Decision of the Complaints Committee 04773-16 Harris v Manchester Evening News
Summary of Complaint
1. Lian Harris complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Manchester Evening News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Embittered woman left judge in fear for safety”, published in print on 24 June 2016, and “Surrogate mum who lost legal fight to keep child made judge ‘fear for her safety’ with stalking and harassment campaign”, published online on 23 June 2016.
2. The article reported on the complainant’s Magistrates’ Court sentencing hearing, where it said a 16-week suspended prison sentence was imposed for harassing a family court judge. It said that the complainant had agreed to be surrogate mother for a couple, but later changed her mind to keep the baby; it said that the judge had ruled that the child should stay with the couple, and had “feared for her life” when the complainant had called to her door.
3. The online article reported that the complainant had been sentenced to a 16-month suspended sentence. Otherwise, it was the same as the version published in print.
4. The complainant said that her child was the subject of ongoing proceedings in the family court, and entitled by law to anonymity. She said that by publishing her name in the court report, the newspaper had identified her child, and breached her child’s right to privacy under Clause 2, as well as the terms of Clause 6.
5. The complainant said that she had been sentenced to a 16-week suspended sentence, not a 16-month suspended sentence. She said that it was inaccurate to report that she was a surrogate mother, as the child was biologically hers.
6. The newspaper said that the complainant’s hearing took place in open court, and the article did not identify the child. It said that it would have been absurd to report on a court case where a serious offence had taken place without referring to the reasons why it had been committed. It said that while the complainant had been sentenced to a 16-week suspended sentence, the main points was that the sentence had been suspended, and the discrepancy between 16-weeks or 16 months was not significant. It also said that it had been mentioned in open court that the complainant was a surrogate mother.
7. 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.
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.
Clause 6 (Children)
i) All pupils should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.
ii) They must not be approached or photographed at school without permission of the school authorities.
iii) Children under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents.
iv) Children under 16 must not be paid for material involving their welfare, nor parents or guardians for material about their children or wards, unless it is clearly in the child's interest.
v) Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child's private life.
Findings of the Committee
8. The Editors’ Code does not deal with the enforcement of reporting restrictions, or the right to anonymity provided for by statute; however, the Code may well be engaged when a reporting restriction, or right to anonymity, is in place. The article contained no other detail which, even on the complainant’s account, might lead to the identification of her child, beyond the complainant’s name. Having regard for the full context of the case, including the effect of the proceedings on the child’s position, the Committee did not consider that publication of the complainant’s name was sufficient to identify the child. There was no breach of Clause 2 or 6.
9. In circumstances where the complainant’s custodial sentence was suspended, the Committee did not consider that the inaccuracy in the online article on the length of the suspended sentence imposed was significant; there was no breach of Clause 1.
10. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that she was her daughter’s biological mother, in circumstances where the complainant did not dispute that she had been described in court as a “surrogate”, it was not misleading for the newspaper to use this term given the nature of proceedings in the family court, and the fact the article made clear this remained the subject of dispute. There was no breach of Clause 1.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 10/07/2016
Date decision issued: 07/11/2016
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