Ruling

04770-16 Harris v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      24th November 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 6 Children

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04770-16 Harris v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Lian Harris complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Surrogate mother stalked judge who took child away”, published on 23 June 2016.

2. The article reported on the complainant’s Magistrates’ Court sentencing hearing, where it said a 16-month suspended prison sentence was imposed for harassing a family court judge. It said that the complainant had agreed to be surrogate mother for a couple, but later changed her mind to keep the baby; it said that the judge had ruled that the child should stay with the couple, and had “feared for her life” when the complainant had called to her door.

3. The complainant said that her child was the subject of ongoing proceedings in the family court, and entitled by law to anonymity. She said that by publishing her name in the court report, the newspaper had identified her child, and breached her child’s right to privacy under Clause 2, as well as the terms of Clause 6.

4. The complainant said that she had been sentenced to a 16-week suspended sentence, not a 16-month suspended sentence. She said that it was inaccurate to report that she was a surrogate mother, as the child was biologically hers. She also said that it was inaccurate to report that the judge had “feared for her life”, as this was not mentioned in her witness statement.

5. The newspaper said that it did not identify the child in the article. It said that if there was any way that her child could be identified, it was because of the numerous demonstrations and publicity activities the complainant had taken part in. It provided photographs of these “stunts”, and highlighted the Facebook page the complainant had set up to support her fight to gain custody of her child, which included her child’s name.

6. The newspaper said that it had been heard in court that the complainant was a surrogate mother. It accepted that it was inaccurate to report that she was given a 16-month suspended sentence, but said that the failure to check every fact in a story supplied by a reputable news agency did not represent a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information under Clause 1(i). In any event, it said that as soon as it became aware of the inaccuracy, it amended the story online and published the following correction in the Corrections and Clarifications column of the newspaper:

Lian Harris, who admitted harassing a family court judge, received a 16-week suspended sentence, not 16-months as we reported (News, June 23).

Relevant Code Provisions

7.    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.

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.

Findings of the Committee

8. The Editors’ Code does not deal with the enforcement of reporting restrictions, or the right to anonymity provided for by statute; however, the Code may well be engaged when a reporting restriction, or right to anonymity, is in place. The article contained no other detail which, even on the complainant’s account, might lead to the identification of her child, beyond the complainant’s name. Having regard for the full context of the case, including the effect of the proceedings on the child’s position, the Committee did not consider that publication of the complainant’s name was sufficient to identify the child. There was no breach of Clause 2 or 6. 

9. In circumstances where the complainant’s custodial sentence was suspended, the Committee did not consider that the inaccuracy on the length of the suspended sentence imposed was significant; there was no breach of Clause 1. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the correction published by the newspaper.

10. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that she was her daughter’s biological mother, in circumstances where the complainant did not dispute that she had been described in court as a “surrogate”, it was not misleading for the newspaper to use this term given the nature of proceedings in the family court, and the fact the article made clear this remained the subject of dispute. In addition, where the judge had said in her witness statement that she was “alarmed” and “fearful” when the complainant called at her door, and said that the photograph published on the complainant’s Facebook page revealing her address exposed her to “other people who intend to harass and molest me – or worse”, it was not significantly misleading to characterise this as the judge “fearing for her life”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on either point.

Conclusions

11. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 10/07/2016
Date decision issued: 07/11/2016