Decision of the Complaints Committee – 07468-21 Couzens v
Summary of Complaint
1. Olena Couzens complained to the Independent Press
Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause
6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined
“EXCLUSIVE - 'I keep on asking 'why?'': Wife of killer cop Wayne Couzens
reveals how she is haunted by failing to spot 'any signs' he was capable of
such barbaric crimes - as he admits to murdering Sarah Everard”, published on 9
2. The article reported comments made by the complainant, who
is the wife of Wayne Couzens. Mr Couzens pleaded guilty on 8 June 2021 to the
kidnap and rape of Sarah Everard, and pleaded guilty to Ms Everard’s murder on
9 July, the day of publication. Mr Couzens was sentenced to a whole life order
on 30 September 2021.
3. The complainant was described as speaking “exclusively to
Mail Online”. The article quoted her comments on her personal reaction to the
arrest of Mr Couzens, including that she “saw nothing wrong. He had a beautiful
family, a good house… what else did he need? I'm constantly asking myself
'where I did miss the signs?' How on earth could this have happened?'”. It also
included her comment on the consequences of his arrest for their family. The
article contained multiple photographs of the complainant and Mr Couzens,
including two images of her and the couple’s children, where the children’s
faces were pixelated. It also reported the age and gender of the children.
4. The complainant said that the article intruded into her
privacy in breach of Clause 2. She said that she had spoken with the reporter
around three weeks prior to the publication of the article. She said that
during this conversation, it had been agreed that her comments would not be
published, due to advice issued by the Attorney General that nothing should be
published that would prejudice the trial of Wayne Couzens; however, she told
the journalist he could contact her again after the trial, in October, at which
point they would discuss further the potential publication of her comments. She
said that while she had not put in writing that she did not consent to the
publication of her comments, at that time she assumed the publication would be
unable to publish before October on the basis of the Attorney General’s advice.
Whilst she did not complain that her comments had been reported inaccurately,
she said the piece damaged her, her husband’s, and her family’s reputation. The
complainant said that the article intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause
2 by publishing her private opinions prior to the end of Mr Couzens’ trial
without seeking further consent once the publication was legally able to
publish the interview.
5. The complainant also complained that the newspaper had
published photographs of her and her children without her consent, in breach of
Clause 2 and Clause 6. She said that the images had been uploaded to her social
media account but that she had deleted this account on 20 March 2021, 11 days
after her husband’s arrest. She said that whilst her children’s faces were
pixelated, their bodies were visible, and they could be recognised as her
children. The complainant also said that including the age and gender of her
children was a breach of Clause 6, and that reading the article had caused them
6. The publication did not accept that it had breached
either clause of the Code. With regards to Clause 2, it said that the article
did not contain any information over which the complainant had a reasonable
expectation of privacy. It said that the article simply reported comments the
complainant had willingly made to a reporter in respect of the legal
proceedings against her husband. In addition, it said that the text was
accompanied by anodyne photographs which were previously published on a social media
profile. It said that was publicly accessible at the time the images were
obtained from the complainant’s social media, and they contained no information
which was inherently private.
7. With regards to the complainant’s comments, the publication
said at no point was it agreed upon, or requested by the complainant, that the
comments were only to be published in October, contingent on further
discussion. It said that the complainant was aware she was speaking to a
reporter, appeared happy to speak when approached and discussed the topic
willingly for over fifteen minutes. It supplied a transcript of the
conversation, as well as the voice recording, in which the reporter stated that
her comments would be published “at the right time”, once it was known “what
has happened”. The publication said that it considered the right time to be
when the complainant’s husband pleaded guilty to the murder, where there was no
longer any legal impediment to publication.
8. The publication also did not accept a breach of Clause 6.
It said that the complainant’s children were not identifiable from the
information contained in the article, nor was any private information published
about them. It said that the images of her children were taken from an open
social media site on 10 March, prior to the complainant deleting her account,
and were heavily pixelated in order to make them unrecognisable. It noted that
the images were also in the public domain after having been published by
another newspaper. It said that the age of the complainant’s children was not
private information, and that the ages had been published by other publications
elsewhere. It did, however, delete the images on receipt of the complainant as
a gesture of goodwill.
