Decision of the Complaints Committee 08979-16 A woman v Surrey Comet
Summary of Complaint
1. A woman complained on behalf of her son to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Surrey Comet breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “APPEAL: Vulnerable man, who suffers from Asperger’s, missing from Catford”, published on 29 July 2016.
2. The article reported a police appeal to the public for help finding the complainant’s 26-year-old son, who was missing. It said that the man was vulnerable, suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, and had a mental age of 16-years-old.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate as her son does not have a mental age of 16 and, at the time of publication, did not have a diagnosis for Asperger’s syndrome. She said that while she had given consent for an appeal to go to a missing person’s charity, she asked that no information went to the press. She said that the information was released to the press in error, and that the police had apologised for this. She said that the publication of the appeal had put private information about her son’s medical conditions into the public domain, which intruded into his private life; she said that publication of this information was even worse because he was a vulnerable person. She also said that the information, which she did not dispute was provided to the newspaper by the police, was published in an insensitive manner, and that the article discriminated against her son by making reference to his disabilities.
4. The newspaper said that the information in the article came from the police in the form of an appeal to find a missing and vulnerable individual. It said that it regularly publishes such appeals based on information provided by the police, and proceeds on the basis that the information is not only safe to use, but the party involved would want the publication to publish as much information as possible. In this case, it said that the article had reported the details supplied to its reporter by the police entirely accurately.
5. It said that it had noted that the complainant’s position that the information had been released because of an error by the police, and that the police had apologised to her. It offered to add this information to the article, and to remove the image of her son from the website. It also offered publish another article reporting that he had been found.
Relevant Code Provisions
6. 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.
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. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.
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 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Findings of the Committee
7. The Committee acknowledged the strength of the complainant’s feeling about the information that had been released about her son, and noted her position that she had asked police not to release information about him to the press. In circumstances such as these, newspapers perform an important public service in disseminating police appeals to a wider audience; however, there is a duty on newspapers under Clause 2 of the Code to respect the private life of individuals, including information relating to their health. In this case, the information contained in the article was of a highly personal nature. However, the article was published in support of a police appeal to find a vulnerable missing person and the Committee was therefore satisfied that the newspaper was operating under the reasonable belief that publication of the information would be in the public interest. Furthermore, while the complainant’s son had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the material published, such that his privacy was infringed through publication, the Committee concluded that this was justified by the public interest in supporting the police appeal. There was no breach of Clause 2.
8. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that her son does not have a mental age of 16, and did not have a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome at the time of publication. In circumstances where the article was published in good faith using information provided by the police, there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1(i). Further, any inaccuracies over the precise nature of the complainant’s vulnerabilities was not significantly misleading where it was accepted, and explained by the complainant during correspondence, that her son was vulnerable. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).
9. The Committee did not consider that publication of the article, in circumstances where the newspaper relied on information provided by the police, was handled insensitively. Neither did the article contain a prejudicial or pejorative reference to the complainant’s medical conditions. There was no breach of Clause 4 or Clause 12.
10. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 18/08/2016
Date decision issued: 13/12/2016
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