19841-17 A Man v Mail Online

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 19841-17 A Man v Mail Online

Summary of complaint

1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on behalf of himself, his mother and his sister, that Mail Online breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in two articles published on 2 November 2017 and 3 November 2017.

2. The first article reported that a “mystery man” had been photographed with a famous heiress, and speculated that the pair may be in a relationship. The article reported biographical information about the heiress and included four pictures of the pair walking together on the street. The sub-headline of the article asked readers to identify the “mystery man”.

3. The second article reported that the “mystery man” had been identified as the complainant. It reported a series of biographical details about him, including his employment history, recent travel and interests. The article also stated that his family had a “colourful past,” and that his father had been jailed for fraud and that his brother-in-law was an international drug smuggler. The article detailed the circumstances of the two men’s convictions and their sentences. It also reported the name of the complainant’s mother and sister and details of the businesses they had run. The article went on to speculate that the heiress’ family may be concerned that his daughter’s alleged new boyfriend had two family members with criminal convictions. The article reproduced one of the photographs published in the first article and included a number of photographs of the complainant taken from social media.

4. The complainant said that the first article was a breach of his privacy. He said that he was not a public figure and information concerning his personal life, including any possible relationship, was fundamentally private. He said that publishing photographs of him without his consent, which he believed had been taken using a long lens camera, was an intrusion into his private life. He said that at the time the photographs were taken, the woman who accompanied him was engaged in a private family activity as she was collecting her young children from school. In these circumstances, he believed he had a reasonable expectation of privacy. He also said that asking readers to identify him from these photographs added to the overall intrusiveness of the article.

5. The publication did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the first article did not contain any private information about the complainant, in fact it maintained that it did not contain any information about him at all, except the information included in the photographs. It said that the photographs showed only his appearance and that he had been in the company of the heiress. It said that it was accepted that how you appear in the street is not information about which you have a reasonable expectation of privacy as an adult. It also did not accept that the complainant was engaged in a private family activity, as the heiress and her children were not his family. The publication maintained that where the complainant had chosen to accompany a famous and much photographed individual in public, he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. It also said that speculation about whether two individuals were in a relationship was not private information but editorial comment based on the contents of the photographs.

6. The complainant said that the second article engaged Clause 9 as it unjustifiably identified himself, his mother and his sister as relatives of individuals convicted of crime. He said that they were not genuinely relevant to the story – the story being whether or not he was in a relationship with a particular individual. He said that these convictions were included to portray himself, his sister and his mother in a negative and distorted light.

7. Further, the complainant said that the details of his family background represented information about his private and family life that was not in the public domain. He said that including biographical information about him, his mother and sister in an article that also reported the convictions of family members was a breach of their privacy.

8. The publication did not accept that Clause 9 was engaged in the second article, as it said it was not a report of crime but a report of who the complainant was. It said that Clause 9 was intended to ensure that family members and friends of those accused of crime are not unnecessarily referred to when the press is reporting on a person’s arrest, charge or trial. It said this did not prevent a publication from including, in a story about a person’s background, the fact that their family member had a conviction. If Clause 9 was engaged, the publication said that the article was not in breach of the Code, as the complainant and all his family members were genuinely relevant to the story - the story being who the complainant was.

9. It said that the complainant had appeared on a reality TV show with the heiress and her family and provided screenshots of publicly available photographs from social media that showed the complainant with the heiress and members of her family. It said that discussion of someone’s family and background was not private and that the complainant, his mother and his sister did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the fact that the complainant’s brother-in-law and father had been found guilty of criminal offences.

Relevant Code provisions

10.  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.

Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime) *

i) Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.

ii) Particular regard should be paid to the potentially vulnerable position of children under the age of 18 who witness, or are victims of, crime. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Findings of the Committee

11. Clause 9 offers protection to family and friends of individuals allegedly involved in crime, and aims to ensure that these individuals are not unjustifiably tainted by their association to alleged criminals. The wording of Clause 9 does not state that it applies only to reports of legal proceedings; it focuses on the nature of the link being made between individuals, rather than the nature of the reporting. The Committee ruled that Clause 9 was engaged by the circumstances of this case.