9. The complainant said that she was not aware that the
conversation with the reporter was being recorded, and considered this a
further breach of her privacy. She also noted that the recording did not begin
at the start of the conversation, and that there was a break in the recording
which she said indicated that the recording had been edited to remove her
request to the reporter that her comments not be published at this time and the
agreement they enter further discussion after the trial. She had clearly stated at the start of the
transcript that “you can’t publish anyway” and later in the conversation had
stated that “until court is over, I cannot pass anything on” and that a
barrister had told her that “the press cannot contact me or ask me any
questions or take photographs, that would put you automatically into trouble as
well if you put anything out right now”.
10. The publication did not accept the complainant’s
position. It stated that the break in the recording was due to a technical
issue with the reporter’s phone and that no agreement was made at that time. It
said that the transcript did not begin as soon as communication began between
the complainant and the reporter, but that the recording began when the
complainant began to speak about her husband, after initial reluctance. It said
that the phone was in the reporter’s hands the entire time, and that the
complainant would have been able to see the reporter pressing pause.
Relevant Code Provisions
Clause 2 (Privacy)*
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and
family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including
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.
v) Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a
parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child's
Findings of the Committee
11. The Committee first considered whether the complainant
had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the comments she had
made to the journalist. Under the terms of Clause 2, “in considering an
individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the
complainant's own public disclosures of information”. The complainant had
willingly spoken to a journalist for over fifteen minutes; there was no dispute
that she was aware that she was speaking to a representative of the
publication, and the publication had provided a recording of the conversation
which corroborated this.
12. The complainant had said that there was a discussion,
not captured by the publication’s recording, in which she requested a further
meeting to discuss the potential publication of her comments after the
conclusion of Mr Couzens’ trial. She also explained that she had been under the
impression that the publication would be legally barred from publishing her
comments until after the sentencing. The publication denied that any agreement
existed about a future meeting. It had provided a recording that demonstrated
that the journalist had said the comments would be published “at the right
time”. The Committee was unable to reconcile the parties’ conflicting accounts
about whether there had been an agreement to discuss the matter further after
the conclusion of Mr Couzens’ trial. However, in circumstances where the
complainant had willingly made disclosures to the journalist, the Committee did
not consider that the publication’s decision to publish the comments after the
guilty plea to murder, rather than after sentencing, constituted a failure to
respect the complainant’s private life or represented an intrusion into her
13. The complainant had said it was a further breach of her
privacy to audio record the interview without her knowledge. The Committee
noted that the use of electronic recording devices is an important means by
which journalists can take care over the accuracy of published material and
defend any subsequent complaint of inaccuracy.
The use of a recording device in these circumstances does not constitute
a breach of privacy, particularly where the subject is aware that they are
speaking to a journalist.
14. The photographs of the complainant and her husband had
been obtained from her social media account and were previously in the public
domain. In addition, the photographs themselves contained no private
information and simply showed the complainant with her husband. The complainant
did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over these images. There was
no breach of Clause 2 on these points.
15. The complainant said that the publication of the images
of her children also constituted a breach of Clause 2 and 6. The images of her
children had been put on her public social media account by the complainant,
and the newspaper had pixelated their faces prior to publication. The children
had not been named in the article. The article, which relayed the complainant’s
comments about the children’s reaction to the events, clearly concerned the
children’s welfare. However, the Committee was content that due to the
pixilation the children were not recognisable in the image to anyone who was
not already aware of their identity. On this basis, there was no breach of
Clause 2 or 6 in relation to the photograph. In addition, the gender and age of
the children was not private information, and the newspaper was entitled to
publish this. There was no breach of Clause 6 on this point.
16. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 12/07/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/12/2021Back to ruling listing