Ruling

01972-22 The Radcliffe School v miltonkeynes.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      30th August 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock, 6 Children

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01972-22 The Radcliffe School v miltonkeynes.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. The Radcliffe School, acting on its own behalf and on behalf of the family of two of its pupils, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that miltonkeynes.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Pupils in shock after 'bullied' classmate aged 12 reportedly takes his own life in Milton Keynes”, published on 8 February 2022.

2. The article, which appeared online only, reported that a “child who friends claim was bullied because he was transgender has tragically died after reportedly taking his own life”. It said that “[i]n a letter to the [publication] the students said: ‘X was a student at the Radcliffe school […] X has been bullied relentlessly by his peers, which played a factor in his death, however the school has not recognised this as the result of bullying on their premises, and have outwardly tried to silence any and all claims of this.”

3. The article further reported that the child’s sibling had “also posted about her dissatisfaction with the school claiming homophobia is rife”, and directly quoted from the post in question. It then reported that the publication “contacted the Radcliffe School today to talk about the student’s claims. A spokesman told us: ‘We will not be commenting on this matter.’”

4. The article referred to the child who had died using male pronouns, in line with the quoted concerns from the child’s fellow pupils in the article. This decision – in quoting the article – refers to the child using the same pronouns used in the article, to avoid confusion. Representatives of the school and the child’s parents, however, referred to the child using female pronouns.

5. The article was removed prior to the complainant contacting IPSO with its concerns.

6. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as it had claimed that bullying suffered by the deceased child was “relentless[…]”, where it suggested that this claim had been made on the basis of a single source. The complainant also said that including a post from the child’s sibling – who was 15 – was inaccurate, as no context was provided for the post. It further noted that it believed the post had actually been made a year prior to the child’s death, rather than being posted in response to the death – as it considered the article implied. However, it could not say precisely when the post had been made.

7. Regarding the social media post, the complainant – on behalf of the child’s parents – said that its inclusion in the article also breached Clause 6, where the publication had used the social media post of a minor – the sibling of the deceased child, a 15-year-old – in a published article without the express consent of a responsible adult.

8. The complainant then said that the approach it had made to the school breached Clause 4, as the reporter who had phoned the school for comment has been rude to a member of staff and had subsequently hung up. It said that this was a breach where each and every person at the school had been impacted by the death, which had happened soon before the phone call. The school further noted that the approach was not sympathetic in circumstances where the school’s priority was helping its pupils and staff deal with the loss of one of the school community.

9. The publication said it refuted any suggestion that the article was inaccurate, misleading, or distorted, or that it had not taken care over the accuracy of the article. However, it accepted that the inclusion of the comment from the child’s sibling could perhaps not be fully justified.

10. The newspaper said that the emails received from concerned friends of the deceased child alleged that they had been bullied “relentlessly”, and that this was a factor in their death. It also said that it had a duty to accurately report the comments of others, and that it had done so – pupils had alleged that the bullying was “relentless[…]”, and it had accurately reported these concerns. To support its position on this point, it provided an extract from an email which referred to the child having been “bullied relentlessly”; it also provided extracts from further emails and messages outlining concerns about the school’s approach to LGBT+ students. The publication further noted that the school had been given the opportunity to comment on these concerns and set out its side of the story, but had declined to do so. In addition, it said that it had been informed by Ofsted and the local council that they were investigating allegations of bullying at the school; though it had not reported on these comments, given the ongoing complaint from the school.

11. The newspaper further said that the comment from the sibling was recent, and provided a redacted email from a concerned student referencing the comment as having been posted recently to support its position on this point; however, it could not provide the original post as it had since been deleted.

12. The publication did not accept that the reporter’s request for comment, made to the school, breached Clause 4. It said that the reporter was polite at all times, and that a member of staff had hung up on her during the call – rather than vice versa. It further said that the approach had been made with sympathy and discretion, in line with the terms of Clause 4. It accepted that the school had other priorities than dealing with approaches from the press – however, its role as a newspaper was to accurately report on issues in the local community, and part of ensuring that it did so was seeking comment from directly affected parties, such as the school.

