Ruling

05599-15 Watson v Sunday Mirror

    • Date complaint received

      24th November 2015

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      4 Intrusion into grief or shock

·  Decision of the Complaints Committee 05599-15 Watson v Sunday Mirror

Summary of complaint 

1. Colin Watson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Mirror breached Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice on 8 September 2015. 

2. The complainant said that a journalist working for the newspaper had persisted in telephoning his home after being asked to desist. 

3. The complainant said that the journalist had called his home telephone on three occasions. On the first occasion, the complainant had answered the call and, believing it to be a sales call, had hung up. On the second occasion, the journalist had asked whether someone with what the complainant described as a “protracted hard-to-remember moslem name” lived at the complainant’s address. The complainant told him that no one of that name had ever been resident at his address, that it was none of his business who lived in his house, and that he suspected the journalist was researching a story with a racist agenda. He told the journalist to “fuck off” and then hung up the telephone. The journalist then immediately called back; after the telephone was answered by the complainant’s wife, the journalist claimed that he wanted to explain the reason why he was calling. The complainant’s wife asked him his name and repeated their request not to be contacted; she then ended the call. 

4. The newspaper did not believe that the journalist’s actions amounted to harassment. The journalist had been researching Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s links to Britain, and had been told that the name Bashar al-Assad had been registered at the home owned by the complainant; this was worthy of further investigation. When the first call had ended abruptly, the journalist had assumed that there had been a problem with the line, and called back. The complainant then implied that the journalist had not reached the person for whom he was looking and accused the journalist of having a “racist agenda”, ending the call by telling the journalist that he should “now fuck off”. The journalist was concerned that his intentions had been misunderstood; he therefore called again to explain the reasons for his enquiries and to apologise for any offence that may have been caused. The complainant’s wife answered the call, and the journalist identified himself when requested and tried to explain why he had been calling. He did not persist in asking questions regarding the story. The complainant’s wife told him that neither she nor her husband wished to speak with him; the journalist assured the complainant’s wife that he would not call again. No further calls had been made. 

Relevant Code Provisions

5. Clause 4 (Harassment) 

i) Journalist 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. 

Findings of the Committee

6. It was apparent that there had been some misunderstanding during the second telephone call. On the complainant’s own account, he had not recognised the name of the individual about whom the journalist was seeking information. He had assumed that the journalist was pursuing a racist line of enquiry, accused him of doing so, and had told him to “fuck off”. 

7. Clause 4 (ii) prohibits journalists from persistent attempts to contact an individual once they have been asked to desist. That request need not be framed in precise language; in this instance, the words “fuck off” were clearly sufficient to communicate to the journalist the complainant’s desire to be left alone. In ruling whether the Code was breached by any subsequent contact, the Committee considered the specific circumstances of the case, as well as the purpose of Clause 4, which is to prevent harassment. 

8. In light of the evident misunderstanding, the Committee accepted that the journalist wanted to clarify why he was calling. It was possible that the complainant might have been willing to assist the journalist once the purpose of the call had been explained. The Committee also accepted that the journalist would want to clarify his position in response to the allegation of racism. 

9. There was no suggestion that the journalist had acted in a way that was aggressive or intimidatory, on the single occasion where he had conversed with the complainant. The alleged harassment comprised two calls in quick succession, and did not constitute persistent pursuit: the complainant accepted that the journalist did not repeat his earlier questions in the final call. Neither had the journalist been calling to put to the complainant an allegation which might foreseeably cause the complainant distress or anxiety; the journalist’s query did not concern the complainant directly. 

10. In the full circumstances, the journalist’s attempt to clarify the reasons for his call did not amount to the type of conduct which Clause 4 seeks to prevent. There was no breach of the Code. 

Conclusions

11. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial Action Required

N/A 

Date complaint received: 11/09/2015

Date decision issued: 24/11/2015