16937-17 Thompson v Plymouth Herald

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 16937-17 Thompson v Plymouth Herald

Summary of complaint

1. James Thompson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Plymouth Herald breached Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, in an article headlined “I was so very lucky to be saved from tunnel in the woods” published on 18 July 2017. The article also appeared online headlined “The incredible story of a man who lived down a hole in the woods with no food or water,” published on 15 July.

2. The article reported that the complainant, who had been the subject of a nationwide missing person appeal, had recently been rescued after reportedly living in an underground tunnel for almost a month. The article reported on the complainant’s experience while living in the tunnel and his recovery once he was rescued. The article also included a darkened photograph of the complainant.

3. The online article also reported that the complainant had been found when a member of the public had shouted into the tunnel to hear his echo and heard the complainant call back asking for water; a video clip of this was included in the article. Both articles included the complainant’s full name.

4. The complainant said that he had approached the newspaper to share his experience and to assure people who had been concerned about his safety while he had been missing that he was now safe. He said that the newspaper had agreed to darken his face completely in the accompanying photograph, as he was concerned about people being able to recognise him. He said that the darkened photograph that was published breached his privacy as several people, who he had not had recent contact with and did not know he had been missing, had been able to recognise him.

5. The newspaper said that the article did not breach the complainant’s privacy. It said that the photograph adequately obscured the complainant’s face as agreed prior to publication, and it did not believe that the complainant was identifiable from this photograph alone. The newspaper noted that he had consented to his full name being published, which also identified him, and stated that his identification in connection to this story was well known as several unobscured pictures of his face had been widely circulated by various media outlets prior to his rescue, as part of a missing person appeal. While the newspaper did not accept they had breached the Code, they offered to remove the online article. The complainant did not accept this offer.

Relevant Code Provisions

6. 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.

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

Findings of the Committee

7. While the Committee acknowledged that the published photograph caused the complainant concern, he had agreed to the publication of his photograph on the basis that the newspaper would ensure it was sufficiently obscured before it appeared in the article. It was regrettable that the photograph that was published had not been silhouetted to the extent the complainant had expected, and could have led to his identification. However, in circumstances where he had consented to his full name being published, and his identity and appearance was widely known due to a missing person appeal, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to his identity as the person involved in the incident, which he believed was revealed by the newspaper’s use of the image in this form. Therefore, there was no breach of Clause 2. 


8. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action required

9. N/A

Date complaint received: 24/07/2017
Date decision issued: 04/10/2017

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