Ruling

06015-18 Dickinson v The Northern Echo

    • Date complaint received

      17th January 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee– 06015-18 Dickinson v The Northern Echo 

Summary of complaint 

1.    Sharon Dickinson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Northern Echo breached Clauses 2 (Privacy) and 3 (Harassment) of the Editors' Code of Practice in two articles headlined "School theft accused in court" published on 8 August 2018 and "Charge denied" published on 08 September 2018. 

2.    The first article reported that the complainant had appeared in court accused of stealing around £39,000 from her workplace, a primary school, over a duration of seven years. It reported that the complainant faced two charges of fraud by abuse of position and theft by employee, that she had entered no plea and that she had been granted unconditional bail. The article featured a photo of the complainant arriving at court holding up a coat to obscure her face. 

3.    The second article featured the same photograph of the complainant and reported that she had pleaded not guilty to both charges. 

4.    The first article appeared online under the headline "Secretary appears in court accused of stealing almost £39,000 from primary school" published 8 August 2018. The second article appeared under the headline "Secretary denies stealing almost £39,000 from school" published on 8 September. Both articles appeared in much the same format as their print versions. 

5.    The complainant said the articles intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) as they featured a photograph of her taken without her permission. She was also concerned that the articles included her name and address. 

6.    The complainant said the photograph had been taken in circumstances of harassment in breach of Clause 3 (Harassment). She said that the photographer had run towards her on the path outside and continually tried to take photographs of her, despite her having a coat covering her face and telling them several times that she did not want her photograph taken. 

7.    The publication denied any breach of Clause 2. It cited the importance of open justice and the role of the press in ensuring that those who cannot attend court are updated; identifying defendants is central to this role. Due to the public nature of court proceedings, the complainant could have had no reasonable expectation of privacy. It said that the photographer did not report on the events in court as he had left for another job; court proceedings were covered by a different reporter and it was a different reporter at both hearings. 

8.    The publication denied any breach of Clause 3. It said the photographer asserted that he was waiting outside the court next to a bin on a public footpath, the complainant came around the corner and covered her face straight away and he took her photograph as she came towards him. The photographer said that it would not be possible to chase or follow her due to where they were stood in relation to the court entrance; he had not moved from the bin regardless. The publication said the photographer did not hear the complainant speak to them, let alone ask for her photo not to be taken. The publication said that the photographer was at the court to cover a different case; he did not know who the complainant was; he had no reason to follow her. 

9.    Notwithstanding its position that there was no breach of the Code. The publication said that the inclusion of the photograph and the means to achieve it were in the public interest. It said this was considered prior to publication; the complainant attempting to conceal their identity did not mean they had an expectation of privacy in this context.  

Relevant Code provisions 

10. 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 intrusion 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 3 (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 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.  

The Public Interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to: 

§  Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety. 

§  Protecting public health or safety. 

§  Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation. 

§  Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject. 

§  Disclosing a miscarriage of justice. 

§  Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public. 

§  Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16. 

Findings of the Committee 

11. The photograph was taken in a public place outside a court building and it only showed the complainant's partially obscured likeness, which is not private information; there was no breach of Clause 2 on this point. The complainant's name and address were heard in open court and the publication was entitled to report on the court proceedings. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point. 

12. There is a public interest in identifying defendants at court; simply asking for a photograph not to be taken, or communicating this by attempting to conceal identity is not a sufficient basis to deny publications the right to photograph people outside of court cases. The purpose of Clause 3 is to prevent intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit by the press, subject to public interest exemptions. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant's account of her encounter differed to that offered by the publication and it could not be established whether there was a request to desist, or whether this request was heard. However, the complainant did not claim that the photographer had said anything to her, or engaged in any physical contact; the complainant accepted that the photographer was several feet away. Under these circumstances, photographing an individual in a public place, in a short passage of time alone does not amount to harassment. The Committee was satisfied that the photographer had not engaged in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit under the terms of the Code. The Committee did not establish a breach of Clause 3. 

Conclusions 

13.  The complaint was not upheld.  

Remedial action required 

14. N/A

Date complaint received: 10/09/2018
Date decision issued: 29/11/2018