20057-17 Johnson v The Sun

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20057-17 Johnson v The Sun

Summary of complaint

1. David Johnson, acting on behalf of Adam Johnson, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices & subterfuge) in an online article headlined “‘I wish I’d raped her’ Adam Johnson caught bragging to prison inmates about schoolgirl he sexually abused in shocking secret video”, published on 20 April 2017.

2. The article included footage of Adam Johnson taken inside prison, in which he could be seen telling an inmate that he had not committed rape, and that he had said “I wish I f***ing did for six year”. It described the video as “shocking” and said that Mr Johnson had blamed his Premier League status for “landing him in jail”. It reported that the footage was “believed to have been filmed in the laundry room at HMP Moorland”, and that it was being investigated by prison chiefs. The article said that Mr Johnson had been jailed for “grooming, kissing and touching a 15-year-old girl” and that he had told jurors that he was “ashamed” of his actions. The piece quoted campaigners expressing concern that the comments were “victim blaming”, and an NSPCC spokesman who had said “what part of ‘age of consent’ does Johnson not get? To make it crystal clear to him: adults can’t have sex with children”.

3. The complainant said that his family had been the subject of a witch-hunt by the press. He said that “numerous inflammatory newspaper articles” had been published about his son, many of which were “completely untrue”. He was particularly concerned that his son had been continually referred to as a “paedophile” or “paedo”. He said this term described a “male predator who had sexual attraction towards prepubescent children”; his son was not a paedophile.

4. The complainant also expressed serious concern that the newspaper had paid for footage taken inside prison, in which his son had been “led in the direction to capture his feelings with regard to the severity of his sentence”. He said the publication of the footage was intrusive and the use of a hidden device was unjustified.

5. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the video had been given to it by a third party; it had not asked anyone to film Adam Johnson; when the paper was contacted, the footage had already been taken. The newspaper accepted, however, that Clause 10 was engaged by its decision to publish the material; it considered that this was justified in the public interest.

6. The newspaper said that the public interest in publishing the video was clear: Adam Johnson was a famous footballer who had been convicted of sexual offences against a minor during a high-profile trial. It said that during the trial, Mr Johnson had told the court that he was ashamed of himself and that he accepted full responsibility, and apologised for his actions. It argued that his contrition had contributed to his relatively low sentence of six years and had provided him with the opportunity to go to a “soft” jail. The newspaper said that the video it had published showed that Mr Johnson had, in fact, held his victim in contempt, and noted that his comments had been condemned by campaigners, including the NSPCC, as reported in the article.

7. In order to demonstrate that the public interest had been given careful consideration before publication, the newspaper provided correspondence between editorial staff in which they discussed how the statements Adam Johnson had made in court had contradicted the comments he had made to inmates in the video. For instance, they noted that he had told the court “I have regretted it ever since I have done it” and contrasted this with his statement that “I wish I’d f***ing raped her”. In addition, it provided correspondence between senior editorial staff and the legal department, which noted that Mr Johnson had made the comments shortly before he launched his appeal against his conviction and sentence, which he had lost. It also stated the newspaper’s position that there was an “overriding public interest in exposing the true face of remorseless Johnson, who may well still try for early release”, and that it had concluded that publication was justified as it would protect “the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation”.

8. The newspaper did not consider that Adam Johnson had a reasonable expectation of privacy when he was filmed discussing his crimes with other inmates in the laundry room. It said that prison was a punishment and was not an opportunity for convicts, and their activities, to be protected from public scrutiny. In any case, it considered that publication was justified in the public interest.

9. The newspaper said that it was not inaccurate or misleading to have referred to Adam Johnson as a “paedophile” given that he had been convicted of sexual offences against a minor. It quoted the Chief Crown Prosecutor for the northeast, who, when the trial had concluded, had said “we should all be clear that there is only one victim in this case: the 15-year-old girl [Adam Johnson] sexually assaulted”.

Relevant Code provisions

10.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 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.

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.

Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)*

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

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:

  •  Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  •  Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

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

11.Prisons are public facilities whose primary purpose is the rehabilitation and punishment of offenders. They are also where inmates live for the duration of their sentence, and therefore there are areas in a prison in which inmates may have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

12.In this instance, the laundry room may have been an area of the prison in which Adam Johnson had a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, Mr Johnson had spoken openly to other inmates, and there was a strong public interest in publishing the footage, in order to highlight the conflict between the statements he made in private with those he had made in mitigation in court. The newspaper had considered the public interest before publication, and had proceeded on the basis that publication served to protect the public from being misled.

13.The Committee concluded that the public interest was proportionate to any potential intrusion into Mr Johnson’s private life. In addition, publication demonstrated that the conversation had taken place. The newspaper’s decision to publish the material was justified. There was no breach of Clause 2.

14.The newspaper had not set out to obtain material about Adam Johnson by using clandestine devices or subterfuge; however, it had proceeded to publish the footage in the knowledge that it had been taken using a hidden camera. As such, Clause 10 was engaged by the complaint. The newspaper therefore had to demonstrate that the material could not have been obtained by open means, and that its decision to publish the footage was justified in the public interest.

15.The newspaper had published the footage, which had been provided by a source, in order to demonstrate that the views Mr Johnson expressed in private about his conviction conflicted with those which he had expressed in mitigation in court. It was plain that this information could not have been obtained by open means.

16.The Committee noted that the level of subterfuge employed by the newspaper’s source was limited: Mr Johnson had known the person with whom he had spoken; that person had not misrepresented themselves. The Committee had already established that there was a strong public interest in publishing the material in its consideration of the complaint under Clause 2. The public interest identified was also proportionate to the subterfuge employed. There was no breach of Clause 10.

17.The Committee also considered the complaint under Clause 1. It noted the complainant’s position that Adam Johnson was not a paedophile because he was not a predator who was sexually attracted to prepubescent children. However, Mr Johnson had pleaded guilty to sexual activity with a minor and grooming, for which he had subsequently been jailed for six years. The article under complaint had made clear the nature of his conviction and had stated the age of the victim. In this context, describing Adam Johnson as a “paedo” or “paedophile” had not given a misleading impression of his conviction. There was no breach of Clause 1.

18.The Committee acknowledged that the complainant and his family had been distressed by the coverage and by the conduct of the press generally. However, he had not identified any behaviour specifically on the part of The Sun, which would represent harassment under the terms of the Code. While it understood the family’s position that stories about Adam Johnson had caused distress, the publication of the article under complaint did not represent harassment in breach of the Code.


19.The complaint was not upheld.

Date complaint received: 20/03/2018
Date decision issued: 05/07/2018

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