12. The article had identified the complainant, his mother and his sister as the relatives of persons convicted of crime.  The publication had sought to argue that the article had not breached the Code as his family members’ criminal records were a part of the story of his life and therefore relevant.  The Committee acknowledged that there will be circumstances where, in giving an account of an individual’s background, there will be a justification for referring to family members’ criminal convictions, because they have a specific relevance. However, Clause 9 sets a high bar, and this relevance needs to go further than the mere fact of a relationship. In this case, the publication had not argued that the criminal convictions had any specific relevance to the article in question, or to the complainant, his mother and sister. There was no suggestion that any of these individuals were relevant or connected to the crimes reported, and therefore identifying these individuals was in breach of Clause 9.

13. Having ruled that there had been a breach of Clause 9 of the Editors’ Code, the Committee considered it was not necessary to make a further ruling about the same material in relation to Clause 2.

14. The Committee then considered whether the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect to the information about his alleged relationship contained in the first article. The photographs published revealed only what the complainant looked like when walking on the street, and that he had, publicly, been in the company of the heiress. They did not show the complainant engaged in a private activity and had been taken in a public place. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to this information. Re-publishing this information in the second article did not breach Clause 2. Also, speculating in broad terms about the potential existence of a relationship between these two people, based on the limited information contained in these photographs, was not a breach of the complainant’s privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusions

15. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action required

16. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 9, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

17. In circumstances where the publication had breached Clause 9, the publication of an adjudication was appropriate.

18. The Committee considered the placement of this adjudication. The article had appeared on the publication’s homepage. The Committee therefore required that its adjudication should be published on the top 50% of the publication’s website, with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing on the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. The headline to the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, give the title of the publication and refer to the complaint’s subject matter. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on behalf of himself, his mother and his sister, that Mail Online breached Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published on 3 November 2017.

The article reported that the complainant was allegedly in a relationship with a famous heiress. The article stated that the complainant’s family had a “colourful past,” and that his father had been jailed for fraud and that his brother-in-law was an international drug smuggler. The article detailed the circumstances of the two men’s crimes and their sentences. It also reported the name of the complainant’s mother and sister and details of the businesses they had run.

The complainant said that the article breached Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime) as it identified himself, his mother and his sister as relatives of individuals convicted of crime. He said that the inclusion of these convictions was used to portray himself, his sister and his mother in a negative and distorted light. He believed this unjustifiably identified them as relatives of individuals convicted of crime.

The publication did not accept that Clause 9 was engaged in the article, as it said it was not a report of crime but a report of who the complainant was. It said that Clause 9 was intended to ensure that family members and friends of those accused of crime are not unnecessarily referred to when the press is reporting on a person’s arrest, charge or trial. It said this did not prevent a publication from including, in a story about a person’s background, the fact that their family member had a conviction.

In its consideration the Committee had regard for the purpose of Clause 9, and the harm it was trying to prevent. Clause 9 offers protection to family and friends of individuals allegedly involved in crime, and aims to ensure that these individuals are not unjustifiably tainted by their association to alleged criminals. The wording of Clause 9 does not state that it applies only to reports of legal proceedings; it focuses on the nature of the link being made between individuals, rather than the nature of the reporting. The Committee ruled that Clause 9 was engaged by the circumstances of this case.

The article had identified the complainant, his mother and his sister as the relatives of persons convicted of crime. The publication had sought to argue that the article had not breached the Code as his family members’ criminal records were a part of the story of his life and therefore relevant. The Committee acknowledged that there will be circumstances where, in giving an account of an individual’s background, there will be a justification for referring to family members’ criminal convictions, because they have a specific relevance. However, Clause 9 sets a high bar, and this relevance needs to go further than the mere fact of a relationship. In this case, the publication had not argued that the criminal convictions had any specific relevance to the article in question, or to the complainant, his mother and sister. There was no suggestion that any of these individuals were relevant or connected to the crimes reported, and therefore identifying these individuals was in breach of Clause 9.

Date complaint received: 10/11/2017

Date complaint concluded: 23/04/2018   

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