Ruling

10473-21 Collins v South Wales Argus

    • Date complaint received

      3rd February 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      6 Children

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 10473-21 Collins v South Wales Argus

Summary of Complaint

1. Joanne Collins complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that South Wales Argus breached Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Schools chief in row over her own children’s education”, published on 6 October 2021.

2. The article reported that it had been “alleged” that the Councillor in charge of education for Blaenau Gwent had “sent her children to a school outside of the county”. The article contained quotes and critical reaction from opposition Councillors, such as: “It’s hardly a ringing endorsement for the education system in Blaenau Gwent when the person supposedly driving improvement has decided that the standard is not good enough for her children”; “this is also showing she has no faith in the Blaine Gwent teaching staff”; as well as calls for her to stand down from her position as a Councillor. It also included a comment from Councillor Collins which stated: “I’m not prepared to discuss my children with the press, that’s a private family matter and not something that’s appropriate”.

3. The article also appeared online under the headline “Blaenau Gwent education Cllr Joanne Collins in school row”, published on 5 October in substantially the same format.

4. The complainant, the Councillor referred to in the article, said that the article breached Clause 6. She said that the publication of the article, and the scrutiny it generated, had intruded into her child’s time at school. The complainant was particularly concerned that the comments function was enabled and members of the public had commented on the article. She also said that the article breached Clause 6 as it had used her position as a Councillor as the sole justification to publish details of her child’s private life. The complainant said that the article had also had a negative effect on both her other child, who attended a different school, and her husband, due to the public scrutiny their family received as a result of its publication. 

5. She also said that the comment she had provided to the publication, which was published in the article, clearly demonstrated that she did not give consent for details of her child's educational arrangements to be published and felt it was inappropriate to discuss her children with the press. The complainant said she and her husband had not broken any policy by sending her child to a school outside of the county, and that she was not the only party who made the decision as to where her child would be schooled. She also noted that the article referred to her “children” when in fact only one child went to school outside of the county.

6. The complainant provided IPSO with copies of user generated comments posted under the article which she said also breached Clause 6 as they named the school her child attended. She said she had alerted the newspaper to the publication of comments on the article, although they had already been removed by the time she raised these concerns. She confirmed that she had not used the flag function next to the comments on the website to alert moderators to them nor had she sent the specific comments to the newspaper for its attention.

7. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 6. It said that the article did not represent an unnecessary intrusion into the complainant’s child’s time at school as no details of their private life were included. It said that, other than by naming their mother, the article did not identify the complainant’s children, nor did it name the schools they attended; it did not name the children, nor include any other details about the children. In addition, it noted that there were many other examples of newspapers publishing articles on the schooling choices of politicians at both national and local level, for example criticism of Labour politicians who sent their children to private schools. It noted that in many of these stories, unlike the article under complaint, the schools were named. The publication also stated that many readers would already know where the complainant’s children went to school, and that others would be able to find out if they chose to make inquiries.

8. The publication said that whilst it did not accept that the article intruded into the child’s time at school, in any event it was justified and proportionate with the public interest in the story, which it had considered prior to publication. It said that the public interest had been discussed in advance; a local democracy reporter had alerted the Audience and Content Editor to the story he was planning to submit, explaining the background and the reason opposition councillors felt it was important in light of the complainant’s responsibility for education in the county. After discussion of the story, they agreed that although the issue of children’s education can be private, there was a strong public interest in the story being published.

9. The publication said it was a fundamental part of the newspaper's role in a democratic society to enable the electorate to scrutinise, assess and criticise their elected representatives, especially those in senior positions with particular responsibilities, including examining decisions relating to their personal lives. It said it was especially well-established that the electorate is concerned about hypocrisy or double standards. The publication said that the complainant was not a private person but an elected councillor and more specifically the councillor in charge of improving education in Blaenau Gwent. It said that, whilst unwelcome, it was an unavoidable fact that her decision to send her child to school in another area raised questions about her confidence in local education, or even her own ability to do the job.

10. The publication said that there was a balance in cases such as the article under complaint and that any level of intrusion should go no further than necessary to convey the issue to readers. The publication said it believed that it would have been failing in its duty to its readership if it had ignored the issue in this case, first raised by the Council opposition party, but withheld from identifying the school, as it did not consider that this was strictly necessary in order to cover the story effectively.

11. The publication also stated that it was regrettable that readers had posted comments that named the school. It said that it had deleted the comments on 8 October, as soon as it was made aware of them and prior to the matter being referred to it by IPSO, and that it then disabled the comments function on the article.

Relevant Code Provisions

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.

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

12. Clause 6(i) requires that pupils should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion. The complainant said that public discussion of her child’s educational choices had intruded into their time at school, and had led to an intrusion into her child’s time at school due to the comments and scrutiny they had received.

13. The Committee considered both whether the information contained in the article about the child constituted an “unnecessary intrusion” into their time at school, and whether this information amounted to details of the child’s private life. Whilst the article did not name the child’s school, it did report the county the school was in and published criticisms of the complainant’s choice to send her child to school outside of the county she was councillor in charge of education for. The complainant had also said that her child’s time at school had been intruded into as a result of the article. On this basis, Clause 6 was engaged.

14. The publication had argued that the article was clearly in the public interest, and that it had carefully balanced this public interest with its responsibilities under Clause 6. The article did not contain the name or sex of the complainant’s child, nor the name of the school; the potential identifying information was the identity of the child’s mother and the fact that they went to school outside their home county. The Committee found that the subject of the article, which considered the criticisms of an active councillor in charge of education within the county, was in the public interest. It accepted the newspaper’s argument that a vital role of the press is to be able to scrutinise and criticise politicians, including decisions which they take relating to their personal lives, as long as this is carried out in accordance with the Editors’ Code. The Committee noted that the subject of the article had initially been brought to the newspaper by opposition politicians who wished to speak out about the matter, and that these criticisms had been included within the article. In addition, the Committee found that as the complainant was the councillor in charge of education in the county, the choices made about her children’s education was of particular relevance to the public interest. The Committee found that due to the public interest of the article, in conjunction with the level of detail about the child within the article, the publication of the article was proportionate to any intrusion that may have resulted from its publication under Clause 6(i).

15. With regards to Clause 6(v) the Committee did not accept that the complainant’s position was the sole justification for the publication of the article. Rather, the Committee considered that the publication of the information was justified as it was a legitimate matter of public discussion and had been the subject of political debate. In the circumstances where the complainant’s position was not the sole justification for publication, the article did not breach Clause 6(v). There was no breach of Clause 6.

16. The complainant had also raised a complaint regarding the readers’ comments posted below the article. IPSO can consider complaints against user generated information, such as online comments, where: they have been reported to the newspaper but remain online; where the newspaper has the capacity to delete or edit the comments; and where the comments raise a breach of the Editors’ Code. The publication had deleted the comments prior to the complaint being made, and therefore they did not fall within IPSO’s remit. There was no breach of the Code on this point.

17. The complainant had raised an issue of accuracy during the investigation, that only one of her children went to school outside of the county, but had not made a complaint under Clause 1, so the Committee did not make a finding on this point.

Conclusion(s)

18. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

19. N/A


Date complaint received: 07/10/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 12/01/2022