Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09437-19 Shipsey v Bournemouth Echo
Summary of Complaint
1. Michelle Shipsey complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Bournemouth Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Former social services worker who accessed care records appears in court”, published on 9 December 2019.
2. The article reported on the court case of a former social services support officer who had unlawfully accessed people’s social care records. It reported that the support officer had given “details to parents at their children’s school” and that the “offences came to light after a service user informed their social worker Shipsey had revealed information about them to one or more parents at their children’s school”. The article also detailed the crime that the former support officer had been convicted of: “for viewing records of people known to her between May 25 and July 26 last year without a business need to do so”.
3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline: “Former social services worker who accessed care records appears in court”. This article was also shared on the publication’s Facebook page under the status “Shipsey gave private information to other parents at a school”.
4. The complainant, the former social services worker who was the subject of the article, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She accepted that she had been found guilty of accessing information, but said that it had not been heard in court, nor was it true, that she had shared the private information with parents at a school. She said a neighbour had speculated that she had accessed the records, and this accusation was how it became known that she had illegally accessed the records. She also said it was inaccurate to state that she had obtained “people’s” personal information as it was a family’s file. The complainant provided her court summons which showed that she had been charged with obtaining personal data, but did not mention sharing the information.
5. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 2, as it had revealed her street level address.
6. The complainant also said that comments posted on the article when it was shared to Facebook constituted harassment in breach of Clause 3.
7. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 6 as she has two young children and printing her full name and street level address had put them at risk.
8. The publication did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It provided a news release from the ICO which stated that “The offences came to light after a service user informed their social worker that Shipsey had revealed information about them to one or more parents at their children’s school.” It said that this had been released after the court case, and that within the court case it had been accepted as fact that her sharing of information came to light via the school, even if it did not form part of the charge itself. It said that the article was an accurate report of this press release, which implicitly accepted as fact that the information had been shared, and that there was no failure to take care by reporting it. The publication offered to write a follow-up article with the complainant’s consent explaining the impact of her offence.
9. The publication said that Clause 2 had not been breached, as it was entitled to print the address of people who are named in open court proceedings. It also noted it did not print the number of the house that the complainant lived at.
10. The publication said that Clause 3 and Clause 6 were not engaged. It also said that it could not control whether comments were allowed on an article shared on Facebook, however the negative third party comments that the complainant was concerned about had been hidden from public view as soon as they were reported.
Relevant Code 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. 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 private life.
Findings of the Committee
15. The ICO press release had stated that the “offences came to light after a service user informed their social worker that [the complainant] had revealed information about them to one or more parents at their children’s school”, but had made clear that she was only found guilty of accessing data. The complainant had provided evidence to show that she had not been charged with sharing information. The newspaper was entitled to rely on the press release of the ICO, which was the prosecuting body in this case, and therefore there had been no failure to take care under Clause 1(i). The Committee noted that the offence for which the complainant was convicted was accurately reported; it was not reported within the article that she had been convicted for sharing data. Reporting that she had given details to parents at their children’s school was not a significant inaccuracy in the context of an article which was reporting on her conviction. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).
16. The same press release had also said that the complainant had accessed the records of “individuals”. As such, it was not inaccurate for the newspaper to have reported that she had illegally accessed “people’s” records. The committee noted that in any case, the complainant accepted that she had accessed records of four people in the same family. In addition, the publication had made clear what offence the complainant had been prosecuted for. The newspaper had not failed to take care under Clause 1(i) and there was no significant inaccuracy requiring correction under Clause 1(ii).
17. The circumstances in which people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to their address are limited. In this case, the complainant’s address had been disclosed in an open court. The publication of addresses serves to identify defendants and helps to distinguish them from others. Therefore, the complainant had no reasonable expectation of privacy over this information and the newspaper was entitled to publish her partial address. In addition, the fact that the complainant had children also did not did not mean that the newspaper was not entitled to report it, and the children were not referred to within the article. There was no breach of Clause 2 or Clause 6.
18. Reader comments only fall in IPSO’s remit if they have been subject to some form of editorial control. For instance, if they have been flagged to the publication and the publication has reviewed them and decided to continue to publish them. In this case, when the comments were flagged, they were hidden from public view so there was no published content for the Committee to consider. In any case, Clause 3 relates to the behaviour of journalists prior to the publication of an article. As this was not relevant to this complaint, the terms of Clause 3 were not engaged.
19. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 10/12/2019
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 05/06/2020Back to ruling listing