06129-18 A man v The Sunday Times

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 06129-18 A man v The Sunday Times

Summary of complaint

1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), Clause 6 (Children) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “Millfield pupils ‘hit young boys with bats’” published on 16 September 2018.

2. The article reported on alleged “initiation rituals” that had taken place at a boarding school. The article was based on an interview with a named woman, who recounted what her son had witnessed at the school.  It reported that the child had told his parents of a number of practices taking place, including “bed-flipping” and “fight nights” between the pupils. The article included a description of one alleged incident, whereby two pupils had allegedly hit younger pupils with a belt and a cricket bat. The mother said that out of 12 boys in the year group, she believed 9 had been beaten.  It reported that her son had made voice recordings of the incident, which had been passed to the newspaper, which “capture[d] the atmosphere in the boarding house that night.” It went on to state that you could hear younger boys being given the choice between “’two lashes on the shorts’ or ‘one on the bare backside’”. The mother said that she had passed the recordings to the school and wanted “more scrutiny of fee-paying schools and for them to be legally obliged to report physical bullying to an independent agency.” It also included a statement from the headmaster of the school, who said that as soon as the school became aware of the allegation an investigation was conducted and the two pupils concerned were suspended. The article also signposted readers to the online article, where the audio recording could be accessed.

3. The article was also published online with the same headline. The online article contained a two minute video which contained extracts from the audio recording made by the child referred to in the article. In the audio, the voices of the alleged perpetrators could be heard discussing what they were going to do. It was also possible to hear the sound of the children being hit, and cheering after it. The rest of the online article was substantively the same as the article that appeared in print.

4. The complainant was the father of one of the boys who was a victim of the incident. He said that the year group at the school was small, and as people knew his son had a connection to the boy named in the article, friends and family had been able to establish he had been involved. He said that the audio clip published identified his son as a victim of the alleged bullying incident, as he could be heard screaming at one point in the audio, as well as one audible quote. He said that the recording had been taken clandestinely, in breach of Clause 10 and should not have been published without parental consent. He said that the publication of the article had had a distressing impact on his son, and had breached Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code.

5. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It did not accept that the complainant’s son was identifiable from the audio recording and stressed that the subject matter was of significant public interest. The newspaper said that it had not identified which room this incident had taken place in, and said that the recording clearly showed that there were many boys moving between rooms at the time. It also said that it edited the audio recording prior to publication to limit the possibility of identifying the children involved. It said that the voices that could be heard in the audio recording were not of those being bullied, but the perpetrators, and would not be identifiable to anyone who was not already aware of their involvement in the incident. It did not accept that any of the victims of bullying could be identified by the recording.

6. Notwithstanding this, it said there was a strong public interest in reporting on bullying in boarding schools. The newspaper believed that the audio recording allowed readers to hear for themselves the nature of what had occurred. It said that following the publication of the article, the newspaper had received a letter from the head of the Independent Schools Association, supporting the family for speaking out about this issue and the school involved had started an anti-bullying hotline for pupils, all of which it said demonstrated the public interest in publishing the story. Nevertheless, when the complainant had contacted the newspaper directly about his concerns, it had removed the audio recording form the online article, as a gesture of goodwill.

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 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.

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 the sole justification for published details of a child’s private life.

Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) *

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

The public interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. 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.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

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 recognised the strong public interest in reporting on the alleged bullying that had taken place. Specifically with regards to the publication of the audio recording, which effectively showed the atmosphere and context in which the incident had taken place. However, the Code provides specific protections for children under 16. The article under complaint clearly reported on a subject which involved the welfare of the complainant’s child: he had been the victim of an alleged bullying incident. Therefore the Committee carefully considered whether the information published in the article identified the complainant’s son, and the extent to which this constituted an intrusion into his privacy or his time at school.

9.  The article had reported the name of the school involved, and the year group of the alleged victims. The Committee considered that this identified a relatively large pool of children who had potentially been involved in the incident, and regardless of the fact the complainant’s son had a connection to the boy referred to in the article, the written information included in the article did not identify the complainant’s son as a victim of the bullying.

10. With regards to the publication of the audio recording, the Committee noted the newspaper’s position that it had taken steps to edit the recording provided so that the alleged victims were not identifiable. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant’s son had been distressed by the publication of the article, having reviewed the audio recording, it noted that the recording included the voices of a large number of indistinguishable boys of a similar age. No names or other identifying information could be heard in the recording. The Committee considered that the scream the complainant attributed to his son could not be said to be identifiable. Also, the spoken words attributed to the complainant’s son did not identify him as a victim of bullying as the complainant had alleged, and the Committee did not consider that there was a breach of Clause 2 or Clause 6.

11. Further, in the event that the child was identifiable to a small group of people, who had additional information about the complainant’s son so as to enable them to make a connection between the complainant’s son and the incident, there was an exceptional public interest in publishing the audio recording. The audio illustrated the extent of the bullying behaviour the children had been subjected to, and the publication of this material was justified. There was no breach of Clause 2 or Clause 6.

12. The material had not been obtained by a clandestine listening device. It had been made on a recording device, by someone present at the incident and subsequently provided to the newspaper by the child’s mother. In these circumstances, Clause 10 was not engaged. 

13. The terms of Clause 4 relate to the approaches journalists make at times of personal grief and shock, as well as how newspapers handle the publication of material which relates to an individual’s grief or shock. The Committee did not consider that the publication of information about the incident, including the edited audio recording was insensitive. There was no breach of Clause 4.

Conclusions

14. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

15. N/A

Date complaint received: 17/09/2018

Date decision issued: 24/12/2018


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