Ruling

04091-16 Fletcher v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      17th November 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04091-16 Fletcher v The Sun

Summary of complaint

1. Alan Fletcher complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, both on his own behalf and that of his son Paul, that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “COUNCIL’S HOMOPHOBIC SHAME: Senior council worker suspended for sickening homophobic response to Orlando nightclub massacre”, published online on 21 June 2016.

2. The article reported that Paul Fletcher, a senior council worker, was suspended from his job for sending an email from his work account in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub massacre which contained “sickening homophobic abuse”. It said that the email, which was sent to a “former associate”, had been written three days after the attacks. It said that Mr Fletcher was understood to have secured his job in the council thanks to his father, who was another council employee and “former magistrate”. The article named the town where Mr Fletcher lived, and included his work email address. 

3. The complainant said that the identification of the area where his son lives, and the publication of his email address, had breached his son’s privacy. He also said that the article contained false claims and misinformation, and that his son could not recall including all of the offending material in the article and suspected that it had been embellished. He said that it was inaccurate to report that he worked for Waveney or Suffolk District Councils, although he did work for Suffolk County Council, a separate organisation; he also said that he was a serving magistrate. He said that he played no part in his son’s recruitment to his position, and that while his son was an Environmental Health Officer, his title did not include the word “senior”. 

4. The newspaper denied that article was embellished, and said that the information had come from a confidential source. It said that Mr Fletcher’s son had used his work email address at a public sector organisation to send the homophobic message, and publication of this email address and the name of the area where he lived in such circumstances did not breach his privacy. In any event, it said that publication of these details was justified in the public interest given that remarks were made by a council employee using a council email address. It said that the article did not report that the complainant had worked for Waveney or Suffolk District Council; it also said that the article had reported that Mr Fletcher was a “senior” officer at the council, not that the word “Senior” was part of his title. It said that it was not aware that the complainant was a serving magistrate, and had removed all mention of him from the article as soon as it had been made aware of the inaccuracy. It said that the information that the complainant had helped his son to get his job in the council had been provided by the confidential source, and while the reporter had asked the spokesman for the council about the allegation, he did not comment on the matter, and it had not been verified by another source. It offered to add the following footnote to the online article:

An earlier version of this story stated that Mr Fletcher’s father, a former council employee and magistrate, helped him to get his job with the council. Mr Alan Fletcher denies that this was the case.   

Relevant Code Provisions

5. 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.

Findings of the Committee

6. The newspaper had published an allegation that the complainant had used his position as a council employee to gain employment for his son. While the newspaper had attempted to verify the information it had been provided by its confidential source with a council spokesperson, no comment was provided, and it had not been verified by another source, nor put to the complainant. Given the serious nature of the allegation, this represented a failure by the newspaper to take care not to publish misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i). The publication of the allegation in these circumstances gave the significantly misleading impression that it had been established that the complainant had helped his son to get his job at the council; this required correction under Clause 1(ii). 

7. On receipt of the complaint, the publication had removed all mention of the complainant from the article; during the investigation of the complaint, it had offered to publish a footnote to the article which stated that the complainant denied this claim. In circumstances where the allegation did not feature significantly in the article’s headline or opening paragraphs, the allegation had been removed from the article as soon as the publication had been contacted by the complainant, and the publication had offered to publish a footnote making clear the complainant’s denial, the Committee considered, on balance, that the publication’s actions were sufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii). There was no further breach of the Code on this point.

8. In the context of an article that reported on the comments made in the email, it was not significantly inaccurate to report that the complainant was a former, rather than serving, magistrate, or to say that the complainant’s son was a senior council worker. In addition, there was no evidence to suggest that the comments attributed to the complainant’s son in the article were embellished. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

9. The complainant’s son was a public servant who had sent the email containing homophobic comments from his council email address. This email address did not reveal any private information about the complainant’s son, and its disclosure did not raise a breach of Clause 2. Similarly, while the article did name the general area where the complainant’s son lived, the Committee noted that the article did not reveal his precise address, and in any event, this disclosure did not reveal any private information about him. There was no breach of Clause 2. 

Conclusions

10. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

11. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The publication had promptly removed the allegation from the article that the complainant had helped his son get a job at the council, and had offered to publish a footnote to the article making the complainant’s position clear. However, in all the circumstances, and given the complainant’s position that he did not want the proposed footnote to be published, the newspaper was not required to publish the remedial action it had offered.

Date complaint received: 23/06/2016
Date decision issued: 14/10/2016