Decision of the Complaints Committee – 06731-20 Gilbert v the Northern Echo
Summary of Complaint
1. Michael Gilbert, personally and on his wife’s behalf, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Northern Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 14 (Confidential sources) in an article headlined “Licence appeal from bus driver involved in fatal crash” published on 23 May 2020.
2. The article reported that “A bus driver [the complainant] involved in a fatal crash is trying to get his driving licence back two years after being banned as a result”. It stated that “Teesside Crown Court heard” that the complainant was “attempting to reduce his three year driving ban to enable him to take on more hours at work and help out his ill wife”. The article reported that the barrister representing the complainant had said that “his family circumstances had changed due to his wife’s illness making it impossible for her to work or drive”; and that his “current employers, [a named supermarket], said that they were unable to give him extra work unless he had his driving licence”.
3. The article appeared online in a substantially similar format.
4. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1 as his barrister had not said that “his wife’s illness mak[es] it impossible for her to work or drive”. Rather, his barrister had said that his wife’s illness was making it increasingly difficult for her to work. The complainant also said that information about his place of work and his wife’s medical condition should note have been published, and doing so breached Clauses 2 and 14, and caused distress to his family in breach of Clause 4. However, he accepted that this information had been made public in court.
5. The publication accepted that the complainant’s barrister had actually said her condition makes it increasingly difficult for her to work rather than “impossible for her to work or drive” as the article had reported. It therefore accepted that it had inaccurately summarised the barrister’s remarks, amended this reference and offered, during direct correspondence with the complainant, to publish a clarification. The publication proposed that the clarification would appear footnoted to the online article and in print on page 2. 17 days into IPSO’s investigation it proposed the following wording:
An article published by The Northern Echo on May 22 (online) and May 23 (print) regarding an application by bus driver Michael Gilbert to reduce his three-year driving ban following his involvement in a fatal collision in Darlington, said his family’s circumstances had changed due to his wife’s medical condition making it impossible for her to work or drive. We are happy to make clear that his representative, [named person], actually said her illness was making it increasingly difficult for her to work or drive. We apologise for the error.
6. The complainant did not accept this offer.
Relevant Code provisions
7. 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 correction, promptly and with due prominence, and –where appropriate- an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. Clause 14 (Confidential sources)
Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.
Findings of the Committee
11. The publication had accepted it had misreported the comments of the complainant’s barrister and therefore had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information. There was a breach of Clause 1(i).
12. The inaccuracy was significantly misleading as to the complainant’s wife’s ability to go about her everyday life and the basis of the complainant’s application for the return of his driving license. Therefore, the inaccuracy required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). The correction offered by the publication was sufficient. It identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record; it was prompt given the publication’s efforts to resolve the complaint at an early stage; and was sufficiently prominent, appearing as footnote to the amended article online and in print on page 2. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).
13. The complainant had confirmed that details of his wife’s condition and his employer had been made public in open court. In such circumstances, the publication was entitled to report this. Reporting public court proceedings forms part of the important principle of open justice. There was no reasonable expectation of privacy over this information and no breach of Clause 2.
14. The complainant had said that the publication of the same information had constituted a breach of Clause 14. However, Clause 14 relates to the identification of confidential sources of information. Where the complainant’s concern did not relate to this -and was instead that the information itself was confidential- Clause 14 was not engaged.
15. The complainant had said that the publication of the same information had caused him and his family distress in breach of Clause 4. However, Clause 4 does not restrict the right to report legal proceedings. Where this information had been made public in court, there was no breach of Clause 4.
16. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).
Remedial Action Required
17. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.
18. The publication had offered to publish a correction in a prominent position and sufficiently promptly as to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii). This should now be published to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
Date complaint received: 25/5/2020
Date decision issued: 22/10/2020Back to ruling listing