Ruling

02804-18 A woman v Sunday People

    • Date complaint received

      29th July 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02804-18 A woman v Sunday People

Summary of complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday People breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “For bedder or worse…”, published on 25 March 2018.

2. The front page of the newspaper referred to a “swingers’ wedding”, and stated that a couple were celebrating their wedding “with 100 guests at [a] sex party”. The inside article – which was sub-headlined “swingers celebrate their wedding with 100-guest sex party” – described the events surrounding the complainant’s post-wedding party. It gave the first names and ages of the complainant and her husband, and stated his occupation. The article described how “there were tears after bedtime as the bride and groom had a blazing 3.30am row outside the hotel”, that the night was brought to a “tense and emotional end as [the couple] had a blazing argument”, that the complainant was “[left] weeping on the pavement clutching her wedding dress while wearing a coat and slippers”, and that the complainant’s husband had subsequently “mounted the kerb as he drove off leaving [the complainant] weeping on the pavement”.

3. The article reported that the party was advertised on an “online sex-swapping forum”, and that the club at which the party took place advertised the party online, and anyone was welcome as long as they were members of the club, and the online forum. It went on to give the accounts of visitors to the party. One described witnessing a sex act on the dancefloor, and seeing guests emerge from an “orgy”; another stated that they did not see the complainant and groom “getting frisky”. The article stated that “single men were charged £30 to attend, couples had to fork out £15, while single ladies got free entry”, and that the venue had a “’dogging zone’ with fake vibrating cars…a dungeon with bondage gear, an eight-man Jacuzzi and a ‘groping box’”. The article included un-pixelated images of the complainant and her husband, and pixelated images of other guests. One, captioned “Veil of tears: After the big row”, showed the complainant crouched on the floor outside a hotel; another, captioned “Something Blue: Angry bride [first name] returns to Premier Inn”, showed the complainant apparently pointing at someone out of shot. Another picture showed the groom holding a can of drink.

4. The online article, which was headlined “’Dungeons, a dogging area with fake cars, Jacuzzis’: Newlywed couple celebrate in swingers’ club orgy – and it ended in tears”, was largely similar to the print article, and included the same images of the complainant and her husband. It also included a two-minute video clip showing the complainant entering the foyer of the hotel, and kissing and then apparently arguing with her husband, and then showed her crouching on the ground. The video then showed the complainant apparently arguing with a group of people outside the hotel, before walking off. The complainant’s husband could not be seen leaving the hotel in the video clip.

5. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) because it suggested that she and her husband were swingers, and were promiscuous, and that they were holding a sex party or orgy. She said that, although she and her husband were involved in the swinging scene, neither of them engaged in “full” partner swaps. She also said it was inaccurate for the article to state that she and her husband had a “blazing row”; in fact they had only had a brief altercation. In addition, she said it was inaccurate for the article to report that her husband drove off from the hotel; in fact, this had been a friend; her husband had spent the night at the hotel with her. As the article included an image of her husband drinking, she was concerned that this gave the false impression that he had been drink-driving. She was also concerned that the article stated that guests had to pay to attend the party, when this was not the case, although non-invited guests could pay to attend, provided they were members of the club, and the online forum.

6. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 2 (Privacy) because it included un-pixelated images and video of her and her husband which had been taken without consent at a private event, in an article which included their names and ages, as well as her husband’s occupation. She said that the photographs had included images taken within the boundaries of the hotel, and as she and her husband entered a private members’ club. Although she acknowledged that these were public places, she considered that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in these circumstances. In addition, while details of the event had been publicised on websites viewable to anyone, some of the information included in the article, such as her and her husband’s ages, had been taken from their profiles on an 18+ website, and would not have been accessible without having a profile on the site. She said she and her husband were not public figures, and there was no public interest in publishing the images and information about them. In particular, the article had revealed to the public that she and her husband were involved in the swinging community; this was private information about them.

7. The complainant said that the publication had breached Clause 3 (Harassment). She and her husband had been approached outside the hotel by a female journalist, had declined to comment, and had asked her to leave; nevertheless, photos of her husband had been taken at this time. Later, a vehicle had been parked outside the club where the party took place; the occupants had denied being journalists but had been asked to desist from taking photos and to leave by the club security. The female reporter had later questioned guests outside the hotel, and called the complainant the following day to ask for comment again; again, they declined.       

