04849-20 A Woman v Yorkshire Evening Post

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 04849-20 A Woman v Yorkshire Evening Post

Summary of Complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Yorkshire Evening Post breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Beautician who sued Mail for libel wins case” published on 29 February 2020.

2. The article was an interview with a person who owned a beauty business who had recently taken legal action against another newspaper. It reported that, initially, a customer had complained about the beauty treatment she had received at the business and tried to take the business owner to trading standards “which dismissed [the customer]” and the customer then “threatened to go to the papers”. The article then explained that following this, a newspaper carried out an undercover investigation into the business and published a critical article. The business owner then took legal action against the newspaper and it had now paid her damages.

3. The article also appeared online in much the same form with the headline “’One article nearly killed me’ – Leeds mum wins Mail on Sunday libel case” published on 27 February 2020. In addition to the points made in the print article, this article also reported that the person said she was unable to take any action against the customer who approached the newspaper with her complaint because the customer had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

4. The complainant was the customer referred to in the article as having complained about her beauty treatment. She said that the article contained a number of inaccuracies and breached Clause 1. She denied that trading standards “dismissed” her case when she contacted them for advice because she never submitted a formal complaint which was assessed. Similarly, she said that she never “threatened to go to the papers” with her complaint – instead she was contacted by a reporter after she posted about her concerns online. Finally, she said that in relation to the online article, she had never been diagnosed with schizophrenia, nor had made that claim to anyone.

5. The complainant said that the online article also intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 2 by reporting the highly sensitive claim that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia (which she also denied). The complainant said that although she was not named in the article, she had been identified as the subject of the claim by readers who had contacted her and her family, causing great distress and exacerbating the intrusion into her privacy.

6. The complainant explained how she had been identified despite not being named. She said that the business owner’s story was well known in her local community and she was well known to be the person who had complained about her treatment. She said that this was because when she originally complained about her treatment, she did so on social media under her own name and also said that the business owner had posted pictures of her on social media which had been widely shared. She provided a screenshot of a social media post made by the business owner in which she was named in reference to the treatment she complained about and was the basis of the critical article. She also provided a screenshot of a member of the public commenting on her Facebook post with a reference to her complaint about her treatment. Although the original article did not name the complainant, it did include photographs of her face and therefore people who had seen the original article, in a national newspaper, may be able to identify her. Furthermore, she said that the business owner had posted often about her complaint about her treatment, and then the subsequent article and legal process against the newspaper. She provided examples of people contacting her on social media in relation to her complaint about her treatment and said that the police had previously warned the beautician about her social media posts about the complainant. She said that it was her complaint alone which led to the undercover investigation and critical article – as such, she said that it was not the case that the business owner could have been referring to a different person in the article. For all of these reasons, the complainant said that she could be identified as the subject of the business owner’s claims. She also said that the business owner’s claims about her continued a pattern of harassment against her and so constituted a breach of Clause 3.

7. The newspaper did not accept that the article represented a breach of the Code. It said that it was an accurate report of the interview with the woman and was published in good faith, and that the woman was a reliable source of information. It said that it did not carry out any fact checking of the woman’s claims, or contact the complainant for comment because it considered that this would have been inappropriate given the claim made by the woman regarding the complainant’s mental health. It did not accept that the points she raised represented significant inaccuracies. As such, it did not offer to publish any correction. However, it did offer to amend the online article to say that the woman was “led to believe” that the complainant had approached trading standards “before realising the disgruntled woman’s story was about to be published by the national papers”. It also offered to amend the reference to the complainant being diagnosed with schizophrenia to state that this is what the newspaper had been told by the woman, and that this was what the woman had been led to believe. It said that these were the woman’s honestly held views, which it was entitled to report and it was necessary to do so in order to convey the circumstances in which the woman had been successful in her legal action against the newspaper.

