Ruling

00431-24 A complainant v The Times

  • Complaint Summary

    A complainant complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the preparation and publication of an article headlined “Businessman with a litter of debts left dog owners in lurch”, published on 4 November 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      19th June 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00431-24 A complainant v The Times


Summary of Complaint

1. A complainant complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the preparation and publication of an article headlined “Businessman with a litter of debts left dog owners in lurch”, published on 4 November 2023.

2. The article reported on complaints against a pet supplies business. It reported that the owner of the business in question was “in a relationship with [the complainant], an influencer who regularly posted on [the business’] instagram feed.” The article referred to the complainant using a shortened version of their surname. It also reported that the business was “run from” a named town. The article was accompanied by a photograph of the complainant and the business owner; the photograph showed them smiling and holding drinks at what appeared to be a party.  

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “Dogs, debt, and the seller who left owners out of pocket”. This version of the article included an additional photograph of the complainant and the business owner, showing them outdoors from the neck and shoulders up, smiling. It also included, in a photograph caption, the complainant’s full name.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as they had not posted on the business’ Instagram feed. They said that it was a third-party freelancer acting on their behalf who had done so. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate as it referred to them using a shortened version of their full name, which was the same as their Instagram handle.

5. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 2 as they believed it intruded into their private life without consent. They said they had no links with the pet supplies business, and their name and relationship status were irrelevant to the article under complaint and not in the public interest. They also said that the article disclosed their hometown as it reported the town where the business was “run from”, which was also where they lived.

6. The complainant also said the photographs which appeared in the article were private family photos; they said that they were “tightly restricted” by their social media privacy settings, were not in the public domain, and that they had not given permission for their use. They therefore considered that publishing these photographs represented a further breach of Clause 2.

7. The complainant also said that the publication had breached Clause 10, as they believed that a family member of a journalist working for the publication had sent them a follow request on Instagram in an attempt to “gain access to digitally held information and personal information” without consent.

8. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. Turning first to the alleged breach of Clause 1, it said that the posts on the business’ social media accounts had been made in the complainant’s name and from their social media account. It added that, if it were the case that it was a third-party freelancer who had made the posts, they would have done so with the complainant’s permission and on their behalf. It did not, therefore, accept that the article was inaccurate on this point.

9. To support its position on the above point, the publication provided six posts taken from the business’ Instagram account. An Instagram account, with a shortened version of the complainant’s full name, had commented on each of these posts, according to the screenshots.

10. The publication also did not accept that the article represented an intrusion into the complainant’s private life. It said the article did not refer to any part of the complainant’s private life which was not already in the public domain, and that the images used in the article had been posted to the complainant’s social media accounts, which were not restricted at the time of publication. It considered the complainant’s relationship status had also been disclosed on their Instagram account, where they had posted photographs of themself and the business owner, along with a child. It said that – at the time of the article’s publication – the account was open and had over 11,000 followers.

11. The publication said that the photographs included in the article were taken from this Instagram account, and that a source had sent the publication screenshots of the images in question. It supplied a screenshot of this account to support its position; this showed that the account was open and had over 11,000 followers, though it did not include the photographs which appeared in the article. One of the photographs visible in the screenshot showed the complainant and the business owner; the complainant was holding a baby on their lap and the business owner was crouched alongside them.

12. The publication said that it had not engaged in subterfuge to obtain any of the material used in the article, and there was therefore no breach of Clause 10.

13. The complainant said that the screenshots provided by the publication did not mean that the article was accurate, as they showed replies made to a small selection of posts – the complainant said that there were over 400 posts on the page. This did not, the complainant said, support the article’s claim that they “regularly posted on [the business’] instagram feed.” The complainant asked if the publication could prove that the Instagram account which made these comments belonged to them – though the complainant did not dispute that this was their account. The complainant said that, as they were not contacted for comment ahead of publication, the newspaper had not taken care to ensure that the article was accurate on this point.  

14. The complainant also said that their relationship status was not in the public domain, as they did not accept that posing with someone in a photograph was the same as divulging a romantic relationship. They also said that the Instagram account which included this information was not under their full name.  

15. The complainant also said that one of the photographs – the photograph showing them outdoors – was taken from a separate Instagram account, which had only 200 followers. They said that, to the best of their knowledge, the second photograph showing them at a party had never appeared online. The complainant said that the 200-follower Instagram account had since been deleted, and therefore they were unable to show that the picture had appeared on that account.