8. The complainant also said that the publication had breached Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge): although she was aware that her husband had been photographed entering the club, she had not been aware of photographs or videos being taken of her and her husband at the hotel. The vehicle from which the photos were taken had blacked-out windows, indicating that the photographer was concealing himself from view. She said that the reporter and photographer had tried to get membership of the club, as well as the website on which the event was advertised, but had desisted when they were required to sign a disclaimer indicating that they were not working for the press.

9. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). The event had been advertised on swingers’ websites, including one which claimed to help people “find sex parties…orgies, swinger lifestyle events, swingers clubs…and more”. The venue had also tweeted about the event with the hashtags “#singles #couples #milfs #wedding #fun”. The article had made clear, in a guest’s comment, that the complainant and her husband were “acting like a traditional couple mingling at their reception”. The article did not therefore give the impression that they were swingers who engaged in partner swapping. The publication said that the advertisement for the event had listed prices for guests; it denied that its report of this was inaccurate. The publication said that its reporter had believed that the complainant’s husband had driven off from the hotel, but acknowledged that the video footage did not conclusively show that he was in the vehicle. It did not consider that this represented a significant inaccuracy, but did offer to remove the relevant paragraph as a gesture of goodwill, and to issue the following clarification:

A previous version of this article suggested that the groom drove off after an argument during the wedding reception. The bride has since confirmed that this is incorrect, therefore we are happy to clarify this. Furthermore, the bride has asked us to clarify that herself and the groom did not engage in any sexual activity during the wedding reception. We would like to apologise for any upset caused.

10. The newspaper denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy). It said that the video and photos in the article were not intrusive: they had been taken from a public street and what they showed could have been seen by any member of the public. The event, including its time and location, had been publicised on a public website and on Twitter, and any member of the public – including those not known to the complainant – had been free to register to attend. It provided a copy of the advertisement and the couple’s profile on the site, which included a posting noting that “over 200 guests [were] confirmed” to attend. The complainant and her husband had used their real first names and ages on this website. The complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the fact of the party or the nature of the activities surrounding it. In these circumstances, no public interest justification was required for publication; however, the publication considered that it was a matter of public interest to highlight the fact that a couple would allow anyone to come to their wedding celebration. Nonetheless, as a gesture of goodwill, it offered to remove the online article, and write a letter of apology to the complainant, if this would resolve the complaint.

11. The publication denied any breach of Clause 3 (Harassment). It said that one male reporter had been present at the club; he had not been approached at any time. A female reporter had been based at the hotel all evening, and had spoken to guests and hotel staff. She had approached the complainant and her husband outside the hotel prior to the party, and they had declined to comment; she had then spoken to them again via telephone the following day, when they again declined to comment. No request to leave had been made to the female journalist.

12. The publication denied any breach of Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge): the complainant had been aware of the presence of a photographer, so it could not be claimed that any clandestine activity had taken place. The photographer, who had not used a long lens, had been positioned in a public parking space for the evening. While the reporter and photographer had registered on the club’s website – as any member of the public could do – in order to obtain certain information about the event and the complainant and her husband, neither of them had attempted to gain entry to the club.

Relevant Code provisions

13. 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. 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 3 (Harassment)

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii)  Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

Findings of the Committee

14. The complainant and her husband’s first names, ages and photographs were included in the article, and her husband’s job was included. They were clearly identified. The question for the Committee was whether identifying them in the context of the material in the article was a breach of their privacy.

15. The complainant and her husband had advertised the party on a publicly available website; the advert included their first names, and their profiles showed their photographs. The event had also been publicised by the venue on Twitter, apparently with the complainant’s agreement. The event was attended by a large number of people, including some known personally by the complainant and her husband, and others who had seen the advertisement. It was not held in a private room or area of the club; it was in an area that was open to the public. In these circumstances, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the fact that she had hosted the event. Identifying her as a host, and reporting that the event had taken place, was not an intrusion into her privacy.

