Ruling

06701-18 Watson v Daily Mirror

    • Date complaint received

      31st January 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 06701-18 Watson v Daily Mirror

Summary of complaint

1. Jane Watson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the conduct of three journalists acting on behalf of Daily Mirror breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

2. The complainant said that journalists acting on behalf of the newspaper had engaged in a course of conduct which amounted to harassment, and an intrusion into her privacy.

3. The complainant provided an account of the day. She said that when she left her home at 9am she noted a blue car driving slowly within the private estate on which she lived, which she believed to be suspicious. The complainant said that when she had arrived at work, she received a telephone call via the intercom system at the entrance of her home. The caller had introduced themselves as a journalist acting on behalf of the newspaper, and had asked her if she would like to make any comment about an open letter which she had signed supporting fracking, sent to Lancashire County Council by the North West Energy Task Force in January 2015. The complainant said that she had stated clearly that she did not want to provide any comment and hung up the call.

4. The complainant alleged that shortly after this, the same journalist telephoned her work place and requested to speak to her; a receptionist took his number but explained that the complainant was not available. The complainant said that at 10.46am she received an email from the journalist stating that the newspaper intended to publish a story about three men who had been imprisoned as a result of a custodial sentence passed by the complainant’s brother, following their participation in an anti-fracking protest. The email outlined that the complainant’s brother had faced criticism for harshly sentencing the men, and that some believed the convictions to be unsafe due to the family’s connections to the oil and gas industries. In this email, the journalist had requested the complainant’s general comment on the story and also on her family business’ role in supplying the oil and gas industry; its role in the supply chain for Centrica; and further comment regarding her signature on the open letter. The complainant provided a copy of this email and said that she did not respond as she had earlier made clear that she did not wish to make any comment.

5. The complainant said that at 11am, the blue car that she had noted near her home earlier that day arrived at her office address and remained parked outside for around one and a half hours. She said that she was very concerned at this stage and did not leave the building, but received reports from other members of staff that an individual in the car was taking photographs of them. The complainant believed this to be the journalist that she had spoken to earlier that day.

6. The complainant said that at 1pm she sought legal advice and subsequently informed the police of the situation at 1.20pm – she felt frightened and pursued. She said that she had left her workplace at 1.30pm to pick up her parents from the airport and returned to the private estate on which she lived at around 2pm, when she parked her car in order to take a telephone call. The complainant said that she then noticed the same blue car driving around the corner towards her on the private estate, before the car passed her, turned around and parked some 100 metres behind her. The complainant said that the car remained there until she decided to drive off.

7. The newspaper did not accept the complainant’s account, and clarified that two reporters had sought comment from the complainant that day, and one photographer acting on its behalf had attempted to take her photograph. It said that while it regretted that its journalists had inadvertently caused concern to the complainant, they had not harassed or pursued the complainant in a manner that breached the Code.

8. The newspaper said that the blue vehicle which the complainant had seen in the morning had been driven by the photographer. The newspaper said that the photographer did not know it was the complainant in her car, and it was by chance that he had happened to drive past the complainant, as he didn’t know her exact house at this time.

9. The newspaper denied that a request to desist had been made at any stage throughout the day. The newspaper said that the first reporter, a freelancer, had attended the complainant’s home address later in the morning and had spoken to her over the intercom, as she had not been home. The newspaper provided a transcript of this conversation, the accuracy of which was not disputed by the complainant:

Complainant: “Hello.”

Reporter: “Hello, is it possible to speak to Jane Watson, please?”

Complainant: “You are speaking to her.”

Reporter: “Hello, Mrs Watson. My name is [Name], I’m a freelance reporter who has been asked to give you a call on behalf of the Daily Mirror newspaper. “It is in regards to the open letter you signed, which went to some of the newspapers and council about pro-fracking. “Are you able to speak to me on this at all, please?”

Complainant: “No, I’m not able to speak to you.”

Reporter: “Is there any... (pause) would you be able to speak later on or is it ....”

Complainant hangs up intercom.

10. The newspaper said that the freelance reporter then reported back to the newspaper. It said that a second staff journalist believed it to be important to give the complainant an opportunity to respond to the full details of the story. It said that when talking to the complainant over the intercom, the first journalist did not have the chance to clearly state the full allegations being made against the complainant’s brother’s potential conflict of interest, and to check her company’s links to the oil and gas industry and her support for fracking. The newspaper said that although the complainant ended the call over the intercom, this was over the single issue of her support for fracking; a second attempt would have been sufficient and fair to give the complainant the opportunity to comment on the wider issues.

