Decision of the Complaints Committee 06319-19 Docherty v Evening Times
Summary of Complaint
1. Collette Docherty complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Evening Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Health chiefs probe sectarian tweets from nurses’ profile”, published on 24 August 2019.
2. The article reported that an NHS worker was under investigation by Glasgow’s Health Board for allegedly posting sectarian tweets that used offensive and homophobic language and that the matter had been referred to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). The headline described the woman as a “nurse” and the article and picture caption described her as a “nursing assistant”. The article quoted several of the tweets and reported that they were “posted from the profile of Collette Docherty”. As well as publishing her full name, the article identified the hospital at which she worked, and the area where she lived.
3. The article appeared online under the headline “Glasgow nurse under investigation after sectarian tweets claim” and was substantially the same as the print article.
4. The complainant said the article was inaccurate; she said that she was a “healthcare support worker”, not a nurse, and a complaint about her could not be referred to, or investigated by, the NMC as she was not regulated by them. She also said it was inaccurate to report that she posted tweets from a profile in the name of Collette Docherty as her twitter handle contained only her first name and not her surname.
5. The complainant also said that the article represented an intrusion into her private life in breach of Clause 2 as it published her full name; the hospital she worked at; the place where she lived; the fact that she was under investigation; and her alleged association with the tweets. She said that she had a reasonable expectancy of privacy in respect of this information which was not public knowledge until the publication of the article.
6. The complainant also said that an approach by a journalist and photographer acting on behalf of the Evening Times constituted harassment in breach of Clause 3. She said that the journalist had knocked on her door and was accompanied by a photographer. She said that her young daughter answered the door and the reporter asked her daughter whether she was in, at which point the complainant came to the door. The reporter introduced herself and asked the complainant if she wanted to comment on the allegations regarding the twitter account. The complainant said she then noticed the photographer, and was concerned that he was taking photographs of her daughter; at this point she said she would call the police. The complainant said the photographer and journalist then left.
7. The publication did not accept any breach of the Code. It said that whilst the headline described the complainant as a “nurse” this was not inaccurate where the rest of the article made clear she was a “nursing assistant”. It also said that, to the extent that the description was inaccurate, it was not significant in the context of the story, which reported the investigation into the conduct of a healthcare professional. However, the publication offered to revise her job title to “nursing assistant” in the headline of the online version of the article.
8. The publication also said that, in relation to the report that the complainant had been referred to the NMC, it had relied on an email sent by a senior member of NHS management which stated that the case was being investigated by the senior nursing team under the NMC. It also contacted the NMC directly, but was told that it could not disclose details of an investigation until its conclusion. Following publication of the article, the publication had contacted the NMC, again, which confirmed that the complainant was not on its register. The publication did not consider that the report of the involvement of the NMC was a significant inaccuracy where it was not in dispute that the complainant was subject to a professional disciplinary investigation. Nevertheless, it offered to clarify this point in the online version of the article and to update the article with the status of the investigation if more information became available.
9. The publication did not accept that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the information in the article. The publication said that the complainant had no expectation of privacy over her full name, her place of work or general location, and even if she did her workplace and the city she lived in was visible on her twitter account. The publication said that whilst the fact the complainant was under investigation may be private, there was a strong public interest in reporting this which outweighed any right to privacy. Additionally, it said that where her twitter page was public, used her first name, mentioned her work and had a photograph of her there was no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding her connection to the tweets. It also noted that her address was publicly available on the electoral register.
10. The publication provided notes of the interaction that took place between the complainant, the reporter and the photographer who went to the complainant’s home. The publication said that the reporter knocked on the complainant’s front door, with the photographer standing a short distance away. When the complainant’s daughter answered the door the reporter asked for the complainant, who came downstairs. The reporter introduced herself and asked for a comment on the tweets. The complainant asked how the reporter got her address, and the reporter explained it was on the electoral roll. The complainant said she would call the police and the reporter and photographer left. The photographer did not take any photographs of the complainant’s daughter. The publication said there was no failure to respect the request to desist, that the exchange was short and polite and that there was therefore no breach of Clause 3.
Relevant Clause 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 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.
13. 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.
14. 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:
i) Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
ii) Protecting public health or safety.
iii) Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
iv) Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
v) Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
vi) Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
vii) 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
15. The article reported that the complainant had been referred to the NMC. The publication had relied on an email, sent by a senior member of NHS management, which stated that the case was being investigated by the senior nursing team under the NMC. In relying upon the email, there was no failure to take care in reporting that the NMC was involved. Although the complainant disputed that she would be subject to regulation by the NMC, it appeared that she had been referred by her employers for investigation under the terms of the NMC’s code of practice. The Committee considered that, where it was not in dispute that the complainant’s conduct was being formally investigated, the difference between reporting that the investigation was being undertaken by the NHS or the NMC was not significant. The article made clear the nature of the allegations for which the complainant was being investigated and the response of her employer. No significant inaccuracy required correction under Clause 1 (ii).
16. Whilst the headline described the complainant as a nurse, the article made clear that she was a nursing assistant. The Committee found that this was not significantly misleading as it was not in dispute that she was a member of the nursing team at the hospital. Further, where it was not in dispute that the tweets had been sent from her twitter account, it was not misleading to report that they had been posted from a twitter profile in her name. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
17. The Committee found that the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of her name; place of work; and the city where she lived as this information was all publically available. Additionally, the Committee found that she did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to her connection to the tweets, as the complainant had identified herself on her twitter account by using her first name and a photograph of herself. The Committee considered that there may be circumstances in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy over the fact that they are facing disciplinary proceedings. However, in this instance, her employer, the body responsible for overseeing disciplinary matters, had disclosed to the publication that she was under investigation; as a result, the expectation of privacy which was reasonable was more limited. Further, there was a public interest in reporting on the alleged misconduct of someone in the healthcare profession, and the actions taken by her employer in response to these allegations. In these circumstances, there was no breach of Clause 2.
18. The complainant and the publication agreed that the journalist left the property once asked to desist from questioning the complainant. There was no failure to respect the request to desist, and therefore no breach of Clause 3(ii). There was no suggestion that the reporter or photographer had engaged in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit and, therefore, there was no breach of Clause 3(i).
19. The complaint was not upheld.
Date complaint received: 26/08/2019
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/02/2020