Ruling

01675-18 A woman v Daily Star on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      9th August 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 6 Children

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01675-18 A woman v Daily Star on Sunday

Summary of complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Star on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Teen gun nut: I will kill Muslims”, published on 18 February 2018.

2. The article reported that under a pseudonym, a 17 year old British teenage “gun nut” had “threatened to kill Muslims in a series of vile Facebook rants”. The article disclosed the teenager’s real name, and was illustrated with a selection of the Facebook posts, as well as his photograph. In one post, the teenager had said “When the Muzrats attack I’m ready to fix bayonets and slot the b*******”. The article explained that his “shocking comments” had been posted on social media alongside pictures of his guns which he owns, including an antique gun which is fixed with a bayonet. The article also reported that the teenager had been “kicked out of college” for “burning highly inflammable s**t and drinking on campus”.

3. The article said that the teenager appeared to have access to an “extensive arsenal of guns” and had sought to buy armour-piercing bullets for a high velocity rifle, online. The article suggested that his “rants raise fresh concerns over internet giant Facebook’s ability to monitor threatening hate-filled posts on its site”. The article noted that in the previous week, a 19 year old had killed 17 people during a high school shooting in Florida.

4. The complainant was quoted as telling the reporter that the teenager had “complex needs”, and “when he says he is going to shoot Muslims he isn’t really going to do that – how many people say that but actually do it?”.

5. The complainant is the custodial guardian of the teenager named in the article.

6. The complainant said that the article had intruded into the teenager’s time in education. She explained that at the time of publication he was waiting to start a college course, having been offered a place in January 2018; she said that because of the article, the college had withdrawn their offer. In support of this, the complainant provided email correspondence which she had received from her local Council, in which it stated that the college had considered that its main safeguarding concern was linked to the article.

7. The complainant said that the newspaper had intruded into the teenager’s privacy: it had not obtained consent to publish the teenager’s photograph and the posts which he had made on his Facebook account. She said that while his profile picture and cover photo was available to be viewed by the public, the posts which he made on his Facebook wall could only be seen by people who he had accepted to be his friend. She said that the teenager had 595 friends on Facebook.

8. The complainant denied referring to “Muslims” when she had spoken to the reporter. She further denied that the teenager had previously been “kicked out of college” for “burning highly inflammable s**t and drinking on campus”. She said that his course had been cancelled due to funding matters. She said he had never set fire to anything, and while he did drink alcohol on campus, this did not result in him being asked to leave college.

9. The complainant alleged that the photograph of the teenager standing in front of Nazi flags, which had been used in the article, had been altered. She said that the teenager had flags from all over the world in their room.

10. The newspaper did not accept that the article had resulted in an “unnecessary” intrusion into the teenager’s time at school. It said that they were 17 at the time of publication and not at school. It noted that the complainant had confirmed that the teenager was not in education at the time the article was published.

11. The newspaper said a freelance journalist had been approached by a source who was concerned about the posts which the teenager had made. The news editor, duty lawyer and editor all gave consideration to the public interest before publication and concluded that the exposure of the teenager’s threats to commit criminal acts outweighed any privacy or protection that he may have been entitled to under Clause 6. Consideration was given to his age, although he was not in education at the time of publication, and to the extent to which the information was already in the public domain.

12. The newspaper said that there was a clear and strong public interest in the publication of the article and identifying the teenager. It said that the article had been published a week after a High School massacre in Florida where seventeen people had been killed and a further seventeen had been wounded. It said that in that case, the police had been told in 2016 and 2017 that the perpetrator had threatened to carry out a school shooting. It also said that the FBI discovered that a YouTube user with the same name as the perpetrator had posted messages about becoming a school shooter, and a complaint had been to the FBI that the perpetrator had made a death threat.

13. The newspaper said that the public had a right to know when someone is posting hate speech and threatening material. It said that in this case, thought was given to whether the public interest could be served without identifying the teenager, but by identifying him it allowed for the possibility that a member of the public could come forward with further important information. It considered that it was especially important for the public to know what the teenager’s real name was and what he looked like, because he was a member of a gun club and had access to weapons. It said that the article had brought to light what can only be interpreted as very serious threats to carry out armed attacks: there was a public interest in reporting threats being made to the lives of others, by a person with access to weapons.

 14. The newspaper said consideration was given to the complainant’s comments about the teenager having “complex needs”, but said that the clear and strong public interest overrode any question of privacy. It said that the fact that someone had complex needs does not make their threats any less real. In the view of the editor, the fact he was considered to have “complex needs” made the public interest greater because of the many instances where attacks have been carried out by people under the age of 18 who clearly had mental health issues or where mental health issues were ruled to be a primary factor.

