the complainant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, he then took a photograph of the complainant. After the man had been taken to hospital, the reporter checked his condition with the police the next day, who had confirmed that the man had been released without requiring any hospital treatment and was “fine”. In these circumstances, the publication did not accept that the complainant was experiencing a medical emergency or was in a vulnerable state, and so nothing private about him was revealed by the photograph.
7. Notwithstanding the above, the publication said that it discussed at a senior editorial level whether there was a public interest in publishing the image, and decided that there was due to the issues it highlighted in relation to protecting public health and safety. It argued that the photograph in the article under complaint illustrated the extent of significant ongoing antisocial behaviour in Dundee, which the publication had run a series of articles highlighting. The publication said that only after it had satisfied all of these steps did it take the decision to publish the photograph.
8. The publication said that as soon as it was contacted directly by the complainant’s mother, it removed the photograph from the online article immediately as a goodwill gesture. It also noted that the photograph only featured in the first edition of the newspaper, which had a much smaller circulation than the later edition. The publication also offered the complainant’s mother the opportunity to speak about her experience, as part of its work to highlight social problems in Dundee.
Relevant Code Provisions
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. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The Public Interest
There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.
The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.
4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.
5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.
Findings of the Committee
10. The photograph was taken in the middle of the day in a city centre; these are not generally circumstances in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, the Committee had regard for the fact that being in a public place does not automatically negate all expectations of privacy in every circumstance; for example, a person in a public place may have a reasonable expectation of privacy where they are receiving medical treatment, or experiencing an emergency. In this case, it was accepted that at the time the photograph was taken, the complainant was not receiving any medical treatment or experiencing a medical emergency. The police confirmed prior to publication that no medical treatment had been administered.
11. The Committee also considered whether the photograph itself revealed any private information about the complainant. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant’s family and friends had been upset by the photograph, it simply showed him sitting on a bench, in a public place, with his head on his knees. The Committee considered that the photograph had not revealed any private information about the complainant. Nor did it show him engaged in any private activity.
12. Finally, the Committee also had regard for the wider circumstances in which the photograph and the article had been published. Anti-social activity was a topic of ongoing concern in the local community and public services, and the article and photograph had been published as part of a campaign by the publication to highlight these issues. The Committee considered publication to be in the public interest.
13. The Committee found no breach of Clause 2.
14. The complaint was not upheld
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 21/05/2019
Date decision issued: 09/08/2019