Decision of the Complaints Committee – 16958-23 A man v mirror.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that mirror.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Brit tourist plummets 130ft from waterfall during terrifying hike with friends”, published on 26 December 2022.
2. The article, which appeared online only, reported that the complainant had “narrowly avoided death after plummeting 130ft from a waterfall” after he “lost his footing”. The sub-headline reported that: “A British man narrowly escaped death in Koh Samui, Thailand as he slipped off a 130ft high waterfall he was hiking up with a group of friends”. The article stated he “reportedly broke his hip” and continued by describing the “rescue operation” undertaken to transfer the complainant to the bottom of a cliff which “took around four hours”.
3. The article also included four images. The first image showed a group of people, including a rescue team, and was captioned: “A British tourist who ignored warning signs on a waterfall”; the second showed the “waterfall which the group hiked up”; the third image showed the complainant on a stretcher with a rescue team and was captioned, “[t]he rescue operation underway”; and the fourth showed the rescue operation from a further away and was captioned, “[a] rescue team of around 30 people winched the man to safety”.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because he had not fallen 130 feet. Rather, he had fallen approximately 10 feet. He also said that he had not broken his hip in the accident but had instead fractured his coccyx and skull.
5. The complainant said the article also breached Clause 2 and Clause 4 because it contained graphic pictures of him immediately after his accident. He said that, when these pictures were taken, he was clearly in pain and that the images had been published without his consent. He said the article had been publicised at a time of trauma when he and his family were already distressed and included private information including medical details, and clear facial images.
6. The complainant also said that he had received a message two days after the accident, when he was still in hospital, from a reporter acting on behalf of the publication asking for more information. The complainant said this added to his upset and was a breach of Clause 4.
7. The publication did not accept that the article breached the Code. In relation to the distance fallen by the complainant, it stated that the sub-headline immediately made clear that it was the waterfall that was 130 feet tall by stating, “…he slipped off a 130ft waterfall”. Regardless of the fact it did not think this was a breach of Clause 1, the publication said it amended the headline and body of the article to clarify that the reference to “130ft” was to describe the height of the waterfall, rather than the distance of the fall.
8. Regarding the injuries sustained by the complainant, the publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate on this point. It provided the reporter’s notes that it said showed at the time of the incident, paramedics at the location believed he had likely broken his hip. It also provided other reports by the Thai press that predated the article under complaint; these reports referred to the complainant’s hip when describing the injuries he had suffered. The publication said, in any event, it was not significantly inaccurate, as the coccyx was in the same general region of the body as the hip.
9. Notwithstanding the above, the publication published the following footnote correction on 28 February, 11 days after being made aware of the complainant’s concerns:
“A previous version of this article stated that a British tourist fell 130ft from a waterfall in Thailand. In fact, while the waterfall is 130ft tall, the tourist fell a much shorter distance. The article also said that he reportedly broke his hip. We have since learned that although he was suspected to have suffered an injury to his hip in the immediate aftermath of the fall, the tourist actually suffered an injury to his coccyx. We are happy to clarify this.”
10. The publication also did not accept a breach of Clause 2. It said unpixellated and unobstructed footage of the rescue operation had been widely available via Thai media outlets, including on national television, prior to the article being published. It shared a YouTube video from a Thai news source, which was available to view in the UK, that appeared to be the source of the images of the rescue operation. The publication’s position was that pictures and videos of the incident had been widely reported in Thailand and had therefore entered the public domain prior to the publication of the article. It provided three examples of articles in Thai which had been translated into English. It said that it had decided to include photographs but to omit the video. The publication also said that most of the pictures included in the article simply showed the rescue operation more generally, rather than the complainant specifically. It added that the complainant had referred to the accident on social media and provided a video from the complainant’s Instagram account in which he had spoken about his experience. It said that, while the video was later removed, it had previously been available to the public. As such, the publication asserted that there was a significant level of material available in the public domain regarding the accident.
11. Turning to Clause 4, the publication said the reporter had made a considered and sympathetic approach to the complainant. It stated the reporter had expressed their sympathies to the complainant and his family and provided a copy of the email the reporter had sent. The email said:
“Hey [Complainant’s name], How are you? There are reports that you may have fallen off a waterfall in Koh Samui and injured your hip? I am reporting on this potential incident, and I just wanted to check in with you and see how you were doing and verify it was you involved in the accident? It must have been terrifying to happen, but I am so glad you are safe. I would hate to report anything incorrect so please do let me know whether this is right or not. Thanks so much and I hope you managed to have a merry Christmas despite this horrible accident. I hope your hip is not causing you too much pain. Thanks, [Reporter’s name]”
12. The publication also said the article was in the public interest because it informed its readers of the dangers of trips of this nature, especially in relation to this specific waterfall which was well-known for similar accidents. It also said the article served to stress the warning signs that exist on these excursions. It said this had been considered by the relevant editors before the article was published and the decision to publish the photograph was made.
