Ruling

05737-18 A woman v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      13th December 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      2 Privacy, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05737-18 A woman v Mail Online 

Summary of Complaint 

1.    A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Brother-in-law of midwife’s ex-fiancé appears in court charged with her murder- as its claimed she told colleagues she had been threatened before she vanished”, published on 5 August 2018. 

2.    The article reported that the complainant’s husband had been charged with the murder of Samantha Eastwood, whose was reported missing on 27 July 2018. The article named the complainant and explained that she was the wife of the accused; the articles also explained the complainant’s connection to Ms Eastwood, who was the complainant’s brother’s ex-fiancé. 

3.    The article contained a un-pixelated photograph of the complainant sitting next to her husband, her brother and Ms Eastwood. The photograph was captioned with an explanation of who each person was, and how they were connected to each other. The article also contained a second photograph of the complainant at her wedding, standing next to her husband. A third photograph of the exterior of the complainant’s home also appeared in the article, with the door number visible; it showed police officers searching the home the previous week, and the caption which accompanied it explained that the house was now being treated as a crime scene. 

4.    The complainant said the publication of this un-pixelated photograph, in which she was clearly identifiable, was a breach of Clause 9 as she was not relevant to the story, and was an innocent party. The complainant sought the removal of her name and relationship with the accused from the article, as she said that the reporting exposed her to a risk of retaliation, a risk which she believed was heightened by the publication of a photograph of the exterior of her home, with the door number visible. The complainant said that the exterior of her home was very distinctive and anyone following the story would have knowledge of the street name and the area in which it was located from other reports; in those circumstances, she said that the publication of a photograph of her home with the front door number visible represented a risk to her safety and an intrusion into her privacy. The complainant also said that the photograph of her, her husband, her brother and Ms Eastwood had been obtained from a private photo album on Facebook visible only to friends. 

5.    The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said it was not in dispute that the complainant was an entirely innocent party, but it was the case that she was relevant to the story for two reasons. First, she represented a familial link between the victim and the man charged with her murder, and the first photograph was a useful aid for readers to understand the connection. Second, after a search by the police, the complainant’s home had been declared a crime scene. 

6.    The publication noted that the complainant was first identified by name and by photograph in a number of publications, without complaint, before it was reported that the man had been arrested and charged with murder. It said that reference to the complainant was made in reports of the search at her home. It said that without prejudice to its position that the complainant was relevant to the story, it was not possible for Clause 9 to be breached by the re-publication of the complainant’s identity and relationship with the man, which was a matter of public record, following his arrest. 

7.    The publication denied that the publication of the photographs under complaint represented an intrusion into the complainant’s private life. It said that the first photograph had been obtained from a publicly available Facebook account and did not reveal any intrinsically private information about the complainant. It said that the photograph of the complainant’s home had been tightly cropped and the article did not contain any information which would allow the location of the house to be identified. While the publication did not accept that the publication of this image was intrusive, it pixelated the complainant’s door number, as a gesture of goodwill. 

8.    During the course of IPSO’s investigation, the complainant’s husband pleaded guilty to the murder of Ms Eastwood. It was widely reported that it was believed that Ms Eastwood had been planning to reveal the fact of an affair between her and the complainant’s husband, before she was murdered. 

Relevant Code Provisions 

9. 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. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so. 

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime 

i) Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee 

10.    Clause 9 offers protection to family and friends from being caught unnecessarily in the publicity spotlight focused on those accused, and aims to ensure that these individuals are not unjustifiably tainted by their association to alleged criminals. Prior to her husband’s arrest, the complainant had been identified as part the reporting into Ms Eastwood’s background and circumstances, which focused, in part, on Ms Eastwood’s previous relationship with the complainant’s brother. Following her husband’s arrest, the complainant continued to be identified by name and by photograph: at this point, the terms of Clause 9 were engaged. 

11. As the sister of Ms Eastwood’s ex-fiancé, and the wife of the accused, the complainant represented a familial connection between Ms Eastwood and the man accused of her murder. The first and second photograph, and the information which accompanied it, provided an explanation to readers of how these two individuals would have known each other. Further, prior to his arrest, as reported in the article, the home which the complainant had shared with her husband was searched by police as part of its inquiries into Ms Eastwood’s disappearance. This familial connection, and the search of her home, was relevant information relating to the circumstances surrounding the alleged crime and the investigation into it. Identifying the complainant as the accused’s wife by name and by photograph was not a breach of Clause 9; she was genuinely relevant to the story. 

12. In coming to its decision, the Committee also had regard to the fact that the complainant’s identity and relationship with the accused was a matter of public knowledge, prior to the terms of Clause 9 being engaged, as a consequence of the widespread reporting of the case, which included the first photograph subject to complaint. The complainant had been identified as the sister of Ms Eastwood’s ex-fiancé; this was relevant background information on Ms Eastwood’s life, and was a connection which had been made and widely reported, prior to the complainant’s husband’s arrest. In the Committee’s view, in those particular circumstances, it would be an unjustified restriction on the publication’s right to report on the developments in the case, to find a breach of Clause 9 in the publication’s decision to continue to identify the complainant by name and by photograph, following her husband’s arrest. 

13. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s safety concerns; it wished to take this opportunity to make clear that the most appropriate authority in which to address concerns about safety, is the police. The Committee also recognised that certain individuals, including those who become the subject of media attention, may be exposed to security problems if details which allow their address to be identified, are published. As such, this may be information in relation to which they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. 

14. The second photograph had shown the front wall, door, and side alley of the complainant’s home; it depicted the exterior of the property as it would ordinarily be seen by members of the public. The complainant had said that when combined with information reported elsewhere, the details contained in the article, particularly the disclosure of her house number, would have enabled her home to be located. However, the question for the Committee was whether the article under complaint contained information about which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. In this instance, the article had reported details of the wider geographical region where the property was located, but did not specify the street name or contain any other reference points.  The Committee considered that in the absence of this information, the publication of the complainant’s front door number would not have enabled the location of the property to be identified; in such circumstances, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the information contained in the article. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point. 

15. The wedding photograph had been published on the Facebook account of another individual; the publication said that this account was not protected by privacy settings.  The photograph had revealed the complainant’s likeness, which was not information about which she had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Further, the disclosure of her relationship with the accused was not intrusive, for the reasons set out above. There was no breach of the Code. 

Conclusion

16. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial Action Required 

17. N/A

Date complaint received: 09/08/2018

Date decision issued: 23/11/2018