8. The newspaper did not accept the article represented an intrusion into the complainant’s privacy because it did not accept that she was identifiable. It said that the reporter was unaware of the identity of the person referred to by the woman during the interview. It said that it was impossible for any member of the public to have identified the complainant from the information in the article as the information about her was limited. It said that the only information included in the article which could identify the complainant was that she was a customer of the woman, and that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. It said that as it was in fact not the case that the woman had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, the pool of possible persons that the woman was referring to would include any of her former customers, which was a large pool. It did not accept that there was a breach of Clause 3, and said that the reporter specifically took steps not to contact the complainant. Nevertheless, as a gesture of goodwill, the newspaper offered to provide the complainant with a confidential letter expressing regret that the article caused her distress. It said that it was also happy for the complainant to put her version of events forward in writing for the newspaper’s reference, should it ever need to return to the subject. Later during IPSO’s investigation, it offered to delete the online article.

Relevant Code Provisions

9. 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 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 3* (Harassment)

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Findings of the Committee

10. The online article reported a claim by the woman interviewed that the customer with whom she had been in a dispute had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The article did not name the complainant as the customer, but the publication did not dispute that she was the person referenced.  Under Clause 2, editors are expected to justify intrusions into an individual’s private life without consent.

11. The question for the Committee was whether the publication of the interviewee’s claim in this context represented an unjustified intrusion in breach of Clause 2. In making this assessment, the Committee considered the nature of the claim and the context in which it was presented, which included the extent of the complainant’s identifiability as the subject of the claim.

12. While the complainant had not been named, she said that she was identifiable to a circle of people who were aware of the dispute, who had contacted her and her family to enquire about the claims made by the woman. The complainant provided examples of social media posts relating to the dispute. The newspaper did not dispute that this identification had occurred.  A photograph of a part of the complainant’s face had also been published in a national newspaper alongside separate coverage of the dispute, albeit she had not been named in that coverage. Having considered the material, the Committee concluded that the complainant would be identifiable as the subject of the claim to an audience who was aware of the dispute. The Committee next considered the nature of the information. A person’s diagnosis with a serious mental health condition is unquestionably information relating to their health, and the complainant had a reasonable expectation that any such information would remain private, notwithstanding that she denied the accuracy of the claim in this instance. The complainant had not consented to publication of this information, and the Committee did not consider that presenting the interviewee’s position on a dispute relating to the provision of a beauty treatment constituted adequate justification for including allegations – which were disputed – about the complainant’s mental ill-health without consent. Nor had the publication argued that there was a public interest justification which overrode the terms of Clause 2. The Committee concluded that publishing this sensitive and serious claim about the complainant’s health, without consent and without justification, constituted an intrusion into the complainant’s private life. The online article breached Clause 2.

13. The online article had reported as fact the woman’s claim that the complainant had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Committee noted that the claim was presented in a quote attributed to the woman. However, it was clear that in reporting such a serious and sensitive claim about a person’s health – where it was possible for the subject of the complaint to be identified – the newspaper should have taken steps to verify this claim. Instead, the newspaper reported this quote without taking any steps to establish its veracity. In the absence of these steps, there was a failure to take care over the accuracy of the online article in reporting this claim and a breach of Clause 1(i). The newspaper was not able to provide any basis to show that the woman’s claim was true and did not dispute the complainant’s position that she had not been diagnosed with schizophrenia. In assessing the significance of the inaccuracy, the Committee had regard to the nature of the woman’s claim. It referred to a specific person, who the Committee had found was identifiable to those familiar with the case. In addition, the allegation made a very serious and sensitive claim about her health. The fact that she had been identified as the subject of this claim had caused her much distress. As such, a correction was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

14. The newspaper had offered to amend the online article to make clear that the diagnosis of schizophrenia was what the woman had been “led to believe” and that this was what she had told the newspaper. However, this did not constitute a correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). It did not set out that the original article had contained an inaccuracy, and it did not signal that any amendment had been made to the article. Furthermore, it did not put on record the correct position – that the newspaper did not have any basis to dispute the complainant’s position that she had not been diagnosed with schizophrenia and that she denied it. As such, there was also a breach of Clause 1(ii).

