Ruling

03351-16 – A Man v The Argus (Brighton)

    • Date complaint received

      10th May 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03351-16 - A Man v The Argus (Brighton)

Summary of complaint 

1.    A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Argus (Brighton) breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Why won’t police say anything about man suspected of causing HIV risks?”, published on 25 February 2016.

2.    The article reported that the complainant had been arrested “on suspicion of putting sexual partners at risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases by deliberately tampering with condoms”. It said that, 18 days after his arrest, Sussex Police and the local council had issued a public health warning asking concerned members of the public to contact local sexual health clinics, but only identifying the suspect by reference to his accent and approximate age. The article said that the police had failed to adequately explain why there had been an 18-day delay between the man’s arrest and the announcement, and why it was withholding his name and photograph. The article said that the newspaper “questioned the wisdom” of releasing an HIV-related public health statement, which ran the risk of generating public distress as well as implicating every man in the local area who shared the suspect’s accent; as such it had decided to release his name. 

3.    The article was also published online. 

4.    The complainant said that the publication of his name in relation to this allegation represented an intrusion into his private life in breach of Clause 2. He said that it was for the police to decide whether the identity of a suspect in a sexual case should be released; in this instance, the police had refused to do so on the basis that naming him would potentially prejudice their investigation as identification would be an issue in any criminal proceedings. 

5.    The complainant said that the police only suspected that he was guilty of the offence; he had denied this in interview. He said the police had taken a balanced approach by releasing a description of their suspect to ensure that other potential witnesses came forward, but without releasing the name and HIV status of a person who may be innocent. He noted that the newspaper had not published his photograph, but it had reported his full name, age and place of birth. He considered that this “irresponsible and sensationalist journalism” was likely to impact the police investigation. He said that in the event that he was not later charged, he would have been vilified for no reason. 

6.    The complainant accepted that he had faced similar charges in Scotland: he had been charged with consensual sex by deception. However, he considered that his identity and HIV status were not in the public domain as result of those charges because, in accordance with Scottish law, his first appearance at court in Scotland had taken place in private.

7.    In addition, the complainant said that the newspaper had no “evidential basis” for asserting that he had “deliberately tampered with condoms”, which he considered represented a breach of Clause 1. 

8.    The newspaper said that it was “entirely routine” to identify people who had been arrested or charged in connection to criminal offences, especially when doing so might attract witnesses. It accepted that the complainant’s right to privacy was “potentially engaged” by disclosing his identity as the person arrested, insofar as it made claims  about his medical condition; however, it considered that in the full circumstances, disclosure had been justified. 

9.    The newspaper said that the complainant’s name had been supplied by the police in Scotland, where he had already appeared in court on similar charges. He had been charged with four counts of rape and six of sexual assault, on the basis that it was alleged that he was HIV positive and had deliberately endangered his alleged victims. While the newspaper accepted that technically this hearing had been held in private, it did not consider that the information was confidential: there was no “secret justice” in Scotland and, unless specific restrictions were in place, there was no prohibition on reporting names and charges in relation to these initial hearings. In the absence of reporting restrictions, and where Police Scotland had taken the decision to identify him, the newspaper considered that the allegation about the complainant’s medical condition was always likely to come into the public domain. It noted that an international online news service had reported on the case in Scotland, naming the complainant, before it had separately obtained the information. 

10. In addition to the fact that the information was already in the public domain, the newspaper considered that there was a “powerful public interest” in the public being made aware of the identity of the suspect, which “very significantly” outweighed any personal claim to privacy that he might have. 

11. The newspaper said that the public health alert, which had been issued locally, had been issued in a manner that would cause general panic: it had identified a serious danger, but it had failed to give crucial information about the suspect’s identity leaving a large number of people unnecessarily concerned that they had been put at risk. The editor had considered that it was “vitally important” that people who might have had intimate contact with the complainant should be made aware of the allegations that had been made against him so that they could seek testing and medical treatment, if required. 

12. The newspaper said that this public interest was evidenced by concerns of the Brighton LGBT Community Safety Forum, whose spokesperson had said that the information from the police was “far too vague and therefore more confusing than helpful”. It said that the LGBT community had called on the police to allay growing anxieties by releasing more information about the identity of the suspect. The newspaper considered that it went to the “very heart” of an independent local newspaper’s purpose that it should be questioning and challenging those in authority on behalf of its readership. 

13. The newspaper noted that the complainant’s claim to privacy was not a reason given by the police to explain their decision for not releasing his name. Their reasons had been based on the concern that the investigation might be hindered or that a warning giving the accused man’s name might not be effective. The newspaper considered that its coverage with regard to particular details of identification had been moderate and proportionate: the complainant’s address and photograph were not published. It had also excluded reference to the charges against him in Scotland so as to avoid prejudicing the local police investigation. 

14. With regards to the complaint under Clause 1, the newspaper said that the article had reported on the nature of the suspicions facing the complainant based on information supplied by the police; it had not asserted whether or not those suspicions were true. It said that if the complainant was acquitted in Scotland or the investigation in Brighton was closed without charges, it would be happy to report it. 

Relevant Code provisions 

15. 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. 

The public interest

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. 

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

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

-      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. 

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

Findings of the Committee 

16. Whether an individual can claim a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding details of an arrest will depend on the particular circumstances of the case. In this instance, the complainant had not been charged, and identifying him as the man arrested involved making claims about his HIV status. In such circumstances, as the newspaper rightly accepted, naming him did require justification, to avoid a breach of Clause 2. 

17. The justification advanced by the newspaper relied on two points: the fact that information about the complainant’s medical condition had, or was likely to, come into the public domain as a consequence of criminal proceedings in Scotland, and a separate public interest in identifying him as the man arrested in Brighton. 

18. The Committee was satisfied that the newspaper had been correct to conclude that information about the complainant’s medical condition had been placed in the public domain. The complainant had already appeared in court in Scotland, charged with offences which also related to his alleged HIV status. There was no suggestion that reporting restrictions had been in place at that hearing, and Police Scotland were confirming his name in relation to those charges. Indeed, an online news service had named the complainant in relation to the Scottish proceedings, disclosing the claims about his HIV status, the same day that the article under complaint was published. 

19. Furthermore, the newspaper was able to separately demonstrate a convincing public interest in naming the complainant as the man arrested in Brighton. The Committee emphasised the important role local newspapers play in serving the interests of their communities. In this instance, the newspaper could point to the local LGBT community, which had expressed concern that the public health alert had caused unnecessary alarm because it had revealed too little detail about the alleged perpetrator. There was therefore a public interest in the newspaper’s identifying the complainant, in response to those concerns and so that those in the local community, who might have been put at risk, could seek testing and medical treatment if necessary. In reaching this view, the Committee acknowledged the fact that the complainant had denied the offences and had not been charged. However, where this was apparent from the article itself, these facts did not undermine the public interest argument which the newspaper had advanced. 

20. For these reasons, the newspaper had demonstrated that the disclosure of the complainant’s name and HIV status in relation to the allegations against him in Brighton was justified. The complaint under Clause 2 was not upheld. 

21. The newspaper had reported that the complainant had been arrested “on suspicion” of deliberately putting sexual partners at risk of HIV. The article had not given the significantly misleading impression that the complainant had been charged or found guilty of “deliberately tampering with condoms”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. The complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld. 

Conclusion 

22. The complaint was not upheld. 

Date complaint received: 06/06/2016

Date decision issued: 28/06/2016

Note: Publication of this decision was delayed for legal reasons