Decision of the Complaints Committee – 04917-21 Akhtar v The Sunday Times
Summary of Complaint
1. Adeel Akhtar complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “‘MINUTES FROM DISASTER’”, published on 16 May 2021.
2. The headline was followed by the sub-heading “Smoke-filled stairwells, faulty fire doors and raging flames: how a fire in a block with £3m flats was almost another Grenfell tragedy” and reported that key safety measures had failed when a fire broke out at New Providence Wharf – a high-rise residential block covered externally with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, the same material used on Grenfell Tower. The article, which appeared across pages 8 and 9, stated that the fire was “believed to have started as an electrical fault in the fuse box of [flat number] on the eighth floor of block D” and included a chronology of the fire alongside analysis by a fire safety expert and the accounts of residents. It reported that the London Fire Brigade (LFB) was still in the process of investigating the fire.
3. The article was accompanied by six photographs: two showed the exterior of the building and the extent of the fire, two showed images of affected residents, and two showed the corridor of the eighth floor “before” and “after” the fire. These photographs accompanied an infographic which detailed the materials used on the building’s exterior and provided a floorplan of the eighth floor, identifying where the fire had started.
4. The article also appeared online under the headline “New Providence Wharf fire was ‘minutes’ away from being another Grenfell Tower” and included a photograph which had not been published in the print article, showing the interior of a room “after the blaze”, with burnt debris covering the floor and a layer of soot covering the walls.
5. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 2 (Privacy), because it identified his flat as being the source of the fire. He said that this was private information and as such should not have been published: no other coverage of the fire had identified the flat number where the fire had started. Furthermore, he said that the photograph captioned “after the blaze” showed the interior of his home and was taken without his consent or permission. He said that this photograph could not have been taken without entering his apartment and consequently must have been taken by an individual trespassing on his property. He added that the publication of the article was insensitive and caused him distress as well as reputational damage, in breach of Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock).
6. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It denied that the article represented an intrusion into the complainant’s private life, and said that the complainant was not named in the piece and nor could he be identified by any of the information included in the article as the owner of the flat. It said that the number of the flat, which was suspected to be where, or near to where, the fire started, was not private information, and could be identified by the images of the fire which had been published in conjunction with the publicly available plans of the development. Furthermore, the number of the flat where the fire had started was known to the many hundreds of residents in the development.
7. In regard to the photograph under complaint, the newspaper said this was not identified in the article as the flat where the fire was suspected to have started, adding that more than one apartment was damaged in the incident. In any event, it said that the disputed photograph did not reveal any detailed information about the complainant or his private life.
8. Furthermore, the newspaper denied any intrusion into the complainant’s property and maintained that the disputed photograph had been taken from the corridor by an individual with authorisation to be in this section of the building. It noted the publicly available floorplan of the building demonstrated that it was possible for the photograph to be captured from this location, rather than from inside the property, as suggested by the complainant. Though it was unable to specify exactly where the photograph had been taken, it provided an uncropped version of the photograph in order to further demonstrate that it had been taken “through an open door” from the corridor. It added that the LFB report into the fire indicated that the flat’s door was left open when the occupant had escaped.
9. The newspaper did not accept that the report was insensitive or identified the complainant. As such, it did not consider that the complainant had any standing to complain under Clause 4, and so there was no breach.
10. The newspaper further argued that there was a clear public interest in the article, including the photograph and information under complaint, particularly in the context of the Grenfell Tower fire. It said that the article formed part of the publication’s ongoing ‘Hidden Housing Scandal’ campaign on the developing cladding scandal, arguing that it had a responsibility to ensure that the risks posed to residents were fully investigated, publicised, and those responsible held to account. In this context, the newspaper said its senior editorial team had considered, prior to publication, that the article and the disputed image was proportionate to, and serving of, the public interest.
11. Notwithstanding this position, upon receipt of the complaint, the newspaper removed the disputed photograph from the online article as a gesture of goodwill.
Relevant Code Provisions
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.
(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.
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:
· Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
· Protecting public health or safety.
· Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
· Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
· Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
· Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
· Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.
There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.
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
Findings of the Committee
12. The Committee recognised the distress the fire had caused the complainant and the other residents of New Province Wharf.
13. Clause 2 (Privacy) states that everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, including their home. The complaint centred on two key concerns: that an individual had entered the complainant’s flat without consent in order to take the photograph of the interior of his home, and that the publication of this photograph along with the address of his flat represented an intrusion into the complainant’s private life.
14. The Committee noted that the complainant and the publication held conflicting positions as to whether the photograph had been captured from inside the flat or through an open doorway from the corridor. The primary question for the Committee, however, was not the precise location from which the photograph had been taken, but rather whether any intrusion had taken place into the complainant’s privacy through its taking and publication. The Committee was not in a position to determine categorically the location in which the photograph had been taken, and – because of the publication’s obligation to protect the confidentiality of its source – it did not have full details of the circumstances in which it had been taken. Notwithstanding this, the Committee made clear that it did not accept the newspaper’s position in relation to this point.
15. Nonetheless, the Committee concluded that the taking and publication of the photograph did not constitute an unjustified intrusion into the complainant’s privacy, for the following reasons. First, given the extent of the fire damage, the photograph of the room revealed very limited detail about the interior of the flat and the nature of the home, beyond the scale of the damage, which included the destruction of internal walls, appliances, and other possessions. Second, the article did not name the complainant, nor did it reveal any particular information about the complainant’s private life. On this basis, the Committee did not consider that the publication of the photograph represented an intrusion into the complainant’s private life. In any event, the Committee noted the considerable public interest in demonstrating the extent and impact of the fire. There was no breach of Clause 2.
16. The Committee next considered whether the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to his address being reported as the source of the fire. The complainant was not identified in the article as the owner of the apartment where the fire had started, so only those already aware of his address would be in a position to associate the complainant with the property. Furthermore, the fire had affected many people within the building so the source of that fire could not be considered information over which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The publication of the flat number in these circumstances did not represent an intrusion into the complainant’s private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.
17. The Committee acknowledged the distress that the publication of the article had caused the complainant. However, Clause 4 relates to whether the publication of information had been handled sensitively; it does not seek to prevent reporting of distressing events. The fire, which had affected multiple flats within the building, was clearly a matter of public interest, relating, as it did, to questions of public health and safety, and contributed to the ongoing public debate surrounding the safety of apartment blocks in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. The newspaper was fully entitled to report the incident and, while the article under complaint covered the details extensively, it did not do so in an insensitive manner. There was no breach of Clause 4.
18. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 15/05/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 03/11/2021Back to ruling listing