Decision of the Complaints Committee 20529-17 Strachan v Mail Online

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20529-17 Strachan v Mail Online

Summary of complaint

1. Shaun Strachan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined "'Push him the f*** off': Drivers stuck in seven mile tailbacks on M5 abuse suicidal man threatening to jump off a bridge as Twitter users condemn them for their cruelty", published on 8 December 2017.

2. The article reported that a motorway had been closed for four hours due to concerns for the welfare of a man who was threatening to jump off a bridge. It said that a “Twitter row had erupted” because some drivers, who had been held up in traffic due to the incident, had posted tweets “branding the man on the bridge a ‘selfish idiot’”.

3. The article included images of some of the Tweets, including one attributed to the complainant, which was accompanied by his photograph. The Tweet said “Several hours for one guy on a bridge? Push him the ____ off or pull him the ____ down. Selfish ____ heads don’t need humouring & further encouragement. Guess what though.. thanks to you and @BBCNews the next sad loser will do this again next week”.

4. The complainant was concerned that his Tweet, an image taken from his Facebook profile and his full name had been published without his consent. He had particular concerns regarding the way in which the publication had accessed the Tweet as he said he had deleted it within five minutes of sending it, and no other Twitter user had seen it, commented on it or retweeted it. He speculated that the publication had accessed the Tweet with the “illegal use of scraping tools”. He argued that, given the short amount of time that it had been publicly available, he had a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the statement.

5. The complainant said that he had sent the Tweet due to his concern that media coverage would encourage other people to make the same choices as the man on the bridge, and the publication had misrepresented his position in the headline by only quoting part of it, giving the misleading impression that he had urged the police to push the man off the bridge. Moreover, he had not sent the message while waiting in the traffic jam, as suggested by the article and in the tagline given to it when shared. He said the publication had deliberately presented the Tweet in this manner in order to generate as much hatred against him as possible.

6. The complainant was further concerned that he had not been allowed to submit a comment beneath the article. He considered that this has been done deliberately, to prevent him from defending his position.

7. Mail Online denied that it had breached the Code. It said that the complainant had sent the Tweet from his own Twitter account, which bore his full name and his picture. As he had put this information and his statement regarding the incident in the public domain, he had no reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to it, and it had been entitled to publish it in full.

8. The publication said that the published screengrab of the Tweet, which showed the timestamp, proved that it had been publicly available on Twitter for at least 15 minutes when it accessed the message. It also said that the Tweet was still live when the article was published. It considered that the complainant had intended for his comment to be widely viewed as he had sent it in response to one from a verified account with over 69 thousand followers, and his message had included the BBC News Twitter handle.

9. The publication said that it had published the Tweet alongside an image which had been taken from the complainant’s publicly available social media profile. This was also not information about which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

10. The publication denied that it had given an inaccurate impression of the complainant’s Tweet. The article had included the post in full, and it had not speculated on the complainant’s intentions in posting it. However, it was undeniable that the phrasing of the Tweet could be interpreted as urging the police to push the man off the bridge. It also noted that the complainant’s own comments made during correspondence indicated that he had sent the Tweet during the traffic jam: he had said that he had sent the Tweet at approximately 6pm, and the Devon and Cornwall police Twitter account indicated that the incident was still ongoing at 7pm, and concluded at 8.45pm. It provided a screenshot to show how the article was presented when shared, which showed that the tagline was “Drivers stuck in traffic urge police to push man off bridge”.

11. The publication denied the suggestion that it had attempted to deny the complainant an opportunity to clarify his post, by preventing him from commenting on the article. The comments facility was active for three days, and was disengaged after this time period by default. In this instance, the comments were moderated before publication, and due to time/staffing constraints, the final comment was published on 9 December at 4.28pm. It said that it had searched the moderation system and had found no record of an account matching the complainant’s email address.

12. In an effort to resolve the matter, the publication offered to add the following comment from the complainant as a footnote to the article:

Since publication of this article we have been contacted by Mr Shaun Strachan. We are happy to make clear his position that the Tweet he published was not meant to literally intend any harm, and that he states it was deleted before anyone interacted with it

13. The complainant said that he had misremembered when he had sent the Tweet: he had sent it just before bed, when the man had already been brought down from the bridge safely; it was not live when the article was published. He said that the footnote would only be acceptable to him if it included an apology and addressed the inaccuracies in the article.

Relevant Code provisions

14. 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.

Findings of the Committee

15. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that his Tweet had been published by Mail Online, alongside his name and photograph, without his consent. However, the complainant had sent the Tweet from his personal, publicly available, Twitter account, which contained his name and photograph. Regardless of whether the complainant had deleted the Tweet within five minutes of sending it, he had put this statement in the public domain. As such, he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to it. The publication noted that the post had been publicly available for at least 15 minutes, as shown in the screenshot of it included in the article, and the complainant had provided no basis for his allegation that the content had been accessed illegally. The publication had not intruded into the complainant’s private life by publishing the Tweet. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

16. The complainant was also concerned that the article had included a photograph taken from his social media account without consent. However, the image was publicly available on the social media account. Furthermore, it was a picture of the complainant’s face; its publication in the article had not disclosed any private information about him in breach of Clause 2.

17. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the publication had taken a section of his Tweet and had used it in the headline to give the misleading impression that he had urged the police to push the man off the bridge. However, the complainant had called the man on the bridge “selfish”, and he had said that police should push him from the bridge or pull him down. The Committee did not consider that the publication had given a misleading impression of the sentiments expressed by only using a section of the statement in the headline. Furthermore, the article itself included the full Tweet, which included the complainant’s comment that the incident would be repeated because of the media attention being given to it. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

18. The complainant also considered that the article, and the way it was presented when shared, had given the misleading impression that he had sent the Tweet during the incident. The Committee noted that the parties had provided differing accounts of when the Tweet had been sent. However, in circumstances in which the publication had accurately reported that the complainant had sent the Tweet in response to the incident on the motorway, the Committee did not consider that this was a significant point that required correction. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. There was no breach of Clause 1.

19. The Committee also considered the complainant’s concern that his comments had been censored by the publication. The selection of material for publication is a matter for discretion by individual editors; the publication was not obliged to publish the complainant’s comments. Furthermore, the Committee had not established the existence of any significant inaccuracies that required correction; as such, an opportunity to reply was not required under the terms of Clause 1 (iii). The Committee nevertheless welcomed the publication’s offer to append the complainant’s comment to the online article.

Conclusion

20. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

21. NA

Date complaint received: 9 December 2017

Date complaint concluded: 29 January 2018

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