Decision of the Complaints Committee – 05094-20 Gething v The Sun
Summary of Complaint
1. Vaughan Gething complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “IT’S CHIPOCRACY”, published on 13 May 2020, and in an article headlined “DE-FENCE MINISTER”, published on 19 May 2020.
2. The first article reported that the complainant, the Labour Party’s Welsh health minister, had “tucked into chips at a picnic table despite telling people to stay at home and save lives” after being “pictured in a baseball cap and sunglasses with his wife, [wife’s name] and their five-year-old son.” The article went on to report that he sat “for more than 15 minutes on the harbour-side of Cardiff Bay after a two-mile walk from their home.” It reported that the minister had “been pushing the message that ‘spending a prolonged period on a park bench’ was not allowed under his government’s lockdown rules”. The article featured a comment from the complainant which read “There is absolutely no breach of the guidance or the rules themselves.” The article went on to report that the guidance had “since been relaxed to allow people to exercise more than once a day.” The article featured a comment from an onlooker, who said “He was really relaxed, enjoying the sunshine with his family. I was confused and surprised when I saw him, I thought we weren’t allowed to do that.”” The article then featured a comment from a former Welsh Conservative leader who said: “This is a bad example to set and either the rules are wrong or the health minister is wrong.”
3. The first article was published in a similar format online on 12 May. The online version of the article featured an extended comment from a Welsh government spokesperson in the following terms: “Absolutely nothing the Minister is reported to have done contravenes Welsh Government regulations. Walking and eating food along the way with members of your household is allowed. Walking a couple of miles from home is exercising locally and is permitted under our regulations.” The online article had the following URL: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/11608940/labour-mp-breaks-lockdown-rules-chips-picnic/, and the complainant noted that the URL for the article stated “Labour MP breaks lockdown rules.” The article also featured a photograph of the complainant sitting at a picnic table eating chips with his wife. Their son was not visible in the picture.
4. The second article reported that the spot at which the complainant was “caught” eating had been “cordoned off”, after “workmen surrounded the picnic benches with 7ft high metal fencing.” The article reported that the complainant had been accused of “flouting rules when he sat for 15 minutes at Cardiff Bay” and that ”the local government said the closure was for litter bin installation.” It included the picture which had been published in the online version of the first article, showing the complainant sitting at a picnic table with his wife eating chips which was captioned “last month”.
5. The second article was also published in a similar format online under the headline “DE-FENCE MINISTER Picnic spot used by ‘lockdown-flouting’ Labour health minister gets fenced off” and additionally reported that the complainant had “defended his chip takeaway and insisted he was doing nothing wrong.”
6. The complainant said that the articles were inaccurate. He said that the articles’ reference to him being “lockdown flouting” and “caught”, in conjunction with the URL of the first online article, implied that he had had broken the regulations in force at the time, when this was not the case; he had not been fined or caught in the sense of a criminal act. The complainant said that regulation 8(1) of the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (Wales) Regulations 2020 provided that no person may leave the place they are living or remain away from that place without reasonable excuse and that Regulation 8(2) then set out a non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses, which included the need to take exercise, and the need to obtain basic necessities, including food for those in the same household. The complainant said that the journalist had been made aware prior to publication that he had not breached these regulations. He said that further guidance was subsequently issued on 11 May which clarified that ”although the main purpose of leaving home should be to exercise, activity incidental to that which is good for a person’s health or wellbeing is also considered to be reasonable.” He said that the fact that he, while taking his daily exercise, chose to purchase and consume, over a brief period of time, some food outdoors did not constitute a contravention of the Regulations; he had acted entirely within their accordance. The complainant noted that the first version of the online article reported that he had sat outside “as millions followed government guidance to stay indoors”, which gave the impression that leaving his home for any reason was not allowed, which was clearly not the case.
7. The complainant said that the photograph published in the online version of the first article and in the second article represented an intrusion into his private life in breach of Clause 2. The complainant emphasised that he was not exercising outside his local area and publishing a photograph taken while stopping off for a brief period of time to feed his five-year-old son while exercising intruded into his private life. The complainant was also complaining on behalf of his wife. He said that while he was a public figure, his wife, who had not consented to the photograph’s publication, was not. He said he was clearly not undertaking his public role and that he was exercising for health reasons as part of his private and family life; he would reasonably have had an expectation that his and his family’s privacy would have been respected whilst he was “off duty.”
8. The publication denied any breach of the Code. In respect of the complainant’s Clause 1 complaint, it emphasised that the rules in force at the time the photograph was taken were as follows: “leaving your home to exercise should not be used as an excuse to undertake other activity. The purpose of leaving home is to exercise. Going for a walk and then having a picnic or spending a prolonged period on a park bench, for example, is not considered to be exercise and is not intended to be a reasonable excuse.” The publication said that the complainant’s assertion that he had not broken these rules was without foundation; he had spent a prolonged period of time sitting at a picnic table eating chips, which most people would not consider to be exercise. Further, the publication noted that the further guidance issued on 11 May and referenced by the complainant did not assist because it was issued after the photograph of the complainant was taken.
9. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 2. It said that the complainant and his wife had been photographed in a public place and were not engaged in any private activities; they were sitting at a picnic table eating chips. They did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy at the time they were photographed, nor did the photograph reveal any inherently private information about them.
10. The publication said that while it was not relying on one as it did not consider that there was breach of the Code, the article’s publication was in the public interest.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. 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.
12. 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 intrusion 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.
Findings of the Committee
13. At the outset, the Committee was clear that it was not its function to enforce the government guidelines, or to determine whether or not the rules had been breached, rather its function was to determine whether the publication had breached the Editors’ Code.
14. The article drew a contrast between the complainant’s actions and the messages which the article said the complainant had been publicising that people should stay at home to save lives and that spending a prolonged period on a park bench was not allowed under the government’s lockdown rules. The article did not report, as fact, that the complainant had breached the rules. The quotation attributed to the former Welsh Conservative leader raised the possibility that the complainant may have broken the rules, but this was clearly distinguished as the opinion of that individual. Furthermore, the article had included the complainant’s position that there was “absolutely no breach of the guidance or the rules themselves.” The Committee noted that the URL of the first article included the phrase “Labour MP breaks lockdown rules”; however, given that it was clear from both the headline and the article that the publication was questioning the actions of the complainant, rather than reporting that the complainant had been found to be in breach of the rules, the URL did not render the article inaccurate so as to require a correction. There was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information and no significant inaccuracy requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii) in respect of the first article.
15. The Committee noted that the second print article made clear that the complainant was “accused” of flouting lockdown rules. In the headline to the online version, the phrase “flouting” appeared in quotation marks, which indicated that this was a claim. Both versions of the article therefore made it sufficiently clear that this was an allegation which had been made previously and not established fact. The article was referencing the comments made by an onlooker and the former conservative leader which had been reported in the first article. The Committee did not consider it significantly misleading to characterise these comments in this way and the article did not state, as established fact, that the complainant had broken any rules or regulations. The second article also included a quote from a local government spokesperson which explained that the closure was due to the installation of bins, as opposed to the complainant’s actions. The Committee further noted that the online version of the article made it clear that the complainant had defended his actions and that he had insisted that he had done nothing wrong. There was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information and no significant inaccuracy requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii) in respect of the second article.
16. It was not in dispute that the photograph was taken in a public place. The image showed the complainant and his wife seated at the picnic table and did not include any information in respect of which they had a reasonable expectation of privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2.
17. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 22/05/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 26/11/2020Back to ruling listing