Ruling

00546-22 Costley-White v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      9th June 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00546-22 Costley-White v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint

1. Ben Costley-White and Julia Costley-White complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “EXCLUSIVE: Married senior naval officer, 37, is stood down from command of his ship over claims he was having an 'unauthorised sexual relationship' with a junior female colleague”, published on 18 January 2022.

2. The article reported on a senior naval officer, the first complainant, who was “temporarily stood down” during an investigation into “claims he was having an ’unauthorised sexual relationship’ with a junior female colleague”. A bullet point under the headline stated that it was “unclear what the basis for the claims are and whether they can be substantiated”. The article referred to the naval officer as “married”, named the woman it said he was “married to”, the second complainant, and described them as “husband” and “wife”. The article contained a quote from the naval officer’s Royal Naval public profile, which stated he lived with his named wife. The article also reported that “A St George's Cross flag and Remembrance poppy were placed in the window of the home on the edge of Hampshire's New Forest“. The article contained photos of the naval officer and his “wife”: one of him in his uniform, a photo of them on a boat together, and a photo of her standing outside her house.

3. The complainants said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. They said that they were separated and that it was therefore inaccurate to describe them as married. They also said that they had been contacted for comment prior to the publication of the article and had made clear that they had been separated since August 2021. The complainants said that the St George flag and poppy were actually placed in the window of a neighbour’s house. Finally, the first complainant said that the claim he had a sexual relationship with a junior colleague was unsubstantiated, and he considered that the article was misleading as it portrayed a predatory relationship and an abuse of rank.

4. The complainants said that it was a breach of the second complainant’s privacy to be included within the article at all. In particular, they said it was a breach of her privacy to have a photo of her on her doorstep taken by a journalist and published. The complainants also said that the image of them on a boat had been taken from the second complainant’s Facebook page. They said that they believed she would have had privacy settings in place on her social media, but were unable to confirm this as her Facebook page had been deactivated shortly before the publication of the article.

5. The complainants also said that the conduct of the journalist and photographer when attending the second complainant’s home was an intrusion into her grief and shock resulting from the allegations.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the complainants’ marital status was a matter of public record, and that they were still married even if they had separated. They said it was, therefore, not inaccurate to describe them as “married” within the article. It said the journalist who attended the complainants’ property had mistaken the poppy and cross in the neighbours’ window for the complainants’ window and had incorrectly considered it to be a reflection of the complainant’s naval service. The publication removed the reference from the article on receipt of the complaint, but did not consider that it constituted a significant inaccuracy. With regard to the claims made against the first complainant, the publication said it had accurately reported the investigation, the stage it was at and made clear that the details of the claims were unclear, and that it was not known if they were substantiated. It said that the article did not portray a predatory relationship or include any reference to any abuse of rank or power.

7. The publication said that the complainants had no expectation of privacy over their marital status or names, and that the journalist did not know the complainants were separated when he went to the house in order to seek their comments on the allegation. It noted that the complainants were described as living together in the first complainant’s Royal Navy profile included in the article. It also said that the photos had been taken from the second complainant’s open Facebook page. The publication had not taken a screenshot of the images including the privacy settings at the time but provided an email from the reporter to the photo desk which said that the complainant’s Facebook profile was “open”. The publication also said that it would not have been able view or source the images if the social media profile had been private. It said that there was no information within the articles that either complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over. It offered to remove the photographs of the second complainant in order to resolve the complainants’ concerns.

8. The publication said that Clause 4 does not prohibit the reporting of distressing events, such as a court case or marriage break down, but is intended primarily to protect people who are bereaved or injured. It said that this Clause was not engaged.

9. The complainants did not consider the removal of the reference to the poppy and flag and the images of the second complainant to resolve their complaint and requested that the Committee adjudicate.

Relevant Code 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 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Findings of the Committee

10. The Committee noted that the complainants had been separated for several months prior to the publication of the article. However, where they were still legally married, it was not inaccurate for the newspaper to report this. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

11. It was accepted that the poppy and cross referred to in the article were not displayed in the home of the complainant, but their neighbour. However, where they were referred to as a passing reference in the article in relation to the physical description of the house, this was not significant inaccuracy and did not require a correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. The first complainant had said that the article portrayed a predatory relationship and an abuse of rank, and said that the claims were unsubstantiated. The Committee noted that the article had made clear that they were, in fact “claims” that were still under investigation and that it was “unclear what the basis for the claims [were] and whether they [could] be substantiated”. In addition, whilst the first complainant considered that the nature of these claims portrayed a predatory relationship or abuse of rank, where he did not dispute the accuracy of the report of the claims – albeit he took the position that they were unsubstantiated - the newspaper was entitled to report them. Where the article made clear that an investigation was under way and that no findings had been made, the Committee did not consider that the article was misleading to report that allegations had been made against the first complainant and there was no breach of Clause 1.

13. With regards to Clause 2, the Committee first considered the naming and inclusion of the second complainant within the article. The inclusion of her name and photograph in the article publicly identified her as the legal wife of a man currently under investigation over allegations. The Committee firstly considered the nature of the allegations: the investigation related to professional conduct, and was not criminal. It also noted that the complainants’ relationship was already in the public domain, both through the fact of the marriage and because she was referenced by name in public Royal Navy profile. While the Committee acknowledged the second complainant’s distress at being connected publicly with the allegations, in these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the fact of her marriage to the first complainant and the allegations against him, and there was no breach of Clause 2.

14. The Committee then considered the photographs within the article. The first image showed the second complainant standing outside. The image was not of the complainant performing a private activity – she was simply standing directly outside her house. Furthermore, the image was not taken in a private place or a place where the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy, but rather in a location where she was in full public view. On this basis, the Committee did not consider that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over this image and there was no breach of Clause 2.

15. With regards to the image taken from the complainant’s social media, once again the Committee noted that the image did not show the complainants engaged in a private activity – they were sitting on a boat. The complainants thought the Facebook profile where the images were published was behind privacy settings, restricting access to friends only, but they were not certain and were unable to check. The publication had not taken screenshots that showed the privacy setting of the profile, but as it had been able to take copies of the images and had provided a contemporaneous email including a link to the profile and which described the profile as “open”, and where the images did not contain any private information, the Committee was satisfied that the publication of the images did not intrude into either complainant’s private life, and there was no breach of Clause 2.

16. Whilst the Committee understood that the complainants had been upset by the allegations made against the first complainant and the subsequent media coverage, it noted that Clause 4 is usually engaged by traumatic incidents, severe illness or bereavements. It did not consider the investigation to reach the bar of grief or shock, and therefore Clause 4 was not engaged.

Conclusion(s)

17. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

18. N/A


Date complaint received: 19/01/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/05/2022