Ruling

11921-22 A man v Sunday World

    • Date complaint received

      19th January 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 11921-22 A man v Sunday World 

Summary of Complaint 

1.    A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday World breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published on 9 October 2022. 

2.    The article reported on the complainant’s recent appearance having, in recent years, “faded from public view”. In addition to describing him as “a wreck” in the headline, the article described the complainant as having “a frail figure”, stated that his “ill-fitting suit [hung] loosely on his failed frame” and that he “cut a pathetic picture as he battle[d] illness”. The article contained a photograph of the complainant standing in a suit labelled “sick”, and a second inset photograph of his face when he was clearly younger. 

3.    The complainant said that the article intruded into his privacy in breach of Clause 2. He said that the article focused on his health and wellbeing, over which he considered he had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The complainant said the way the article described him intruded into this – even if it did not detail his specific illness, it disclosed that he was in ill health. He also said that the article made pejorative remarks about his health, which also intruded into his privacy – namely that he was “a wreck”, had a “failed frame”, and was “pathetic”.

4.    The complainant said that the same pejorative terms, as well as an insulting nickname, amounted to mocking him on the basis of his ill health, and was therefore also in breach of Clause 4. He said that he was in a state of grief and shock after having been very recently diagnosed with an illness, and that the publication of the article and its mocking nature compounded his grief and shock. The complainant also said that many of his family were not aware he was ill, and that the article had caused them distress and upset. 

5.    The publication did not accept a breach of the Code in relation to either Clause. It firstly noted that the complainant had a well-known nickname, which had related to his previous physical stature, which was why it had been included. It said that the complainant had appeared at a loyalist commemoration event, at which he would have known he would be recognised. His physical appearance had drastically altered since his previous public appearances and this had been noted by other attendees. It said that the complainant had been in public at the event and was, therefore, disclosing his physical appearance and the inevitable inferences that derived from that. Taking this into account, the publication did not consider that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over the matter. 

6.    The publication added that the article did not contain any private medical information, nor did it speculate as to any illness the complainant was suffering from. It said the article only mentioned that he was suffering from an illness, which would have been the obvious inference to anybody attending the public event.  

7.    Additionally, the publication did not accept that Clause 4 was engaged. It stated that its sources did not suggest the complainant was in a state of grief or shock and that the article did not report on anything that occurred immediately nor on circumstances which the complainant had no time to process. Rather that he had chosen to appear at a public event and clearly possessed sufficient physical and emotional strength to be seen by the wider public at that time. 

8.    The publication also said that the article was in the public interest. It said that the complainant had been repeatedly linked with membership of the UVF, and with his nickname, which related to his previous physical stature. The publication said that if the complainant was suffering from ill-health this would challenge both the public’s perception of him as a physical force associated with paramilitaries, as well as the previously reported reason for the complainant’s reduced public appearances. It said that in this context, the deterioration of the complainant’s physical appearance was a matter of public interest, with particular reference to the public being misled, raising and contributing to a matter of public debate or disclosing concealment of these aspects. 

9.    It said that the decision about the amount of information to publish was reached through discussions between the journalist who wrote the article and the editorial team, which decided not to publish any of the complainant’s private medical information. The publication said that the extent of information that they published was limited to that necessary to challenge the previous public perception of the complainant. 

10. The complainant said that the article was not in the public interest. He said that, whilst he denied all allegations of involvement with paramilitaries, and to the extent that such connections were alleged, the publication had in any case previously published stories some years prior stating that any such alleged associations had ended some years ago. Even by the publication’s own argument, reporting his current physical appearance, years later, was therefore not in the public interest. In addition to this, the complainant said that, if the publication’s argument was based on his physical appearance alone, it could have reported this without making reference to his illness. He said that claiming, as fact, he was ill went further than the publication was claiming to be necessary. 

11. Relevant Clause 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 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) 

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings. 