15. The newspaper said that care was taken to ensure that what was reported was an accurate reflection of the teenager’s posts. The newspaper provided a redacted version of the email which it had received from the source, which made reference to the posts which the teenager had made. The email indicated that the source had a screengrab of the teenager posting that he had been “sent home from college for ‘burning highly inflammable shit’ and drinking”. The newspaper was unable to provide a screenshot of the original post. The newspaper did not accept that the article had suggested that the teenager had been removed from college on a permanent basis.

16. The newspaper provided a note which the journalist had taken during their conversation with the complainant. The note recorded that the complainant had said: "When he says he is going to shoot Muslims he isn't really going to do that - how many people say that but actually do it?"

17. The newspaper provided screenshots of the teenager’s Facebook page, including photographs of the teenage with Nazi flags in the background.

Relevant Code Provisions

18. 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.

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.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Clause 6 (Children)*

i) All pupils should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.

ii) They must not be approached or photographed at school without permission of the school authorities.

iii) Children under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents.

The Public Interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.

Protecting public health or safety.

Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.

Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.

Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.

Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

4. 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.

5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.

Findings of the Committee

19. The Code provides specific protections for children under 16. It also recognises that children who are over 16 but are still minors, may, while they remain pupils, have a vulnerability which requires protection from unnecessary intrusion into their time at school. In this case, while the teenager was 17 at the time of publication, he had been accepted onto a college course and was waiting for it to start. In those circumstances, the Committee considered that the teenager was a “pupil” for the purposes of Clause 6 (i). Clause 6 was engaged.

20. The Committee noted that the article had resulted in the teenager losing his place at college; as such, it was plain that it had intruded into his time at school. It considered, however, that there was an exceptional public interest, which the newspaper had considered before publication, which justified this intrusion.

21. As reported in the article, the teenager had made a number of posts which included “I'm f**king pissed off, I need some trigger time and blow some s**t up”; I'm sick of seeing these damn musrats everywhere I go this country should be called Englandistan; and “When the Muzrats attack I'm ready to fix bayonets and slot the bastards”. He had published his comments on a social media platform alongside photographs which indicated that he had readily available access to an array of weapons. The coverage had revealed behaviour which had raised safeguarding concerns, and requests for assurances that the teenager posed no, or limited, risk. There was an exceptional public interest in revealing those potential safeguarding concerns for his future classmates, and disclosing the identity of the source of these concerns. The exceptional public interest identified by the newspaper was proportionate to the intrusion into the teenager’s time at school. There was no breach of Clause 6.

22. The Committee noted that the privacy settings which the teenager had on his Facebook at the time of publication, demonstrated that only those people who he had accepted as a “friend” would be able to see the posts which he had made. However, it was accepted that the teenager had 595 friends on his Facebook, one of whom had approached the newspaper to complain about his social media activity. The article had quoted from the teenager’s posts and had also been illustrated with screenshots of them. These posts did not reveal any private information about the teenager: they were expressions of opinions which could not be considered private in circumstances where they were shared with almost 600 individuals.

23. Taking into account the nature of the information and the fact that it had been disclosed to a large audience, the Committee concluded that the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to this information; nor did its publication in the article under complaint represent an intrusion into his private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.

24. In any event, the exceptional public interest, which was discussed by the Committee in its consideration of the concerns under Clause 6, also justified the publication of the Facebook posts and identifying their author, by name and by photograph.

25. The Committee then turned to the complaint under Clause 1 (Accuracy). The email from the source had recorded that the teenager had allegedly been “sent home” from college for “burning highly inflammable shit and drinking”; the article had reported that the teenager had been “kicked out” of college for the same reasons. It was unfortunate that the newspaper had been unable to provide a record of the original post. However, while the article had not quoted directly from the source’s email, the information which was published did not give rise to a significantly misleading impression; both statements made clear that the teenager had been asked to leave campus for unacceptable behaviour.

26. The journalist had taken care to record a contemporaneous note of the conversation which they had with the complainant; this note had demonstrated that the complainant had specifically referenced Muslims when she had claimed that the teenager posed no real threat. Further, the Committee were satisfied, on the basis of the screenshots provided by the newspaper, that the photographs contained in the article had not been altered: the teenager could clearly be seen sat in front of Nazi flags. The complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld.

Conclusion

27. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 19/02/2018

Date decision issued: 20/07/2018