Ruling

11590-22 Lynch v kentonline.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      16th February 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 6 Children, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11590-22 Lynch v kentonline.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Gloria Lynch, on behalf of her family member, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that kentonline.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 6 (Children) and Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in:

- An article headlined “Podcast: Girls throw drink over pregnant woman and 'assault' staff at McDonald's in Maidstone”, published on 14 September 2022;

- The accompanying podcast;

- An article headlined "McDonald's security guard arrested after girls kicked out of Maidstone restaurant", published on 15 September 2022;

- A Facebook post shared by the publication which linked to the 15 of September article.

2. The first article comprised several short summaries of the stories included in the embedded podcast. It reported an allegation that a pregnant woman had a drink thrown over her and that staff were “allegedly assault[ed]” at a McDonald’s. It also reported that “witnesses” to the incident had said that “trouble involving a group of girls had broke[n] out”. The complainant was representing one of the girls referred to in the article; her family member. The article contained an embedded podcast, accompanied by a photograph of three girls on the street with their faces pixelated.

3. The embedded podcast was a verbal recording of the text of the article, and also included an audio clip of the incident. This included a man stating he “had seen it all” and several girls shouting;  it had also been censored with bleeps.

4. The second article reported on the same incident and stated that girls in the group had been seen “verbally abusing staff and customers”. It reported that “footage from the incident shows the girls swearing and shouting at McDonald's staff and customers”. It also stated that a security guard had been arrested and charged with “assault with intent to resist arrest”. It contained quotes from a witness saying that girls in the group had shouted and sworn at the security guard. The article contained two images of three of the girls on the street, with their faces pixelated.

5. The second article had also been shared on Facebook by the publication. The headline stated, “McDonald’s security guard charged with assault”, and beneath this it stated that “A security guard has been arrested after an incident in which a group of girls verbally abused s…” [sic]. As noted above, this article reported that the security guard had been charged with assault with intent to resist arrest following the incident, and contained an image of the group of girls, three of whom had their faces pixelated, and one of whom was turned away from the camera so that only a small portion of her face was visible.

6. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 9, which states that particular regard should be paid to the potentially vulnerable position of children under the age of 18 who witness, or are victims of, crime. The complainant said that in circumstances where the guard had been arrested for assaulting a policeman, the inclusion of the images of the girls in the article was unnecessary.

7. She also said that the article had breached Clause 6. She said that despite the fact the images were pixelated, her family member was identifiable. She said that the article had been widely shared and that due to this her family member was so distressed she did not want to go to school.

8. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said the articles and podcast inaccurately reported that the girls had been abusive to staff, which was denied, and she claimed that the correct position was that the security guard had been abusive.

9. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that no one had been charged for assaulting the girls and there had been no prosecution following the incident. Therefore, the girls could not be described as victims of a crime. The publication did acknowledge that they could be described as witnesses to a crime, as the security guard had been charged with the assault of a policeman. However, it also said that the guard could have been found not guilty, noting that, during IPSO’s investigation, it was reported that the charge against the security guard had been dropped prior to him entering a plea. The publication said that even if the guard were to have been found guilty, had the charge not been dropped, there was a strong argument that the crime had resulted from the girls’ earlier actions.

10. The publication said that in any case, the inclusion of the images did not amount to a breach of Clause 9. It said that the images were stills from a video that had been widely circulated online. It provided a screenshot of the video on a Facebook group with 33,000 members, which had been published on 11 September, three days before the first article. It also noted that the incident took place in a public space with a multitude of witnesses. The publication said, despite this, that it had paid particular regard to the girls’ vulnerable position by pixelating their faces where they were otherwise identifiable in the published images.

11. Similarly, the publication said that the publication of the images was not a breach of Clause 6. It said that it had taken steps not to identify the girls by pixelating their faces and noted that they were not in school uniform, which may have helped identify them to classmates. It repeated that the video had been widely circulated without censorship on social media and that it considered that this would be more likely to be accessed by other pupils at the school than the articles and podcast.

12. The publication also said that it considered the articles were in the public interest as the incident took place in a popular restaurant in the town centre which regularly suffers from anti-social behaviour and “yobbery”. It said, therefore, that reporting on incidents involving allegations of impropriety, contributed to a debate on a matter of public interest. It also said that the inclusion of the images was proportionate where they had been pixelated to hide the girls faces. It said that as the article was clearly in the public interest there had not been a discussion of this prior to it being published.

13. The publication also provided the full video that had been published on Facebook, which showed girls in the group swearing and shouting in the street. In addition, it had interviewed a person who had witnessed the incident and supplied notes which supported the accuracy of the quotes in the article.

Relevant Code Provisions

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.

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.

Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime)*

i) Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.

ii) Particular regard should be paid to the potentially vulnerable position of children under the age of 18 who witness, or are victims of, crime. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

iii) Editors should generally avoid naming children under the age of 18 after arrest for a criminal offence but before they appear in a youth court unless they can show that the individual’s name is already in the public domain, or that the individual (or, if they are under 16, a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult) has given their consent. This does not restrict the right to name juveniles who appear in a crown court, or whose anonymity is lifted.

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

14. The Committee noted firstly that the articles had been based on a video that had been widely shared online without being pixelated, including on a Facebook group with over 33,000 members. It considered, therefore, that the information concerning the incident included in the articles was already established in the public domain.

15. The complaint under Clause 9 related to the images of the girls, which appeared in both articles and in the publication’s Facebook post which linked to the second article. The Committee noted that whilst the girls had not been victims of a crime, they had witnessed what was being treated as a crime by police at the time the articles were published, namely the arrest of the security guard following the incident. The Committee found that, on this basis, the publication was right to pay particular regard to their vulnerable position when reporting on the incident, as required by the Code unless publication was justified in the public interest.

16. The publication had taken stills from the video which had been shared on social media. It had taken care to obscure the identity of the girls when publishing the images by pixelating their faces, despite the video having already been made public to a large audience without being pixelated. In doing so, the publication had satisfied the requirement to pay particular regard to the vulnerable position of the complainant’s family member and there was no breach of Clause 9.

17. The complainant had also said her family member was distressed about returning to school after the images had been shared on social media. The Committee noted the publication’s position that the arrest of the security guard had come as a result of the girls’ actions, but also that the girls had been removed from the venue in a way that “some [people]” had claimed was “heavy handed”. The Committee considered that the article therefore did report on a matter involving at least one child’s welfare. However, where there was a widely shared video in which the complainant’s family member appeared, the Committee did not consider that the republication of stills from this video amounted to an intrusion into her time at school given that it was unlikely that the pixelated images, or the image where her face was turned away from the camera, would identify her to anyone who was not already aware of her involvement in the incident. There was no breach of Clause 6.

18. As none of the above Clauses were breached, the Committee did not need to consider whether there was a public interest defence justifying publication. It did, however, wish to remind the publication that for such a defence to apply, the public interest and the proportionality of the published information must be considered at the time of publication.

19. With regards to Clause 1, the video supplied by the publication clearly showed some of the girls verbally abusing staff at the restaurant. In addition, the claim that the girls had “assaulted” members of staff and a pregnant woman, which were denied, had clearly been reported as allegations which had been made by the newspaper’s source, and not as fact. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion(s)

20. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

21. N/A


Date complaint received: 15/09/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 31/01/2023