13. While the complainant acknowledged that the accident was reported in Thai media, he said such coverage would have had limited exposure in the UK – particularly where the articles were written in Thai and had needed to be translated by the publication. The complainant said the publication of the article had significantly increased the reach and impact of the story. Regarding whether the article was in the public interest, he said that the location was already known for such accidents and so would have been a factor for consideration for tourists before the article.
Relevant Clause Provisions
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.
Clause 2 (Privacy)*
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental 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.
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.
The Public Interest (*)
There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.
1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.
4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.
5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.
Findings of the Committee
14. The Committee first considered whether it was significantly inaccurate to report the man fell 130ft instead of 10ft. The publication did not dispute that this information was inaccurate though they disputed it was in breach of the Code. However, the Committee found a breach Clause 1 (i) on this point, where the information was inaccurate and the publication were not able to demonstrate that they had verified the accuracy of this claim prior to publication.
15. Where the inaccuracy appeared in the headline and exaggerated the level of danger and severity of the fall, the Committee considered it to be significant, and therefore in need of a prompt and prominent correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
16. The headline was amended to remove the inaccuracy and a footnote correction was offered within 11 days of the publication being made aware of the complainant’s concerns. Allowing for the time the publication needed to ensure its correction was accurate, the Committee considered the correction to have been offered sufficiently promptly. It also considered a footnote correction to be sufficiently prominent, taking into account the fact that the publication had taken prompt steps to resolve the complaint and had amended the article to remove the inaccuracy. The footnote also put the correct position on record, which was that he had not fallen 130ft, and had in fact fallen a much shorter distance. There was no further breach of Clause 1(ii).
17. The Committee then considered whether it was inaccurate to report the man had fractured his hip when it was actually his coccyx and skull that were fractured in the accident. The Committee noted that the article did not state as fact that the man had broken his hip, it said he had “reportedly” broken his hip. Where it was not in dispute that at the time of publication this had been reported in other outlets, the Committee did not consider this inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
18. The Committee then turned to the complainant’s concern that the article had breached his privacy by publishing photographs of him during the rescue operation without his consent. While the Committee had sympathy for the complaint’s concerns on this point, the Committee was required to consider the complaint by reference to the terms of Clause 2. The Committee took into account the nature of the photographs in which the complainant appeared. Two of the photographs were group shots in which the complainant was almost completely obscured from view. In the third, whilst the complainant was visible, his head and the side of his face were heavily bandaged. The Committee noted that the photograph illustrated the rescue operation which had taken place and the means by which the rescue team had taken the complainant down the hillside. Furthermore, the images were taken in a public place and everything they showed would have been visible to the naked eye. The Committee also accounted for the fact the complainant, post-publication, made public disclosures of information about the incident through his social media. The fact that the complainant had willingly put information about the incident into the public domain – albeit post-publication – indicated that he was willing to put certain elements pertaining to the incident into the public domain, and did not consider it completely private. Taking these factors into consideration, the Committee did not consider the images represented an intrusion into the complainant’s private life in a manner the publication would be expected to justify. Additionally, the Committee noted that the publication had taken steps to protect the complainant’s privacy by not naming him in the article. Taking all these considerations into account, the publication of the photographs did not amount to a breach of Clause 2.
19. Although Clause 2 was not ultimately breached, the Committee noted that the publication had not demonstrated that it had considered whether the publication of information about the complainant served, and was proportionate to, the public interest. It had only said that the relevant editors had considered that the article itself was in the public interest prior to publication, which was not a sufficient defence under the public interest portion of the Code – as there was no reference to whether the publication had considered whether public interest served was proportionate to the alleged breach of the Code. The Committee also noted there is no public interest exception for possible breaches of Clause 1 or Clause 4.
20. The Committee next considered whether the publication of photographs showing the man being rescued had breached Clause 4. While the Committee acknowledged that the articles’ publication had caused the complainant and his family distress, it did not consider the images of the complainant made light of the incident or minimised its importance. The images, taken in conjunction with the article as a whole, conveyed the seriousness of the incident, but did not go as far as to show any graphic details of his injuries. Additionally, while the Committee acknowledged the severe distress the incident had caused, it did not consider that the seriousness of the incident reached the high bar set by the terms of Clause 4, which generally relates to serious and fatal incidents. Taking this into account, the Committee did not consider the reporting of the incident to be in breach of Clause 4.
21. Finally, the Committee considered whether the pre-publication approach by the journalist had been made with sympathy and discretion, in line with the requirements of Clause 4. While the Committee appreciated that the complainant was distressed by being contacted by the journalist, the terms of the Clause do not prohibit journalists from approaching individuals for comment after distressing incidents. The Committee noted the tone of the email was polite and professional; the reporter had sent the complainant well wishes and said she was glad he was safe. There have been no further approaches, and the email did not demonstrate that the journalist had not acted with sympathy or discretion. There was no breach of Clause 4 on this point.
22. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.
Remedial Action Required
23. The published corrections clearly put the correct position on record and were offered promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required.
Date complaint received: 26/01/2023
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 26/10/2023
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