Ruling

01922-19 A woman v Grimsby Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      27th June 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 6 Children

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01922-19 A woman v Grimsby Telegraph 

Summary of complaint 

1.    A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Grimsby Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "Filthy home from hell: Disgusting home where 'two-year-old has learned to put himself to bed'" published on 2 March 2019. 

2.    The article reported concerns which had been raised by the maternal grandmother and aunt of five young children. The women had approached the newspaper claiming that the children were being “neglected” by their mother, and were living in a “disgusting”, “dirty” and “filthy” environment. The article did not name the children concerned, nor did it name their mother, grandmother, or aunt. 

3.    The article was accompanied by a number of photographs of the inside of the house which the children shared with their mother; the photographs depicted overflowing bins and carpets and surfaces covered in rubbish. The article reported: “this is the shocking home from hell in [town] where five children under eight years old are forced to live, despite attempts from family members to save them”. 

4.    The article reported various claims made by the grandmother and aunt about the state of the house and the children’s care: “the children regularly do not have food to eat”; “they rarely have clean clothes”; “a two-year old has learned to put themselves to bed”; “one girl has had seven teeth removed because of poor dental care”; “[the mother] has allowed her children to miss important doctor and dental appointments”. 

5.    In the piece, the grandmother claimed that she had rung social services to explain the situation, and they had agreed that she could take the children to her house. The grandmother said: “a few days later [social services] rang back and said that the kids must be returned to the house to be with their mother”; “something needs to be done to remove my grandchildren from that hellhole that they are living in”. The article reported a statement from the local council: “we are looking into this case as a matter of urgency”. 

6.    The article was published in substantially the same form online, under the headline, “The filthy home from hell where FIVE young children are being brought up by their 'uncaring' mum who is now pregnant with her sixth baby”. 

7.    The complainant, the mother of the five children, said that the article was an unjustified intrusion into her and her children’s private home and family life, in breach of Clause 2 and Clause 6. The complainant said that the photographs of the inside of her home were taken on private property, without her knowledge or consent by her mother and sister, who she suggested were trespassing on the property at the time. The complainant said that despite not being named in the article, her children had been identified as a consequence of members of the public commenting on the article published on the newspaper’s Facebook page, and naming her as the children’s mother. 

8.    The complainant also said that her mother’s claims were inaccurate and gave a misleading impression of the children’s care and the state of her house at the time of publication, in breach of Clause 1. The complainant acknowledged that her home had looked as depicted in the photographs, but said that she had reached out to family and social services for help and the house was looking much better. The complainant said that the journalist came round to the house for a comment before the article was published, saw how the house had changed, but did not reflect this in the article. The complainant denied that there was “no food” in the house, or that a child has to put themselves to be on their own, as claimed. She said that the child’s teeth were not removed because of “poor hygiene”, they were removed for medical reasons.  

9.    The publication denied that it had breached the Code. It said that appropriate steps and care was taken, prior to publication, to not identify the children or the complainant, or include any personal details that may lead to the identification of anyone involved. The newspaper said that the only information revealed about the house was the town in which it was located; none of the photographs identified a particular house or area. The newspaper said that further care was also taken to remove the ability to comment on the online article, and all comments published on Facebook which named the complainant, and which were brought to its attention, were removed. 

10. The newspaper said that the photographs of the inside of the property were taken in the days before publication on the weekend of 23rd- 24th February, by the grandmother and aunt, who were invited into the home by the children’s father. The newspaper acknowledged that the complainant was not home at the time, but said that there was nothing to suggest that the women were trespassing on the property. 

11. The newspaper said that there was an overriding public interest in the publication of the photographs of the inside of the complainant’s home, in order to highlight the poor living environment a number of young children were being raised in by their mother. It said that there were further concerns from family members who told the newspaper that social services were not taking appropriate action to ensure that the children were being cared for adequately. The newspaper provided a copy of a series of emails which had been exchanged between the journalist and the council, prior to publication. The journalist had asked the council to comment on the grandmother’s claim that the council were not doing enough in response to her concerns; the council’s response was reported in the article. 

