Ruling

04426-15 Johnson v Dartmouth Chronicle

    • Date complaint received

      5th October 2015

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 3 Harassment, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock, 5 Reporting suicide

·        Decision of the Complaints Committee 04426-15 Johnson v Dartmouth Chronicle

Summary of complaint 

1. Francesca Johnson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Dartmouth Chronicle had breached Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) on account of the behaviour of a journalist from the newspaper. The complainant also complained that the newspaper had breached Clause 3 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Harassment), Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) in an article headlined “Tourist information centre director admits poster prank”, published on 10 July 2015. 

2. The complainant said that in March 2015, a journalist from the newspaper had accessed her Facebook page and posted comments using the false name “Stuart Harvey”, without making clear that he was a journalist. In response to her post that she was “done” and “drained” following her resignation from her positon at the Dartmouth Business Improvement District, he had posted the comment: “Time to consider where things went wrong”, which the complainant responded to. He then posted the comment: “Wrong leader? Nigel? Methinks focus was/is out of focus”. The complainant also responded to this comment the following morning. 

3. After responding to the second comment, the complainant said she became curious as to who was making these comments as they did not match the tone of comments from her friends, and the account did not have a profile picture. She said that she accessed the “Stuart Harvey” account’s profile, which she said did not contain a reference to South Hams newspapers, but did show that it was based in Kingsbridge. The complainant then posted the comment “Friends – this Stuart Harvey– me thinks is really [an identified journalist] from the Chronicle using a fake surname…” An hour later she received an email from the journalist in question admitting that he had used the Facebook account with a false name for several years. The complainant then blocked this account and the South Hams Newspaper’s account from her Facebook account. In June, she changed her security settings so that only her “friends” could access her page. She noted that it was not necessary for the newspaper to have a Facebook account in order for it to search Facebook. 

4. The 10 July article contained comments the complainant had made on her Facebook page in relation to the police interviewing her about an incident in Dartmouth. These Facebook comments were not connected with her complaint about the newspaper’s use of a Facebook account with a false name. She had described the experience as “very surreal yet amusing”, and said “I think both parties felt ‘what a waste of police time’…I don’t think I need to start baking cakes with files hidden in them just yet…”. The complainant said she had resigned as manager of the BID because of the newspaper’s continual negative coverage of the organisation. Despite her resignation, a journalist from the newspaper had continued to “track” her personal Facebook account, had posted comments, and had reported her personal posts in the newspaper. She considered that the conduct was intrusive, constituted harassment, and had left her shocked and upset. 

5. The newspaper said that the “Stuart Harvey” Facebook account had been set up several years ago to allow editorial staff to access Facebook; it was not used to post comments or stories. Last year, it created the South Hams Newspapers Facebook page, and attached the “Stuart Harvey” account to it. One journalist would use the Stuart Harvey account to post on the page, which would appear as “posted by Stuart Harvey”, accompanied by “South Hams Newspapers” in bold. 

6. In March 2015, the journalist left a comment on the complainant’s Facebook page using the Stuart Harvey account. He was surprised that his post was listed only as “Stuart Harvey, and not as “South Hams Newspapers”. The newspaper said, however, that the comment was merely an observation; the journalist had not intended to elicit information for publication, and the exchange was not reported in the newspaper. When the complainant raised her concern regarding the identity of the account holder, the journalist immediately changed the name on the account and emailed the complainant to explain his position. There was no clandestine activity or subterfuge, or attempt to mislead. 

7. The newspaper said the comments the complainant had made on Facebook on 20 June 2015 regarding her police interview, which it had reported, had been previously reported in an article of 26 June 2015, under the headline “Posters probe terminated”. In this instance, the complainant’s Facebook page had not been accessed by a member of the newspaper’s staff; rather, a local resident had emailed a screen shot of the page to the newspaper. It considered that the complainant’s Facebook page was still publically accessible. 

8. The newspaper said it had always sought to report the BID’s message accurately, but it could not ignore the sections of the community that were critical of the organisation. 

Relevant Code Provisions

9. Clause 3 (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 in private places without their consent. Note - Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. 

Clause 4 (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 their 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 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) 

i) In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests. 

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 private 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

10. The use of a pseudonym on Facebook by a member of the press had the potential to engage Clause 10. The Committee noted with some concern that the newspaper had not considered this when it created the Stuart Harvey account, and proceeded to use it to access Facebook over a number of years. It noted the importance of publications keeping their social media activity under review. In this particular instance, however, a journalist from the newspaper had left two comments on the complainant’s Facebook page using a pseudonym, in the mistaken belief that these posts would be clearly labelled as “South Hams Newspapers”. The posts were innocuous comments in response to the complainant’s public reflection on her feelings on leaving the BID. The complainant responded to these posts without accessing the Stuart Harvey Facebook profile. However, when she did access the profile, she quickly realised the identity of the individual, and the newspaper immediately accepted that it had been responsible for the comment and amended the name on the account. While the journalist had misrepresented his identity, the Committee was satisfied that the conduct in this particular instance was not undertaken as part of an attempt by the newspaper to obtain or publish comments, and was not of a nature to engage the terms of Clause 10. The Committee welcomed the newspaper’s confirmation that the name on the account had now been changed. 

11. The newspaper had reported separate comments the complainant had posted on her Facebook page, which, at the time, was open to the public. The comments were already in the public domain; the newspaper had not disclosed private information about the complainant in breach of Clause 3. While the Committee understood the complainant’s concern that the posts left by the newspaper on her personal Facebook page had been intrusive, the page was, at that time, open to the public. The complaint under Clause 3 was not upheld. 

12. Clause 4 generally relates to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. There was no suggestion that the newspaper had persisted to question the complainant once asked to desist. The publication of a number of articles on this issue did not constitute harassment. The complaint under Clause 4 was not upheld. 

13. The terms of Clause 5 relate to the conduct of journalists, and the sensitivity of articles, in cases involving grief or shock. The journalist’s post on the complainant’s Facebook page and the newspaper’s coverage of Dartmouth’s Business Improvement District in general did not engage the terms of Clause 5. 

Conclusions

The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial Action Required

N/A 

Date complaint received: 13/07/2015

Date decision issued: 05/10/2015