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. The article had stated as a fact that the complainant was suffering from an illness: it had described him as cutting “a pathetic picture as he battles illness” and reported that “his health had deteriorated dramatically in recent years”. Whilst the article had not gone so far as to name the specific illness from which the complainant was suffering, the Committee noted that Clause 2 specifically makes clear that everyone is entitled to respect for their private life and physical health. It therefore found that Clause 2 was engaged. 

13. The publication had said that it was justified in publishing that the complainant was suffering from an illness as it considered he had made this disclosure himself by appearing at a public event in a clearly physically altered state. However, the Committee considered that there were many reasons why the complainant might now look different; it did not follow that his changed appearance automatically amounted to a public disclosure that he was in ill health. The Committee found, therefore, that reporting that he was currently suffering from an illness revealed more private information about the complainant than was disclosed by the photograph showing the complainant’s weight-loss. The Committee did not consider that the disclosure of the information about the complainant’s illness was justified – as required by the terms of Clause 2 - or that it was in the public domain. 

14. The next question for the Committee was whether the public interest in revealing the complainant’s illness was sufficient to outweigh the complainant’s reasonable expectation of privacy regarding this information. The publication had said that, prior to publication, discussions had been held between the reporter who wrote the story and the newspaper’s editorial team regarding whether the information included in the article about the complainant’s physical health was in the public interest. It said that part of this discussion had revolved around what information was proportionate to include – with the publication ultimately deciding not to publish what it would have considered to be the complainant’s private medical information, and instead referring to his illness in general terms. It had argued that some information about his ill-health was justified by the public interest because it would change public perceptions about someone who was understood to have previously been a physically dominant person in the UVF.  However, the Committee considered that it was not necessary to include the fact that the complainant had a problem with his physical health in order to demonstrate that his physical strength had deteriorated; as the publication itself acknowledged, the photograph alone appeared to show this. On this basis, it did not consider that the publication had demonstrated that there was a proportionate public interest served by revealing that the complainant was ill, and there was a breach of Clause 2. 

15. The complainant had also said that the mocking nature of the article, which described his illness, amounted to an intrusion into his grief and shock in breach of Clause 4. Whilst the Committee expressed sympathy with the complainant for his health and the fact that he had found the publication of the article distressing, it did not consider that his circumstances amounted to a state of grief or shock into which the publication of the article had intruded. There was no breach of Clause 4. 

Conclusion(s) 

16. The complaint was upheld under Clause 2. 

Remedial action required 

17. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 2, the Committee consider the remedial action that should be required. Given the nature of the breach, the appropriate remedial action was the publication of an upheld adjudication. 

18. The Committee considered the placement of this adjudication. The original article had been published on page 13 of the newspaper, and the adjudication should be published on the same page, or further forward. 

19. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows: 

20. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday World breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published on 15 October 2022.  

21. The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required the Sunday World to publish this adjudication to remedy the breach of the Code. 

22. The article reported on the complainant’s recent appearance commenting that he was ill. It using disparaging language and contained a photograph of the complainant standing in a suit labelled “sick”, and a second inset photograph of his face when he was clearly younger. 

23. The complainant said that the article intruded into his privacy in breach of Clause 2. He said that the article focused on his health and wellbeing, over which he considered he had a reasonable expectation of privacy. The complainant said the way the article described him intruded into this even if it did not detail his specific illness, it disclosed that he was in ill-health. He also said that the article made pejorative remarks about his health, which also intruded into his privacy. 

24. The publication had said that it was justified in publishing that the complainant was suffering from an illness as it considered he had made this disclosure himself by appearing at a public event in a clearly physically altered state. However, IPSO considered that there were many reasons why the complainant might now look different; it did not follow that his changed appearance automatically amounted to a public disclosure that he was in ill health. IPSO found, therefore, that reporting that he was currently suffering from an illness revealed more private information about the complainant than was disclosed by the photograph showing the complainant’s weight-loss. IPSO did not consider that the disclosure of the information about the complainant’s illness was justified – as required by the terms of Clause 2 – or that it was in the public domain. Furthermore, IPSO did not consider that publishing the information was in the public interest. There was a breach of Clause 2. 

Date complaint received: 13/10/2022

Date decision issued: 23/12/2022