16. The publication said that the complainant’s position that they had only replied to Instagram posts rather than publishing posts directly to the account themself was “splitting hairs”. It said that the meaning of the article would be clear – that the complainant was responding to posts made by the business on its own page. It said this would be clear to readers given that only the business would be able to post on the page in question.

17. The publication said it had had further conversations with its source during IPSO’s investigation, who had informed it that the photograph showing the complainant outdoors had been posted as an Instagram Story to the complainant’s 11,000-follower Instagram account. It noted that Instagram Stories are only available for a limited amount of time and would no longer be available. It said that the second picture, which appeared to show the complainant at a party, was taken from the complainant’s public Facebook profile. To support its position on this point, the publication provided the screenshots which had been provided by its source: these showed the photographs themselves but no further details.

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 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.

Findings of the Committee

18. The newspaper had been able to provide six screenshots, showing that an Instagram account owned by the complainant had left six separate comments on posts made on the business’s Instagram profile. While the complainant disputed that these comments were ‘posts’ or that they had commented “regularly”, the Committee did not consider that the article was inaccurate or misleading to report that they “regularly posted on [the business’] instagram feed.” While the use of the word “posted” was somewhat ambiguous, and could be read as meaning that the complainant had made posts as opposed to having left comments, the overall point being made was accurate: the complainant, who was in a relationship with the business owner, had publicly interacted with the business’ social media page on a number of occasions. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1.

19. The print article referred to the complainant using a shortened version of their full name, which the complainant considered inaccurate. There may be cases by referring to someone by an incorrect name would render an article inaccurate, distorted, or misleading – for instance, in cases where it may result in an individual being misidentified. However, in this instance, it was clear that the article was referring to the complainant: it was illustrated with photographs of them, referred to their Instagram account, and set out the nature of their connection to the business. In such circumstances, the Committee did not consider this represented a breach of Clause 1.

20. The complainant had said that the article had intruded into their private life by publishing the following details about them: their full name (in the online version of the article), relationship status, and hometown. The Committee noted that a name, in and of itself, is not private information; in isolation, it is simply an identifier, and one which will be known to a number of individuals and organisations and will often be a matter of public record. However, when reported in conjunction with other details, there may be cases when disclosing an individual’s full name would represent an intrusion into their private life. The Committee therefore carefully considered the details disclosed in the article about the complainant.

21. The article did not reveal the complainant’s hometown; although it said that the business was “run from” a specific town, this was not linked to the complainant or their partner’s residential address, and the article did not report that the complainant lived in the town in question.

22. While the article did report that the complainant was in a relationship with the business owner, the Committee did not consider that this was information over which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy, given that the publication had been able to demonstrate that an Instagram account run by the complainant – with 11,000 followers, and which appeared to at one time to have been publicly viewable – included a picture of the complainant, the business owner, and a child. While the profile was not under the complainant’s legal name, it was a shortened version of their name and included photographs showing their likeness. The photograph of the complainant with their partner was information which the complainant had chosen to disclose to 11,000 followers, in conjunction with a shortened version of their full name, and – taking this into account – the Committee did not consider that reporting the complainant’s full name, in conjunction with their relationship status, represented an intrusion into their private life.

23. The Committee next considered whether the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over the photographs included in the article. The Committee noted that there was a dispute of fact over the origin of the photographs in question: The complainant said that that one photograph had been taken from a now-deleted Instagram account with 200 followers and that they were unsure of the origin of the second photograph; while the publication said that one photograph had been taken from an 11,000-follower Instagram account and the other had been taken from Facebook.

24. The Committee was not able to resolve this dispute. However, it noted that the content of the photographs included in the article did not differ significantly from the photographs which the complainant had chosen to share on their 11,000-follower Instagram account: the photographs included in the article showed the complainant with their partner, in one case at what appeared to be a party and in another instance outdoors, similar to the photographs published on the 11,000-follower Instagram account. The photographs also did not show the complainant engaged in any activity which could be said to be private; rather, they were posed pictures which simply showed the complainant and their partner smiling.

25. Taking the above into account, the Committee did not consider that the terms of Clause 2 had been breached.

26. Turning to the alleged breach of Clause 10, the Committee noted that the complainant had alleged that a family member of a journalist working for the newspaper had attempted to follow them on social media. It did not consider that this represented subterfuge; no one acting on behalf of the publication had assumed another’s identity or pretended to be someone else in order to obtain information they would not normally have had access to, and the complainant was well aware of the identity of the individual who had tried to follow them and their link to the publication. The Committee did not consider therefore that there were grounds to find a breach of Clause 10.

Conclusions

27. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

28. N/A


Date complaint received: 01/03/2024

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 14/05/2024


Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.