13. Turning to the alleged breach of Clause 6 arising from the social media post, the publication said that the post had been made on a public social media forum. It was not, therefore, an interview as defined by Clause 6, as it had been shared to a wide audience – on a Facebook group with over 12,000 members – without additional comment. It also considered that the social media post did not relate to the sibling’s welfare – it was a comment relating to the behaviour of some pupils at the school and the lack of action from the school.

14. The newspaper also said that, prior to publishing the article, it had mistakenly believed that it had the blessing of the child’s family. It also noted its position that the article related to an important matter of public interest, and that it had been approached by a number of people – including parents of children at the school – prior to the article’s publication, all of whom raised a number of issues relating to the child’s death, the school’s response, and its track record on LGBT+ issues. Notwithstanding this, it said that it had removed the article as soon as it had been advised that the article did not have the family’s blessing.

15. The publication said that any alleged breach could be justified by the exceptional public interest in bringing allegations of serious bullying – which had allegedly led to the death of a child – to the attention of the public, and therefore help prevent similar situations occurring in the future. It said that it had also considered the statements and emails provided by the people who had contacted it, and the extent to which there was already widespread discussion around the death. It further said that it had explored the possibility of deferring the publication until after the inquest but – considering the fact that a coroner could not be unduly influenced by media publications, and in light of the great concern of the students – ultimately reached the decision to publish the article prior to the inquest.

16. The publication also set out its position that the publication of the comment from the child’s sibling was published on the grounds of this exceptional public interest, and said that the sibling was not named, interviewed, or photographed. It also said that it had considered whether or not publishing the post was proportionate to the public interest served prior to publication, and had considered that it was: it added great weight to the allegations against the school, and specifically identified the deceased child as a bullying victim.

17. Notwithstanding that the publication did not accept a breach of the Code, it said that – considering the circumstances – it wished to resolve the complaint as a gesture of good will to the family. It offered to: write a private letter of apology to the family; make a £1000 donation to a charity of the family’s choosing; publish a story exonerating the school, should the inquest find that the claims of bullying were unfounded; provide the school with two-facing pages within the paper to showcase the school; and provide an assurance that the article would not be republished.

18. The complainant said that it had been told by the family that their child had never told them that they had been bullied, nor had she sought to avoid going to school. It further noted that it disputed that the sibling’s Facebook post was recent and also provided comments from the child’s father noting that the post had been made when the child was in a particularly vulnerable position, having lost their sibling. It also did not accept that publication’s response to be sufficient to address its concerns, and said that it wished for IPSO’s Complaints Committee to consider the matter further.

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 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.

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

iv) Children under 16 must not be paid for material involving their welfare, nor parents or guardians for material about their children or wards, unless it is clearly in the child's interest.

v) Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child's private life.

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 Editors’ Code of Practice, in providing additional protections for children, acknowledges their particularly vulnerable position. This is reflected in the terms of Clause 6 (Children) and in the requirement that an exceptional public interest is required to over-ride the normally paramount interest of children under 16. As such, honouring the full spirit of the Code means that what will constitute an “interview” for the purposes of Clause 6 (iii) is broader than circumstances where a journalist directly solicits comment or information from a child. Depending on the circumstances, and the nature of the published comments, the publication of unsolicited comments – such as the one republished in the article – on issues that relate to a child’s welfare may engage the terms of Clause 6 (iii) and therefore require consent from a parent or similarly responsible adult.

20. In this instance, the comment was presented as the sister’s response to the allegations of homophobia and bullying at the school she attended, and in the view of the Committee, its publication in this context engaged the terms of Clause 6 (iii) and it constituted an interview under the terms of the sub-Clause. The subject matter of the comment clearly related to the child’s welfare; it related to allegations of bullying in her school environment, and linked these allegations to the recent death of her sibling. The child’s parents had not consented to the publication of this comment.

21. The Committee acknowledged that there was a significant public interest in reporting on allegations of bullying and homophobia at the school and the role that they might have played in the child’s death. However, there was an important distinction between the public interest in the story as a whole and the specific public interest in publishing this comment, attributed to the sister (although unnamed) of the child who had died. The public interest in publishing the comment was not so exceptional as to override the interests of a child, given the extremely sensitive subject matter and the child’s vulnerable circumstances, immediately following the death of a sibling. The complaint under Clause 6 (Children) was therefore upheld.

