Ruling

00580-15 Owens v That’s Life

    • Date complaint received

      26th June 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 5 Reporting suicide

·  Decision of the Complaints Committee 00580-15 Owens v That’s Life

Summary of complaint 

1. Leanne Owens complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that That’s Life had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) and Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “I’d rather die than kill my baby”, published on 16 October 2014. 

2. The article was a first-person account of the serious illnesses the complainant had experienced while pregnant with her fourth child. It reported that she had risked her own life to give birth to a baby girl, and by extension had risked leaving her other children without a mother. 

3. The complainant said that she had not risked her life by continuing with her pregnancy: she had been told that with treatment and monitoring she would survive, but her baby might not. She said that she had been telephoned by a journalist working for the magazine who had read the proposed article to her for approval, but she had repeatedly told the journalist that she was in a doctor’s surgery and could not hear her clearly. The complainant said that she had promised to call the journalist back at a more convenient time for her, but on three occasions she had been told that the journalist was unavailable and left a message; she never received a return call. The complainant said that this breached Clause 2. The complainant raised a number of other concerns about inaccuracies, but these were not significant so as to engage the Code. 

4. With regard to Clause 5, the complainant said that she had been “tricked” into including her eldest son in the photographs, when she did not want him to appear in the magazine, and that she had not been advised of the publication date in advance. 

5. The magazine believed that its article was an accurate account of the complainant’s difficulties during her pregnancy. It said that the journalist who had completed the read-back (telephone call in which the proposed copy is read to the subject of the story, to give them an opportunity to raise concerns) did not recall the complainant saying that she was unable to hear her properly; the magazine believed that the copy had been approved by the complainant. It did not have a recording of the read-back, and while it said that it had a text version of it, the journalist had not signed or dated it, and no changes had been recorded. The magazine said that the complainant had initially sold her story to a news agency, and the published copy was true to the copy provided by the agency, which had also been approved by the complainant in a read-back process, although again the agency did not have a recording of this read-back. The magazine had completed its own interview with the complainant - in addition to the agency’s interview - and it provided the relevant notes, although those notes did not contain a reference to the complainant having placed her life in danger. The magazine maintained that it had made every effort to publish a feature with which the complainant was happy: it had removed her surname and address, upon request, and changed the name of her partner. 

6. The magazine said that it had contacted the freelance photographer who had taken the photographs for the feature, and he had confirmed that he had not been asked to remove the complainant’s eldest son from the images. The photographer said that when there is a request not to include a person, it is his usual practice to pixelate the image prior to distributing it, so that there can be no misunderstanding. 

7. While the magazine maintained that there had been no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, it offered to publish the following correction on the letters page (last page), which was its standard placement for corrections: 

Last year we told the story of Leanne Owens whose unborn baby girl Seren helped to identify her breast cancer while she was pregnant. Leanne has asked us to make clear that when she was originally offered the chance to terminate the pregnancy, due to antiphospholipid syndrome, the doctors did not tell her that her life was at risk. In fact it was her unborn baby whose life was at risk. As such Leanne never felt that she risked leaving her sons without a mother when she decided to go ahead with the pregnancy. We are happy to make this clear and apologise for any distress caused by this misunderstanding. 

8. The complainant did not think that the magazine’s apology was genuine. 

Relevant Code Provisions

9. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. 

Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) 

A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for. 

Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) 

i) In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. 

Findings of the Committee

10. It is of particular importance that a first-person piece is an accurate reflection of the experiences of the subject of the article, under whose name it is published. A read-back is a way of complying with the requirements of Clause 1 (i) for first-person stories, but only if there is a proper record of it having been completed satisfactorily. In this instance, the complainant disputed the magazine’s position that she had agreed the accuracy of the material. In the absence of any record that she was content with the copy which was being attributed to her, the Committee was not able to place any reliance on the read-back. While the Committee recognised that the magazine had been able to provide notes of its own interview with the complainant, these notes did not include the claim that the complainant had risked leaving her sons motherless by proceeding with her last pregnancy. The Committee did not find that the magazine had taken appropriate care over the accuracy of the article; it upheld the complaint under Clause 1 (i). 

11. The inaccuracy alleged by the complainant was significant, and the magazine was not able to show that the complainant’s own life had been put in danger. In the circumstances, a correction was required on this point in order to satisfy the terms of Clause 1 (ii) of the Code. 

12. Clause 2 provides for an opportunity to reply to inaccuracies, post-publication. As the complainant had not requested an opportunity to reply following publication of the article, there was no breach of Clause 2. 

13. Given that the photograph of the complainant’s children, which included her eldest son, was posed for, the Committee was satisfied that it had been reasonable for the magazine to understand that the complainant had consented to its publication. In any case, this concern did not engage the terms of Clause 5. The magazine was also not obliged to inform the complainant of the publication date of the feature in advance. There was no breach of Clause 5. 

Conclusions

14. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (Accuracy). 

Remedial Action Required

15. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee has the power to require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication; the nature, extent and placement is to be determined by IPSO. It may also inform the publication that further remedial action is required to ensure that the requirements of the Editors’ Code are met. 

16. The magazine had already offered to publish a correction which stated that the complainant’s life had not been put in danger by continuing with her pregnancy. This correction included an apology which, given the nature of the inaccuracy, was required on this occasion. However, given that the inaccuracy was referenced on the front cover of the magazine, the prominence proposed by the magazine was not sufficient under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). In order to remedy the breach of Clause 1, the magazine is now required to publish its proposed wording, in full, on the first editorial page. 

Date complaint received: 9/02/2015

Date complaint concluded: 26/06/2015