Ruling

07468-21 Couzens v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      6th January 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      2 Privacy, 6 Children

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 07468-21 Couzens v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint

1. Olena Couzens complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “EXCLUSIVE - 'I keep on asking 'why?'': Wife of killer cop Wayne Couzens reveals how she is haunted by failing to spot 'any signs' he was capable of such barbaric crimes - as he admits to murdering Sarah Everard”, published on 9 July 2021.

2. The article reported comments made by the complainant, who is the wife of Wayne Couzens. Mr Couzens pleaded guilty on 8 June 2021 to the kidnap and rape of Sarah Everard, and pleaded guilty to Ms Everard’s murder on 9 July, the day of publication. Mr Couzens was sentenced to a whole life order on 30 September 2021.

3. The complainant was described as speaking “exclusively to Mail Online”. The article quoted her comments on her personal reaction to the arrest of Mr Couzens, including that she “saw nothing wrong. He had a beautiful family, a good house… what else did he need? I'm constantly asking myself 'where I did miss the signs?' How on earth could this have happened?'”. It also included her comment on the consequences of his arrest for their family. The article contained multiple photographs of the complainant and Mr Couzens, including two images of her and the couple’s children, where the children’s faces were pixelated. It also reported the age and gender of the children.

4. The complainant said that the article intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 2. She said that she had spoken with the reporter around three weeks prior to the publication of the article. She said that during this conversation, it had been agreed that her comments would not be published, due to advice issued by the Attorney General that nothing should be published that would prejudice the trial of Wayne Couzens; however, she told the journalist he could contact her again after the trial, in October, at which point they would discuss further the potential publication of her comments. She said that while she had not put in writing that she did not consent to the publication of her comments, at that time she assumed the publication would be unable to publish before October on the basis of the Attorney General’s advice. Whilst she did not complain that her comments had been reported inaccurately, she said the piece damaged her, her husband’s, and her family’s reputation. The complainant said that the article intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 2 by publishing her private opinions prior to the end of Mr Couzens’ trial without seeking further consent once the publication was legally able to publish the interview.

5. The complainant also complained that the newspaper had published photographs of her and her children without her consent, in breach of Clause 2 and Clause 6. She said that the images had been uploaded to her social media account but that she had deleted this account on 20 March 2021, 11 days after her husband’s arrest. She said that whilst her children’s faces were pixelated, their bodies were visible, and they could be recognised as her children. The complainant also said that including the age and gender of her children was a breach of Clause 6, and that reading the article had caused them distress.

6. The publication did not accept that it had breached either clause of the Code. With regards to Clause 2, it said that the article did not contain any information over which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. It said that the article simply reported comments the complainant had willingly made to a reporter in respect of the legal proceedings against her husband. In addition, it said that the text was accompanied by anodyne photographs which were previously published on a social media profile. It said that was publicly accessible at the time the images were obtained from the complainant’s social media, and they contained no information which was inherently private.

7. With regards to the complainant’s comments, the publication said at no point was it agreed upon, or requested by the complainant, that the comments were only to be published in October, contingent on further discussion. It said that the complainant was aware she was speaking to a reporter, appeared happy to speak when approached and discussed the topic willingly for over fifteen minutes. It supplied a transcript of the conversation, as well as the voice recording, in which the reporter stated that her comments would be published “at the right time”, once it was known “what has happened”. The publication said that it considered the right time to be when the complainant’s husband pleaded guilty to the murder, where there was no longer any legal impediment to publication.

8. The publication also did not accept a breach of Clause 6. It said that the complainant’s children were not identifiable from the information contained in the article, nor was any private information published about them. It said that the images of her children were taken from an open social media site on 10 March, prior to the complainant deleting her account, and were heavily pixelated in order to make them unrecognisable. It noted that the images were also in the public domain after having been published by another newspaper. It said that the age of the complainant’s children was not private information, and that the ages had been published by other publications elsewhere. It did, however, delete the images on receipt of the complainant as a gesture of goodwill.

9. The complainant said that she was not aware that the conversation with the reporter was being recorded, and considered this a further breach of her privacy. She also noted that the recording did not begin at the start of the conversation, and that there was a break in the recording which she said indicated that the recording had been edited to remove her request to the reporter that her comments not be published at this time and the agreement they enter further discussion after the trial.  She had clearly stated at the start of the transcript that “you can’t publish anyway” and later in the conversation had stated that “until court is over, I cannot pass anything on” and that a barrister had told her that “the press cannot contact me or ask me any questions or take photographs, that would put you automatically into trouble as well if you put anything out right now”.

10. The publication did not accept the complainant’s position. It stated that the break in the recording was due to a technical issue with the reporter’s phone and that no agreement was made at that time. It said that the transcript did not begin as soon as communication began between the complainant and the reporter, but that the recording began when the complainant began to speak about her husband, after initial reluctance. It said that the phone was in the reporter’s hands the entire time, and that the complainant would have been able to see the reporter pressing pause.

Relevant Code Provisions

Clause 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental 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 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

11. The Committee first considered whether the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the comments she had made to the journalist. Under the terms of Clause 2, “in considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information”. The complainant had willingly spoken to a journalist for over fifteen minutes; there was no dispute that she was aware that she was speaking to a representative of the publication, and the publication had provided a recording of the conversation which corroborated this.

12. The complainant had said that there was a discussion, not captured by the publication’s recording, in which she requested a further meeting to discuss the potential publication of her comments after the conclusion of Mr Couzens’ trial. She also explained that she had been under the impression that the publication would be legally barred from publishing her comments until after the sentencing. The publication denied that any agreement existed about a future meeting. It had provided a recording that demonstrated that the journalist had said the comments would be published “at the right time”. The Committee was unable to reconcile the parties’ conflicting accounts about whether there had been an agreement to discuss the matter further after the conclusion of Mr Couzens’ trial. However, in circumstances where the complainant had willingly made disclosures to the journalist, the Committee did not consider that the publication’s decision to publish the comments after the guilty plea to murder, rather than after sentencing, constituted a failure to respect the complainant’s private life or represented an intrusion into her privacy.

13. The complainant had said it was a further breach of her privacy to audio record the interview without her knowledge. The Committee noted that the use of electronic recording devices is an important means by which journalists can take care over the accuracy of published material and defend any subsequent complaint of inaccuracy.  The use of a recording device in these circumstances does not constitute a breach of privacy, particularly where the subject is aware that they are speaking to a journalist.

14. The photographs of the complainant and her husband had been obtained from her social media account and were previously in the public domain. In addition, the photographs themselves contained no private information and simply showed the complainant with her husband. The complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over these images. There was no breach of Clause 2 on these points.

15. The complainant said that the publication of the images of her children also constituted a breach of Clause 2 and 6. The images of her children had been put on her public social media account by the complainant, and the newspaper had pixelated their faces prior to publication. The children had not been named in the article. The article, which relayed the complainant’s comments about the children’s reaction to the events, clearly concerned the children’s welfare. However, the Committee was content that due to the pixilation the children were not recognisable in the image to anyone who was not already aware of their identity. On this basis, there was no breach of Clause 2 or 6 in relation to the photograph. In addition, the gender and age of the children was not private information, and the newspaper was entitled to publish this. There was no breach of Clause 6 on this point.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

17. N/A

 

Date complaint received: 12/07/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/12/2021