15. The complainant also raised two further points of alleged inaccuracy relating to the position of Trading Standards on the case and the complainant’s contacts with another publication. The Committee did not consider that these amounted to significant inaccuracies requiring correction. It was not in dispute that the complainant had contacted Trading Standards and that it had not taken any further action. In this context of a passing claim made by the interviewed woman, which it was clear represented one side in a long-running dispute, the distinction between Trading Standards dismissing the complaint and the complainant’s deciding not to pursue a complaint after consulting Trading Standards was not significant. Similarly, it was not in dispute that the original article which was critical of the woman’s business had been written following the complainant’s original complaint about her treatment, and that she had spoken to the publication in advance of publication – whether she had “threatened” to go to a newspaper about her treatment did not significantly affect this fact. Presenting the interviewed woman’s claims on these points did not constitute a failure to take care over the article, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points. However, where the newspaper appeared to accept the complainant’s position and did not provide any basis to challenge her complaint, the Committee welcomed its offer to amend the online article as it suggested.

16. The Committee acknowledged that the article had caused the complainant distress. However, the terms of Clause 3 are generally interpreted to refer to the conduct of reporters in preparation of an article. The publication of a single article which was largely focussed on relating the interviewed woman’s experiences of the dispute, the press coverage and her legal claim did not constitute harassment of the complainant. The complainant had not alleged that a reporter acting on behalf of the newspaper had acted in a way which would breach Clause 3. Any concern relating to the conduct of the woman did not fall within the remit of the Committee. For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 3.

Conclusions

17. The complaint was upheld in relation to the online version of the article.

Remedial Action Required

18. The online article had published a significantly inaccurate claim regarding the complainant’s mental health. It had not offered to correct this adequately under the terms of Clause 1(ii), and publishing this claim had also breached Clause 2. Where the online article made a serious and sensitive inaccurate claim about the complainant’s mental health, the appropriate remedy was the publication of an adjudication.

19. The Committee considered the placement of the adjudication. It considered that it should published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing on the top half of the newspaper’s homepage, on the first screen, for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. If the newspaper intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment to remove the significantly inaccurate statement identified by the Committee, the full text of the adjudication should also be published on the article, beneath the headline. If amended to remove the inaccurate statement, a link to the adjudication should be published with the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication, and explaining the amendments that have been made. The publication should contact IPSO to confirm the amendments it now intends to make to the online material, including social media posts, to avoid the continued publication of material in breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

20. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

Following an article published on 29 February 2020, a woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Yorkshire Evening Post breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Beautician who sued Mail for libel wins case”. IPSO upheld this complaint and has required the Yorkshire Evening Post to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.

The article was an interview with a person who had recently taken legal action against a newspaper over its coverage of her beauty business. In this article, the woman claimed that she was unable to also take action against a woman who had complained about her beauty treatment, because the woman had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The complainant was the woman who the interviewee claimed had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.  She said that this was untrue, and that although she was not named in the article, the high-profile nature of the interviewee’s case and material on social media meant that she was identifiable and had been contacted by people who recognised her from the article. She said that information about her mental health would be very private to her and so being contacted in relation to this claim was very distressing to her and her family. She also said that it was not the case that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The publication did not accept that she was identifiable from the information given in the article but accepted the woman’s position that she had not been diagnosed with schizophrenia. It said that it did not carry out any fact-checking of the interviewee’s claim on this point. It offered to amend the article, but not to publish any correction.

IPSO accepted the complainant’s position that she was identifiable to those who were aware of her connection to the interviewee. Reporting that the complainant had been diagnosed with schizophrenia was a very serious and sensitive claim about her health – and information over which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. As such, in reporting the interviewee’s claim, the article intruded into the complainant’s privacy without justification, and the article breached Clause 2.

IPSO found that where the article was reporting a very serious and sensitive claim about the complainant’s health, it should have taken steps to verify this claim, which it did not do. Where the newspaper accepted the complainant’s position that she had not been diagnosed with schizophrenia, a correction was required to correct this significant inaccuracy, which the newspaper did not offer. For these reasons, the article also breached Clause 1.

 

Date complaint received: 05/05/2020

Date decision issued: 23/12/2020

Back to ruling listing