22. Turning to the complainant’s Clause 1 concerns, the Committee noted that the school was concerned that the article had published allegations about bullying which it considered to be unfounded. However, it noted that the terms of Clause 1 make clear that publications are entitled to publish the opinions and views of individuals, provided they are correctly distinguished as such and from fact. In this case, each allegation was correctly distinguished as such – they were attributed to “students” at the school. In addition, the publication had provided copies of the redacted emails, which raised these concerns, and had approached the school for comment on the allegations – notwithstanding that the school had declined to provide a comment. The Committee therefore did not consider that the article had breached Clause 1 in reporting the allegations.

23. The Committee understood that there was a dispute of fact regarding the timing of the social media post from the sibling. The complainant’s initial position was that the post was made some time earlier, though it did not cite a specific alternative date. The publication had said that the post had been prompted by concerns raised following the sibling’s death, and provided a redacted email from a third party who confirmed that they had read the comment contemporaneously.  While the Committee expressed some concern that the publication had not retained a copy of the post, on balance the Committee was satisfied that the publication had taken care in reporting that the post was contemporaneous. There was no breach of Clause 1.

24.  In relation to Clause 4 about the publication’s approach to the school for comment, while the Committee noted that the school was unhappy with the nature of the approach, the terms of the Clause relate to personal grief or shock, rather than grief or shock shared across a number of people in an organisation such as a school. The school did not therefore have the standing to bring a complaint under this Clause in its own right, and the Clause was therefore not breached.

Conclusion(s)

25. The complaint was upheld under Clause 6.

Remedial Action Required

26. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 6, the Committee consider the remedial action that should be required. Given the nature of the breach, the appropriate remedial action was the publication of an upheld adjudication.

27. The Committee considered the placement of this adjudication. The adjudication should be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication appearing on the top half of the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. The headline to the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, refer to the subject matter and be agreed with IPSO in advance of publication.

28. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

The Radcliffe School, acting on its own behalf and on behalf of the family of two of its pupils, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that miltonkeynes.co.uk breached Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Pupils in shock after 'bullied' classmate aged 12 reportedly takes his own life in Milton Keynes”, published on 8 February 2022.

The article reported on the response of the Radcliffe School to the death of one of its pupils. It included a social media post, made by the sister of the pupil who had died, commenting on allegations against the school.

The complainant, acting on behalf of the child’s parents, said that the inclusion of the social media post breached Clause 6, where the publication had used the social media post of a minor – the sibling of the deceased child, a 15-year-old – in a published article without the express consent of a responsible adult.

The publication did not accept that Clause 6 was breached: It said that the social media post was not an “interview”, and Clause 6 only requires consent from a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult in cases where a child is interviewed on a matter relating to their or another child’s welfare – rather than cases when a social media post is sourced from online.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee noted that the Editors’ Code of Practice, in providing additional protections for children, acknowledges their particularly vulnerable position in relation to the press.  As such, honouring the full spirit of the Code means that what will constitute an “interview” for the purposes of Clause 6 is broader than circumstances where a journalist directly solicits comment or information from a child. Depending on the circumstances, and the nature of the published comments, unsolicited comments – such as the one republished in the article – may constitute an interview, and therefore parental consent would be required should the comment relate to the welfare of a child.

In this instance, the comment – though unsolicited – had been portrayed in the article as the sister’s response to the subject matter of the article. Therefore, the Committee considered that it represented an interview as defined by Clause 6. The Committee also considered that the subject matter of the comment clearly related to the child’s welfare; it related to allegations of bullying in her school environment, and linked these allegations to the recent death of her sibling. The child’s parents had not consented to the publication of this comment, and there was therefore a breach of Clause 6.

The Committee acknowledged that there was a public interest in reporting on the allegations against the school. However, the Committee did not consider that the public interest was so exceptional as to justify publishing the child’s social media post, and over-ride the paramount interest of that child.


Date complaint received: 08/03/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 09/08/2022