16. The Committee noted that the article had also reported that the night had “ended in tears” after the complainant and her husband had argued; said that the complainant had been left in a state of distress; and included photographs and video footage of the complainant and her husband apparently having an argument and her reaction. The Committee noted that these events had taken place in close proximity to the wedding venue, which was open to the public, and in full view of the public – on the street and just inside the main entrance to the hotel. The Committee did not consider that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to a noisy argument in a public place, and the ensuing events, particularly given its proximity to this large-scale public event. There was no breach of Clause 2 on these points.

17. The article reported that the complainant’s husband had “mounted the kerb as he drove off” after the argument. The journalist, who had been present at the hotel, had believed that the complainant’s husband had been driving a car that left the hotel shortly after the altercation. The publication had conceded that this was not visible from the video. The fact that the newspaper had reported that he was driving the car despite this being unclear from the footage represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i). The publication had accepted the complainant’s position that the car had not been driven by her husband, and that in fact he had remained at the hotel. The Committee considered that this inaccuracy was significant as it was presented in the context of photographs of the complainant’s husband consuming alcohol, which suggested that he had been driving while under the influence of alcohol, particularly where the article noted that the vehicle had “mounted the kerb”. A correction was required to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). The publication had offered to publish a correction, which addressed this inaccuracy, and was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii).

18. The complainant and her husband had advertised their event on a swingers’ website, and said that they were active in the swinging community, regardless of the precise nature of their involvement. The complainant had not disputed the article’s description of the venue, which included reference to a dungeon and “dogging zone”, and guests at the event had reported that sex acts had occurred at the party. Because the complainant had advertised the event on a swingers’ website, and because the complainant did not dispute that sex acts had occurred, there was no failure to take care over the accuracy article’s description of the event. The article had included a comment from a guest that the complainant and her husband were “acting normally” and had not suggested that they had engaged in sexual activity with third parties at the event. Describing the complainant and her husband, who identified as members of the swinging community, as “swingers”, and the event as a “sex party” or “swingers’ wedding” was not misleading such as to require correction under Clause 1(ii).

19. The video included in the article appeared to show the complainant and her husband engaged in a heated argument, after which the complainant could be seen looking visibly upset. The publication was entitled to characterise this as a “blazing row”, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The publication had provided evidence to show that the event had been advertised as a paid event, and the complainant had accepted that members of the public had been able to pay to attend. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of this claim, nor was this a significant inaccuracy such as to engage the terms of Clause 1(ii).

21. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that club security had told journalists outside the venue to stop taking photos and had asked them to leave, while the publication denied that the male journalist had received a request to desist. The Committee was unable to reconcile these differing positions, but it noted that there was a distinction to be drawn between a request to desist made by an individual, with one made by club security seeking to clear the press from outside a venue. The complainant and her husband had not had any interaction with the photographer, and the Committee concluded that he had not engaged in harassment in breach of Clause 3 (Harassment).

22. The female journalist had approached the couple prior to the party. There was a dispute as to whether any request to desist had been made, but, in any event, no further approaches were made to the couple until the following day, when the journalist contacted them by phone to request a comment. This second contact, which was not face-to-face, did not represent harassment: it was legitimate for the journalist to contact the couple over the phone to check whether they wished to comment. There was no breach of Clause 3.

23. The journalists had not engaged in subterfuge, in breach of Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) in order to access the website. The information was available to any member of the public. The complainant was aware of a press presence at the hotel and club prior to the party, and was aware during the afternoon that photographs had been taken. She was also aware of the vehicle from which photographs were being taken. This vehicle, from which the later images outside the hotel were also taken, had not been hidden from view, and long lens cameras had not been required. The fact that the vehicle had tinted windows did not mean that the publication had engaged in clandestine methods to obtain the images. There was no breach of Clause 10 on these points.

Conclusion

24. The complaint was upheld in part under Clause 1 (Accuracy).

Remedial action required

25. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered the remedial action that should be required.

26. The newspaper had offered to publish a correction in print and online, which made clear the complainant’s position that her husband had not driven away following an argument. The Committee had found that this offer was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). However, the Committee was concerned by the failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in this case. To ensure an adequate remedy to the breach of Clause 1 (i), the Committee required that the correction state that it was being published following an upheld accuracy complaint to IPSO.  This should now be published.

Date complaint received: 29/03/2018

Date decision issued: 03/07/2018