12. The newspaper acknowledged that the complainant disputed the claims made by the grandmother and aunt of the children, but said that these claims were clearly distinguished as such in the article and were not adopted by the newspaper as fact.  The newspaper said that upon receipt of the complainant’s direct complaint, it had one of the disputed claims about poor dental hygiene, as a gesture of goodwill. 

13. The newspaper also offered the complainant an opportunity to respond to the article in the form of a follow up piece. It said it had been willing to publish a response from the complainant to all of the grandmother’s claims in full, but had ultimately published an edited version, at the complainant’s request. That edited version had set out the complainant’s position that her mother’s claims were “inaccurate”, and that her children are "fed, clean and very well loved". The complainant also said, “"I am receiving a great deal of help at the moment from the council and those that love and care for the children. I can assure everyone the matter has been addressed and will continue to be improved."  

Relevant Code Provisions 

14. 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 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. 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 6 (Children)*  

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

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 

15. The article, including the photographs, had disclosed sensitive details about the complainant and her five children, including information which related to their upbringing, their home, and their relationship with each other. This information clearly concerned their family life and home in respect of which they had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The Committee acknowledged that the newspaper had not named the individuals involved, and had taken steps to limit the extent to which the article might have identified the children, for example, the name of the town was insufficient to identify the precise location of the property. However, the complainant had explained that readers commenting on the article had named her as the subject of the article; it was apparent, that the family were identifiable within their local community from the information contained in the article. Given this, and while taking into consideration the steps taken by the newspaper referred to above, the Committee considered that the publication of the information subject to complaint constituted an intrusion, albeit to a limited extent. 

16. The Committee considered that there was an exceptional public interest in enabling the maternal grandmother and aunt to raise concerns about the welfare of these young children. The photographs illustrated these concerns in a way that would not been possible through words alone. In addition, there was an exceptional public interest in identifying the grandmother’s particular criticism of social services, who she claimed were not taking appropriate action to ensure that the children were being cared for adequately. The Committee noted that in response to the journalist’s enquires, the council said that it would be looking into the case as a matter of “urgency”. The Committee concluded that in this instance, an exceptional public interest justified the limited intrusion into the complainant and her children’s privacy, and the children’s time at school. There was no breach of Clause 2 or Clause 6. 

17. The Committee then turned to consider the complaint made under Clause 1. Care had been taken by the newspaper to report the grandmother’s claims as her own testimony, and the newspaper had not adopted her position as established fact. The presentation of the woman’s claims clearly indicated that her account was one side of a complex story. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

18. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that the state of the house had improved since the photographs were taken. However, it was not in dispute that they accurately reflected the interior of the house at the time concerns had been raised to social services and the newspaper directly. Further, the Committee noted that the photographs were taken only shortly before the date of publication. In those circumstances, the Committee did not conclude that the photographs gave rise to a misleading of the state of the complainant’s house, which required correction. This aspect of the complaint did not represent a breach of Clause 1. 

19. The complainant denied that her children had “no food”, or that they put themselves to bed on their own; she further denied that a child’s teeth had been removed because of “poor hygiene”, as claimed. The newspaper had published a follow up piece which made clear that these claims were disputed by the complainant: it recorded her position that the children were "fed, clean and very well loved". The Committee were satisfied that the publication of the complainant’s denial to these claims was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). At the complainant’s request, the follow up piece had omitted the complainant’s explanation as to why one of her child’s teeth had been removed.  However, in these particular circumstances, the Committee declined to make a further finding under Clause 1(ii) in respect of this claim. There was no public interest in requiring the publication of a correction which would result in the disclosure of medical information about a child, without parental consent. There was no breach of Clause 1. 

20. The Committee turned to consider the reader comments which had been posted on the article after it had been shared by the publication on social media. The regulation by a publication of reader comments on a publication’s website falls within IPSO’s remit when there is a possible breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice, and where it can be shown that the comment has been subject to some level of editorial control either through pre or post moderation. If a comment is not removed following moderation, the comment falls within IPSO’s remit. In this instance, each comment which was reported by the complainant, had been reviewed by the newspaper and removed. In light of this, the reader comments in which the complainant had been named fell outside of IPSO’s remit.  

Conclusions 

21. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial Action Required  

22. N/A

Date complaint received: 04/03/2019

Date decision issued: 23/05/2019