Decision of the Complaints Committee 05972-19 Bradley v South Shropshire Journal
Summary of Complaint
1. Zoe Bradley complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the South Shropshire Journal breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “LEUKAEMIA BATTLE FOR BRAVE [NAMED CHILD]”, published on 2 August 2019.
2. The article reported that a named and pictured two-year-old child had been recently diagnosed with leukaemia, after a period of feeling unwell. It reported that the child was due to begin treatment at a named hospital, and gave details as to what this treatment would entail. The article quoted a family member who explained that the child’s mother and sisters, who were also named in the article, would be visiting the child in hospital and would have to stay away from home overnight. It also reported that a crowdfunding campaign had been set up to support the family, and provided details for people who wished to donate to the campaign.
3. The complainant, the mother of the children referred to in the article, said that she had not consented to the publication of the article. She said that it contained medical information about her youngest child in breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code. She said that she had taken steps to keep her youngest child’s illness private: the fundraising page had been set up by a relative without her knowledge or consent and was intended for friends and family only; she had since asked for it to be deleted. She also complained that the article named her two older children, and reported details of them visiting their younger sister and staying away from home. She said that the publication of the article had been very distressing to her and her family at an extremely difficult time. She said that the relative who was quoted in the article had felt pressured into giving the story and was not acting on her behalf or with her consent. She noted that the photograph of her daughter which was published was not otherwise in the public domain and had been provided by her relative without her consent.
4. The publication apologised for any distress caused, but said that it had published the article in good faith. It said that the reporter had learned of the story after speaking with the relative quoted in the article. It provided copies of correspondence between the reporter and the relative in which the reporter asked several times to speak with the complainant in relation to the story about her daughter. However she was told by the relative that the complainant had “said yes to the story”, that she didn’t think the complainant was “up for speaking”, but that the relative was “happy to answer” any of the reporter’s queries about the child. As such, the publication said that it was reasonable for the reporter to assume that the relative was acting on behalf of the complainant, with her knowledge and consent. It also noted that at the time, the complainant was in hospital with her child and the reporter wished to avoid contacting her unnecessarily. It said that the reporter had sent a copy of the article to the relative to check prior to publication and it was only the next day when the reporter wrote to the relative to let her know that the article would appear on the front page that the relative said that the complainant had “changed her mind” about the article and didn’t want it to be published. At this point the article had already gone to print.
5. Nevertheless, the publication said that reporting details of the child’s medical condition and treatment was not an intrusion into the child’s privacy, as this information was already in the public domain via the public fundraising page. Although it accepted that this had not been set up by the complainant, it said that it was clear that she was aware and had consented to it, as she had commented on, liked, and shared posts asking for donations on social media.
6. Following the complaint, the publication had spoken to all staff to reiterate that explicit permission from a parent or legal guardian must be obtained when covering similar stories in the future. It ensured that the article did not appear online and offered to publish a statement explaining what had happened, why the article was published, and apologising for the distress caused.
Relevant Code Provisions
7. 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 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.
The Public Interest
There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.
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
8. The Committee noted that the publication had intended to publish a positive article, in order to raise awareness of the child’s bravery and the crowdfunding campaign. Nonetheless, it was still required to have regard for the terms of Clause 6.
9. The Committee
first considered the complaint under Clause 6 in relation to the youngest
child. The Preamble to the Editors’ Code makes clear that the Code should be
honoured not only to the letter, but in the full spirit. As it has done in
relation to previous complaints brought under the clause, the Committee
interpreted the terms of Clause 6 (iii) as applying in situations where
photographs of a child under 16 are published in circumstances which involve a
child’s welfare. In this case, the article was about the child’s diagnosis and
the medical treatment she would be receiving, which were matters which related
to her welfare. The publication of the photograph in this context engaged
Clause 6 (iii). In order to comply with the requirements of Clause 6 (iii), it
was necessary for the reporter to establish that a custodial parent or
similarly responsible adult had explicitly consented to the publication of the
photograph. The Committee recognised that the newspaper had understood that the
relative who had spoken to the journalist was acting with the mother’s
knowledge and consent, and that some information about the child’s illness was
already in the public domain. However, no direct enquiries to the complainant
or another custodial parent had been made to obtain their explicit consent for
publication. As such, publishing the photograph as part of an article which
included sensitive, medical information about a child, without parental
consent, constituted a breach of Clause 6.
