08645-19 A Man v The Sunday Times

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 08645-19 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 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “I left my husband and children”, published on 3 November 2019.

2. The article, a magazine feature, was an anonymous first-person account from a woman who had left her husband and the family home to be with a new partner. She explained the basis for her decision and recounted incidents in the breakdown of her marriage and the subsequent period of separation and the effect on the couple’s four children. For example, she said that the children were “not allowed” to see her new partner, and quoted a text exchange between the author and her ex-husband where she tried to arrange to see her children. She also said that various photographs of her and the children were not on the walls of the family home any more, which she said meant that she was “being wiped from their memory banks because I am not around to remind them I exist”. Furthermore, she said that there was a “dreadful” episode during the summer, where “everyone was posting idyllic photos of happy family holidays on every single social media platform possible.” Following on from this description, the article also included a quote attributed to her ex-husband: “You spent all your time working and when you weren’t working, you were shagging someone else, neglecting the children”. The article did not name the children or her ex-husband.

3. The complainant was the ex-husband of the woman who had written the article and had the consent of his two older children, who are adults, to complain on their behalf. He said that the article represented an intrusion into his and all four children’s privacy in breach of Clause 2, and in relation to his two younger children, also breached Clause 6. He said that despite the article purportedly being an anonymous account, his family had been identified as the subject of the article by those known to them. He said that the unusual circumstances of his family and their living arrangements meant that the publication of this information identified the family. He said that the fact that details relating to him and his children had been changed was not sufficient to prevent the family’s identification. He said that the article contained private information about the breakdown of his marriage and the subsequent separation, and its publication without his consent caused him and his children distress. However, he said that the youngest child, who was under 16, was unaware of the existence of the article. He said that the fact he had previously taken part in articles and books with his wife relating to their family life did not mean that he and his children had no reasonable expectation of privacy over the details of the breakdown of the marriage.

4. The complainant also said that the article contained a number of inaccuracies. He said that the author’s claim that the children were not allowed to see her new partner implied that he had stopped them from meeting him; in fact, the children did not wish to see the new partner. He also said that the text exchange quoted did not occur. He said that although wedding photographs had been removed, numerous images of his ex-wife remained around the house and so it was inaccurate to claim that she was being “erased” from their children’s life; furthermore, his ex-wife still saw their children frequently. He said that over the summer, when his ex-wife claimed she felt “dreadful”, she took the children on several holidays. The complainant also said that the article contained various inaccuracies about the family circumstances, and that the quote attributed to him where he accused his ex-wife of neglect was fabricated. He also said that he was not contacted prior to publication.

5. The publication said that the author was entitled to tell her story and had a right to freedom of expression on a personal and emotive subject; doing so in this instance did not represent an intrusion into the complainant or his family’s privacy. It did not accept that the family were identifiable because it had changed various details relating to the children and the complainant. It said that only relatives and family with prior knowledge of the marital breakdown might possibly identify the family, and it was always open to the complainant to deny the account. In relation to Clause 6 specifically, it said that the complainant had accepted that his youngest child, the only child who was under 16, was unaware of the existence of the article. Furthermore, it said that the complainant had already consented to a large amount of material about his marriage and family being published. It provided a selection of columns written by the complainant and his ex-wife in 2007, which frequently identified the whole family and reported on the state of their relationship. It also referred to other material put into the public domain by the family which focussed on their family life and travels.

6. The publication said that the article was not a straightforward news article; it was clearly a first-person narrative of a contentious and acrimonious divorce. It was not presented as fact, but as a personal recollection of events, and noted that the article was anonymous and did not make any claims attributable to an identifiable person. It said that some inaccuracies were intentional and put in place to avoid the identification of the family: for example, the parts of the complaint which related to descriptions of the complainant and the children. Others were differences of recollection and interpretation of events surrounding the relationship. It said that the author was entitled to express herself and to tell her story from her own unique perspective. For example, it said that it was the writer’s understanding that the children are not allowed to see her new partner. In relation to the quoted texts and conversations, these were the writer’s personal recollections from stressful and turbulent times; it was natural that there would be a dispute over what was said. Nevertheless, the publication offered to publish a clarification putting the complainant’s position on the claims on record.

