Decision of the Complaints Committee – 29252-20 A woman v blackpoolgazette.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that blackpoolgazette.co.uk breached Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Staff member tests positive for coronavirus at Poulton school”, published on 26 November 2020.
2. The online article reported that a class bubble at a named school had been told to self-isolate for 14 days after “a staff member in a Year One class” tested positive for Covid-19. The article stated that the headteacher had told parents a “member of [the] school community” had tested positive for the virus, noting that the school “had been very fortunate that this was the first time that it had to take the action of sending a class bubble home to self-isolate”.
3. The article was also promoted on the publication’s Facebook page. It was shared with the same headline “Staff member tests positive for coronavirus at Poulton school”. It also shared an image showing the outside of the school, with a caption above reading: “A positive Covid-19 case at a Poulton primary school has been confirmed, prompting an infant class bubble to self-isolate.”
4. The complainant said that the article, and the subsequent social media post, breached her right to privacy under Clause 2. Although she was not named in the article, she considered that she was identifiable as the staff member who had tested positive for Covid-19. The result of her test had not been common knowledge within the school community before the article’s publication and the letter issued by the headteacher to parents had not mentioned that the affected individual was a member of staff, but rather a “member of the school community”. She said the newspaper’s decision to refer to her as “a staff member in a Year one class” rendered her identifiable to those within the school community and beyond: there were only two members of staff for Year One and given that she was absent from work prior to receiving her test results, it would be clear which staff member was being referred to. She said this had been confirmed in subsequent conversations with parents at the school, who suggested they had been unaware of who had tested positive until they read the article. Furthermore, the complainant said she had been identified as the subject of the article by a neighbour, who was unconnected to the school. This had caused her further distress whilst she was dealing with the long-term effects of the virus. She added that the article made it more difficult for her to return to school, feeling stigmatised by the ordeal.
5. The complainant expressed further concern that the journalist who had written the piece was a parent at the school. The complainant felt this had influenced the newspaper’s decision, particularly when it had not reported on similar incidents at other schools in the area in the same way.
6. The newspaper did not accept that the article, or Facebook post, constituted a breach of the Code. While it accepted that the article could identify the complainant to members of the school’s community, it said that it was a “widely held understanding” within this community prior to the publication of the article that the complainant had received a positive test result, as her class had been sent home and placed in isolation. It added that the journalist who had written the story had children at the school, said that the positive case, and their identity, was the “only topic of conversation amongst parents” prior to the article’s publication. The newspaper did not accept that the complainant could be identified by those in the wider community, given that it did not name her or provide further details about her. It suggested that an “intimate knowledge” of the school was required to deduce who the specific staff member who tested positive for Covid-19 was.
7. The publication accepted that the official communication from the school’s headteacher to parents referred to a “member of the school community” and did not specify whether the individual who had tested positive for Covid-19 was a pupil or member of staff. However, it argued that this communication still left a “shadow” of rumour and supposition amongst parents at the school.
8. The publication further argued that there was a clear public interest in the reporting of Covid-19 cases, particularly in educational settings in order to protect vulnerable members of society. It added that the newspaper had a responsibility to inform the community during a public health emergency of the risk of wider infection, what actions had been taken to mitigate against this and where the potential risk came from and which children may have been potentially exposed to the risk.
9. Notwithstanding this, within 24 hours of the article’s publication, after being contacted by the complainant, in a gesture of goodwill, the newspaper amended the online article and removed it from its Facebook page. The updated version of the article reflected the headteacher’s statement, referring to “a member of the school community” rather than a “staff member” in a Year One class.
10. During IPSOs investigation, the newspaper apologised for the distress caused and said that the concerns raised by the complainant had prompted it to reflect upon and consequently revise its approach to the reporting of positive Covid-19 cases. It stated that reporters were now required to contact employers in such circumstances prior to publication.
Relevant Code Provisions
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.
*The Public Interest
There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.
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.
Findings of the Committee
11. The complainant said that the publication had published her private medical information without consent, and that she had been identified as the subject of the article by people in her community. The publication denied any breach of the Code; it said she was not identifiable as the person concerned, and in any case people within the school community were already aware of her identity as the person with Covid. Furthermore, the publication argued that there was a public interest in reporting the information to reduce the risk of onward transmission. The questions for the Committee to consider were: whether the complainant was identifiable from the information contained in the article; whether the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of her diagnosis with Covid-19; and whether, if the complainant did have a reasonable expectation of privacy, the publication of the information could nonetheless be justified in the public interest.
12. The Committee found that the article included sufficient information to identify the complainant as the recipient of the positive test result. It identified the school, the year group and the fact she was a staff member; only two individuals could meet this description. Coupled with the complainant’s absence from school, this was sufficient to identify her to people who already had some knowledge of her role within the local community.
13. The question of whether an individual has contracted Covid-19 is clearly a matter relating to their health, and therefore was information in respect of which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. This had to be balanced, however, with the public health considerations which arise from a pandemic, and the role a local newspaper plays in protecting the health of the wider community.
14. The Committee noted that the school had informed parents of the existence of a positive Covid-19 case within the school community, and had outlined the steps it had taken to address this; it had not considered the inclusion of further information about the identity of the complainant necessary in order to discharge its duty to protect the health of the wider school community. The publication was entitled to make its own assessment about what was in the public interest. In the view of the Committee, however, the publication had not provided sufficient justification for its decision to include additional information about the complainant’s role in the school by which she could be identified, given the steps that had been taken by the school to address the potential risks. The complainant’s positive Covid test result was medical information, and she had a reasonable expectation that it would remain private. The publication of this information without her consent breached Clause 2 of the Code.
15. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial Action Required
16. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered the remedial action that should be required. Given the nature of the breach, the appropriate remedial action was the publication of an upheld adjudication. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance. This should be published on the newspaper’s website and Facebook page, with a link to the full adjudication appearing on the newspaper’s homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way.
17. The terms of the adjudication are as follows:
Following an article published on 26 November 2020 headlined “Staff member tests positive for coronavirus at Poulton school”, a woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) that blackpoolgazette.co.uk had intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO upheld the complaint and has required blackpoolgazette.co.uk to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.
The online article, which was also shared on social media, reported that a class bubble at a named school had been told to self-isolate for 14 days after “a staff member in a Year One class” tested positive for Covid-19.
Whilst the article did not name the complainant, she considered herself to be readily identifiable from the information included within it, both to members of the school community and the wider community. She said that the article went further than the statement issued by the headteacher of the school which stated that “a member of the school community” had tested positive for Covid-19. She believed that this amounted to an intrusion into her private life as she had a reasonable expectation of privacy over the state of her health, in breach of Clause 2.
The newspaper denied that the article intruded into the complainant’s privacy. It disagreed that she could be identified by those outside the school’s community. In addition, the publication cited a clear public interest in reporting on positive Covid-19 cases to its readers and alerting them to potential risks.
The Committee found the article included sufficient information to identify the complainant as the recipient of the positive test result. This was medical information relating to the complainant’s health in respect of which she had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Nonetheless, the Committees recognised that this had to be balanced with the public health considerations arising from a global pandemic of a highly infectious virus. Whilst the newspaper was entitled to make its own assessment about what was in the public interest, the Committee found that the newspaper had not provided sufficient justification for its decision to include additional information about the complainant’s role in the school by which she could be identified. In the view of the Committee, the article amounted to an intrusion into the complainant’s private life by publishing, without consent, private medical information. There was a breach of Clause 2 of the Editors’ Code.
Date complaint received: 28/11/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 18/05/2021Back to ruling listing