11. The newspaper said that the second journalist then telephoned the complainant’s business address at around 10am requesting to speak to her, but was asked to call back in 10 minutes; he was not told to stop contacting the complainant. It said that the second journalist returned the call as requested, however the complainant was still unavailable; he asked for the complainant’s email address, which was given to him. The newspaper said that, as demonstrated in the email which was then sent to the complainant, it had intended to publish a story about three men who had been handed a custodial sentence by the complainant’s brother following their participation in an anti-fracking protest, and the possibility that their “harsh” convictions were unsafe due to a suspected conflict of interest within the family. It said that its journalists wished to gain specific comment from the complainant regarding the information that the family business supplies the oil and gas industry; that the family business is in the Centrica supply chain; and that the complainant’s name, along with the business name, appeared on an open letter supporting fracking.

12. The newspaper explained that the blue vehicle seen by the complainant’s employees parked outside of her work address belonged to a photographer. It said that the photographer was parked on a public road outside the security perimeter fencing: he was there for a short amount of time; and did not take any pictures of the complainant, nor was he asked to leave. The newspaper denied that the photographer had followed the complainant home, after she had picked her parents up from the airport. The newspaper said that the photographer had driven directly from the complainant’s work address.

13. While the newspaper did not accept that there had been a request to desist, no persistent pursuit, nor questioning, the newspaper noted that there was a public interest in ensuring that the allegations were put to the complainant, and said that on the first approach the freelance reporter did not get the opportunity to fully explain what the story was about. The newspaper suggested that it would be criticised, had it chosen not to approach the complainant, as a failure to seek comment has often been cited as a failure to take care that a story is accurate.

14. The newspaper noted that while the entrance to the complainant’s residential estate stated that it was private property, there was no sign which stated “do not enter”, and that other vehicles were seen driving into the road freely through an ungated access route.

15. The complainant provided a copy of a Court of Appeal judgment, Citation Number: [2018] EWCA Crim 2739, in which the court considered the appeals of the defendants against the custodial sentence passed by the complainant’s brother. The court found that there was no suggestion that the complainant’s brother had been biased against the defendants in the case.

Relevant Code provisions

16. 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 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

17. Clause 3(ii) makes clear that journalists should not continue to contact people when asked to desist; a request to desist could take many forms, however the Committee emphasised that such a request should convey to a journalist that an individual does not wish to be contacted further.

18. The complainant had received a telephone call from a freelance reporter who had introduced himself and had invited the complainant’s comment on an open letter which she had signed in support of fracking. The complainant had replied: “No, I’m not able to speak to you”; this did not conclusively indicate that there was no intent on the part of the complainant to respond to journalistic enquires at that time, or at a later stage. In such circumstances, the Committee did not conclude that the complainant had made a request to desist during the first telephone call. The second telephone call from the staff reporter, in which the journalist had sought comment from the complainant on the wider allegations made against her and her business, did not amount to a failure to respect a desist request, such as would breach Clause 3(ii). In any case, the Committee considered that there may be an expectation that a person is given an opportunity to comment on serious allegations being made against themselves, and a public interest in doing so.

19. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that she had been concerned by the phone call which she had received from the freelance reporter, and the email which she had received from the second reporter via her work email address. However, the first contact had been made indirectly through her gate intercom system and the Committee noted that the second journalist had been invited to contact the complainant via email by a colleague. In such circumstances, the Committee concluded that the conduct complained of did not amount to intimidation under the terms of Clause 3.

20. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant had found the presence of the blue car, which she had observed during the day, distressing. The question for the Committee to consider was whether the conduct of the photographer – the driver of that car – amounted to harassment.

21. The complainant had first seen the blue car at 9am. There was no suggestion that the photographer had followed the complainant to work, nor had he contacted or approached the complainant at that time. It appeared to the Committee that the photographer had inadvertently passed the complainant’s car that morning. The complainant had seen the blue car a further time after she had returned home from picking her parents up from the airport. There was no suggestion that, in fact, the photographer had followed the complainant from her workplace to the airport; the Committee noted that the complainant had only seen the blue car again driving towards her, on the opposite side of the road, when she had stopped to take a call.  The photographer had not taken any photographs of the complainant, approached or sought to contact her, nor had the photographer been asked to leave the complainant’s work premises. As such, the Committee was satisfied that the conduct of the photographer complained of did not amount to harassment or persistent pursuit under the terms of Clause 3.

22. In all the circumstances, the Committee did not conclude that individually or collectively the conduct of journalists acting on behalf of the newspaper, engaged in a course of conduct which amounted to harassment under the Code. There was no breach of Clause 3.

23. The Committee turned to the complaint made under Clause 2. The fact that the complainant lived on a private residential estate, did not necessarily mean that the presence of journalists in that location would amount to an intrusion into the complainant’s private life. The conduct complained of was not harassing, for the reasons explained above and the Committee did not conclude that the conduct of the journalists amounted to a failure to respect the complainant’s private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusion

24. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

25. N/A

Date complaint received: 11/10/2018

Date decision issued: 11/01/2019