Ruling

Resolution Statement 09334-19 Brooks v thetimes.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      6th August 2020

    • Outcome

      Resolved - IPSO mediation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 6 Children

Resolution Statement 09334-19 Brooks v thetimes.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. Claire Brooks, on behalf of her son, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thetimes.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "Head boy and girl’s X-rated speech scandalises audience”, published on 22 June 2019.

2. The article reported that a head boy and girl at a school had “been asked to apologise after they used their leavers’ speech to humiliate classmates with sex jokes in front of parents and grandparents”. The article reported that the speech included comments “about pupils crossdressing, having sex on a school trip, and doing poorly in school during a celebration day [event]”. The article featured comments from one of the parents, whose stepson attended the event, criticising the content of the speech and questioning why it was allowed to happen. The article went on to report that the local council confirmed that the school received a complaint regarding the content of the speech. The article reported that a council spokesperson had said: “We can confirm that a complaint was received by [name of school] regarding the appropriateness of comments included in a speech made by the departing head prefects as part of the school’s annual leavers’ ceremony. The school is dealing with this in line with the council’s complaints procedures. In the meantime, we apologise for any upset that may have been caused by the speech”.

3. The complainant, who attended the event, said that the article gave an inaccurate account of the speech her son, an S6 pupil, had given at the leavers’ event at his school. She said that the speech did not humiliate other students; the content focused on their friends who had consented to their inclusion and the speech was well received. She said that the article presented a one-sided and biased account based solely on the view of two parents, one of which was quoted in the article, and did not represent the views of other attendees. The complainant disputed that the content of the speech was unsuitable. She noted that there were no swear or sexual words in the speech and that the jokes were almost entirely innuendo.

4. The complainant said that the article intruded into her son’s time at school in breach of Clause 6: its publication had caused her son stress and risked damaging his reputation. The complainant said that her son still had school duties to undertake at the time of publication; the speech was given on 17 June and his final duties were to take place on 27 June. He was therefore still a pupil of the school until the end of the academic session; whether his academic studies were completed was irrelevant. The complainant noted that learning was not limited to academic qualifications and emphasised that school provides an environment for pupils to practise for the world of work and life after education; pupils should be allowed to try and fail free from the scrutiny of newspapers in the event they misjudge a situation. The complainant also said that, even though her son was not named, due to the size of their hometown everyone would have known who the two pupils were and as a result her son was identifiable in the article.

5. The publication denied that the article was inaccurate. It said that the article had accurately reported that concerns had been raised by parents and this was demonstrated by the comments of the named parent quoted in the article and the fact that the council had received a complaint and apologised for any upset caused by the speech. The publication noted that it had quoted the response of the council’s spokesperson and considered that there was no failure to take care over the article’s accuracy.

6. The publication denied a breach of Clause 6. It emphasised that the complainant’s son was not named, and the article did not include any information which could identify him. The publication noted that the complainant’s son, who was in the upper end of school age, was speaking at a leavers’ event; to all intents and purposes it could be said that he had finished his time at school, as the article was published on 22 June, six days before the complainant confirmed that the academic year finished. The publication considered that any intrusion was minimal and was required to tell the story. Nonetheless, it said that a complaint to a town council by a parent upset by the tone and content of a leavers’ day speech at a local school was a matter of legitimate public interest.

7. Notwithstanding its position that there was no breach of the Code, the publication said that if the school had completed its investigation, it would be happy to note the outcome of its investigation as an update at the end of the article.

Relevant Code Provisions

8. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 6 (Children)*

i) All pupils should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.

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 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

Mediated outcome

9. The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter.

10. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code but offered to remove the article as a gesture of goodwill.

11. The complainant said she was content to resolve the complaint on this basis.

12. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.

Date complaint received: 15/11/19

Date complaint concluded: 19/06/20