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 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.

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.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

9. 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

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

Findings of the Committee

10. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself. In this case, the journalist had a right to discuss and publish her experience of the breakdown of her relationship and subsequent separation. However, exercising this right to freedom of expression may conflict with the rights of other individuals. Editors must carefully balance these rights in order to comply with the Code.

11. The article gave details of the breakdown of the complainant’s marriage, the subsequent divorce, and the visiting arrangements between the complainant’s ex-wife and their children. These were sensitive details concerning their private and family lives about which a person generally has a reasonable expectation of privacy; as such, Clause 2 was engaged. In addition, two of the children referred to in the article were under 18 and still at school. The terms of Clause 6 were therefore also engaged.

12. The Committee considered first whether the article had intruded into the private lives of the complainant and his adult children under the terms of Clause 2, and whether any such intrusion was justified in the public interest.

13. As previously noted, the article had discussed information about which the complainant and his adult children had a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, the newspaper had taken steps before publication to limit the extent of the intrusion. The article was an anonymous account and omitted some information which had the potential to identify the family, such as their general location.  Indeed, inaccuracies had been introduced in order to further reduce the prospect that the family might be identified by those people who were already aware of some of the details of the separation and divorce.

14. The Committee then considered whether the limited intrusion which would result from the family being identified by those who were already aware of their circumstances was justified in the public interest, taking into account the public interest in freedom of expression and the full circumstances. In this instance, the information was published in the context of the author reporting on her own experiences of the turbulent breakdown of her relationship, and as part of a wider discussion on the position of mothers, like herself, who had left the family home following a separation.  In these circumstances, the Committee concluded that the limited intrusion into the privacy of the complainant and his two older children was proportionate to the public interest served by the author exercising her right to freedom of expression about these issues. There was no breach of Clause 2 in relation to the complainant and his two adult children.

15. The Committee noted that the author of the article shared parental responsibility for the two younger children. As the information which related to them had been published with the consent of their mother on their behalf, there was no breach of Clause 2 or Clause 6 in relation to them.

16. In relation to the complaint under Clause 1, the Committee reiterated that the author had the right to publish her version of events, and the article was clearly framed as her own personal account of a contentious and upsetting divorce. The claims about the complainant’s behaviour, such as the contents of texts or remembered conversations, represented her own subjective recollections which were unlikely to be readily verifiable. Furthermore, although the complainant disputed his ex-partner’s claims that she was being “erased” from the family; that she had found the summer holidays “dreadful”; and that the children were not allowed to see her new partner, the claims were clearly identified as his ex-partner’s position, and were presented as such.

17. The complainant had expressed concern that he was not contacted before publication. The Editors’ Code does not contain a requirement that subjects of articles must be contacted prior to publication, although a failure to do so may result in a failure to take care over the accuracy of an article. In this case, the article was clearly presented as a personal account, and no serious allegations were made about the complainant’s conduct.  Furthermore, the complainant had not been named in the article and steps had been taken to reduce the prospect that he might be identified by those people who knew the family. In these circumstances, the Committee concluded that the newspaper’s decision not to seek comment from the complainant did not constitute a failure to take care over the reporting of the claims. There was no breach of Clause 1(i).

18. The Committee then considered the complaint that the article was inaccurate.  The Committee noted that the article was presented as the account of the author in circumstances where the complainant had not been named. The author had expressed a view on a number of matters relating to the separation with which the complainant did not agree, but these matters were distinguished as the comment of the author in compliance with the Code. To the extent that there was a dispute over the accuracy of the quotes attributed to the complainant in the article, the Committee did not consider that any inaccuracies were significant in the context of an article which would be understood by readers to be a one-sided account.  In addition, the complainant did not dispute that the quotes attributed to him reflected his position that he did not prevent the author from seeing their children and the reasons for the breakdown of the relationship. There were no significant inaccuracies requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii)

Conclusions

19. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

20. N/A

 

Date complaint received: 07/11/2019

Date complaint concluded: 05/03/2020


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