10. The Committee then considered the complaint under Clause 2, the requirements of which are distinct from those under Clause 6. The newspaper had published information concerning an individual’s medical condition and the treatment she would be receiving which is information about which an individual generally has a reasonable expectation of privacy; Clause 2(i) specifically acknowledges that information about an individual’s health must be respected. Furthermore, the information published related to a child; the Code provides that any intrusion into a child’s privacy would need to be justified by an exceptional public interest. In this case, some of the published information about the child’s illness and treatment was in the public domain prior to publication; it had been referenced in multiple social media posts appealing for donations and support, which the complainant had knowledge of and interacted with, and on a publicly available crowdfunding page. However, the article also included details which were not in the public domain, such as her medical history and treatment prior to her diagnosis. Notwithstanding the complainant’s concerns about the accuracy of the information, the publication of information which related to the child’s health which was not already in the public domain could not be justified in the public interest. Publication, without the express consent of a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult, therefore amounted to a breach of Clause 2.
11. The Committee then considered the complaint made in relation to the information included in the article about the complainant’s two older children. Her children were still in education; the terms of Clause 6(i) were engaged. The Committee considered the nature of the information included in the article which related to the children – the mention of their travel and living arrangements whilst their sister was receiving treatment – and that this information was already in the public domain via the social media posts. In these circumstances, the inclusion of this information in the article did not constitute an intrusion into the complainant’s children’s time at school, or into their private lives. There was no breach of Clause 6 or Clause 2 on this point.
12. The complaint was upheld.
13. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the newspaper had breached Clause 6 and Clause 2, the publication of an adjudication was appropriate.
14. The Committee considered the placement of this adjudication. The article was published on the front page of the newspaper, however it was for the Committee to decide what remedial action would be proportionate to remedy the breach of the Code, having regard to the seriousness and extent of the breach. In this case, the article had been published in good faith, in an attempt to help the complainant and her family; the Committee was aware that requiring remedial action to appear on a newspaper’s front page is its most serious sanction. Where the newspaper had an established Corrections and Clarifications column on page two and the Committee had regard for the fact that Corrections and Clarifications columns are well-known to readers as the place where any remedial action would appear, it decided that the adjudication should appear on page 2.
15. The headline to this adjudication should be in the same typeface and size as other headlines on the page, and should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, give the title of the publication, and refer to the complaint’s subject matter. It must be agreed with IPSO in advance. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:
A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the South Shropshire Journal breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “LEUKAEMIA BATTLE FOR BRAVE [NAMED CHILD]”, published on 2 August 2019.
The article reported that a named and pictured two year old child had recently been diagnosed with leukaemia, and described her medical history and treatment prior to being diagnosed, and details of how and where she would be treated. IPSO acknowledged that the paper’s intentions in publishing the article were positive and intended to raise awareness of a crowd funding campaign for the child.
The complainant, the mother of the child, said that the information about her child had been published without her consent.
The newspaper said that it had received the information from a family member of the complainant, and was under the impression that this person was acting with the complainant’s consent. It said that it acted in good faith in publishing the information about the child, as it was trying to promote the crowdfunding campaign, and noted that this information was already publicly available on the crowdfunding website. However, it accepted that the reporter did not contact the complainant directly to confirm that she consented to the information being published.
The article was about the child’s illness and treatment, which was an issue which related to her welfare. Furthermore, the article reported information which was not already in the public domain, such as the child’s medical history and treatment prior to being diagnosed with leukaemia. This information related to the child’s health and medical treatment, and therefore had a strong expectation of privacy. Picturing the child in this context, and reporting medical information which was not already in the public domain required the explicit consent of a custodial parent. Despite the newspaper intending the article to assist the child, it was clear that the newspaper had not established that directly with the complainant that she consented to the information being published in the newspaper. The information therefore had been published without the consent of a custodial parent. There was a breach of Clause 2 and 6 and the complaint was upheld.
Date complaint received: 09/08/2019
Date decision issued: 09/01/2020