Ruling

00671-16 Soames v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      27th May 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee  00671-16 Soames v The Sunday Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Sir Nicholas Soames MP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 2 (Privacy) in an article headlined “Soames’s mystery weight loss has Commons chewing the fat”, published in print and online on 7 February 2016.

2. The article reported that Sir Nicholas Soames MP had “noticeably slimmed down following a spell away from the Commons”. It said that “regulars in the House of Commons tearoom have their own theory” over Sir Nicholas’ sudden weight loss, namely that he had been “fitted with a gastric band”. It said that “whatever the cause, colleagues report that the bon viveur is uncharacteristically off his food”. It included the comments of an unnamed Tory frontbencher who said that in the tearoom, Sir Nicholas had been “complaining that he can’t even look at food”; further an unnamed “friend and former frontbencher” said that “Soames had been advised to lose weight to ease a back ailment that had been causing him pain”. It said that “if such an order has been issued, it will be a serious blow to Soames” who was reputed to have become a director of a restaurant in Central London. The article also reported that after having been contacted twice “Soames declined to confirm or deny details of his weight loss regime or the presence of a gastric band”, and that he had simply issued a “brief and unprintable two-word statement” in both instances. The text of the print and online articles was the same.

3. The complainant said that the article’s speculation about his health intruded into his privacy. He said that the article’s specific references to gastric band surgery and back problems – and the speculation that these medical matters had resulted in weight loss – were particularly intrusive. The complainant acknowledged that as a public figure, he was subject to press attention; this did not however mean that he did not have a right to privacy in relation to his health. The complainant said that he had not discussed matters relating to his health publicly.

4. The newspaper denied that the article intruded into the complainant’s privacy. Sir Nicholas’ physical appearance had always been a central part of his public image, and it was not intrusive for the article to speculate over the reasons for the sudden visible weight loss of a prominent political figure. The article made reference to Sir Nicholas’ having undergone gastric band surgery and having had a back problem in the context of such speculation, and did not report as fact that he had undergone any such procedure.

5. The newspaper said that in any case, according to one of the unnamed sources, the complainant had openly discussed the reasons for his loss of appetite with his colleagues in the House of Commons tearoom, which it argued was a public place.

6. The newspaper provided a copy of a text message the reporter had sent to the complainant prior to publication. This made clear the reporter’s assumption that since Sir Nicholas appeared to have been happy to discuss the reasons for his weight loss openly with colleagues, he would not object to discussing the matter further. The newspaper said that the complainant merely responded “fuck off”. The newspaper said it considered the response to mean “no comment”, and noted that the complainant did not provide a warning that he would consider publication an intrusion into his privacy. The complainant argued that the newspaper should have assumed that the characteristically robust response meant that the complainant considered the matter to be private.  The newspaper also noted that the complainant had publicly commented on his weight loss after publication, referring to himself in a tweet as a “pie free zone sadly”.

Relevant Code Provisions

7. 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. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

Findings of the Committee

8. It was not intrusive to report the mere fact that the complainant had recently lost weight, given that he is a figure in the public eye, and the change in his appearance was visible. However, the article went further than this, and speculated about possible medical causes for his weight loss, including questioning whether the complainant had undergone an invasive surgical procedure, which may have been due to back pain. This was information in relation to the complainant’s health about he had a reasonable expectation of privacy and the Committee was not satisfied that the newspaper had demonstrated a sufficient public interest to justify publication. The speculation about this private medical information without the complainant’s consent raised a breach of Clause 2.

Conclusions

9. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

10. 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 made clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance. The original article had appeared on page 3, and the adjudication should appear on this page or further forward. It should also be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication appearing on the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. Should the newspaper continue to publish the article online, without amendment, in light of this decision it should publish the adjudication in full, beneath the headline.

11. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows:

Following an article published in The Sunday Times on 7 February 2016 headlined “Soames’s mystery weight loss has Commons chewing the fat”, Sir Nicholas Soames MP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times had intruded into his privacy in breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO upheld the complaint and has required The Sunday Times to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.

The article reported that the complainant had “noticeably slimmed down following a spell away from the Commons”, and that “regulars in the House of Commons tearoom have their own theory” over Sir Nicholas’ sudden weight loss, namely that he had been “fitted with a gastric band”.

The complainant said that the article’s speculation about his health, and specific reference to gastric band surgery, intruded into his privacy. He said that he had not discussed matters relating to his health publicly.

The newspaper denied that the article intruded into the complainant’s privacy. His physical appearance had always been a central part of his public image, and it was not intrusive to speculate over the reasons for the sudden visible weight loss. The article made reference to the complainant’s having undergone surgery in the context of speculation, and did not report as fact that he had undergone any such procedure.

The Committee noted that simply reporting the complainant’s visible weight loss was not intrusive. However, the question of whether he had undergone an invasive surgical procedure was a private matter. The speculation about this private medical information without the complainant’s consent raised a breach of Clause 2.

Date complaint received: 11/02/2016
Date decision issued: 19/04/2016