Ruling

11970-15 Gerrard v Runcorn Weekly News

    • Date complaint received

      7th March 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      3 Harassment, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 11970-15 Gerrard v Runcorn Weekly News

Summary of complaint

1. John Gerrard complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Runcorn Weekly News breached Clause 3 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Councillors’ warning over ‘misleading’ league table of missed meetings”, published on 15 October 2015. The article did not appear online.

2. The newspaper had published a list of local councillors’ attendance at meetings, and the article under complaint compiled some of the reasons given by councillors for their low attendance. The complainant had reportedly attended 17% of six meetings in a given period in 2015. The article said that the complainant had cancer and had undergone several operations.

3. The complainant said that the publication of this information intruded into his privacy, in breach of Clause 3. He said that, while he had informed the journalist that he had cancer, the journalist had not sought specific consent to publish his comments. He said that not all of his family members had known of his diagnosis, and the publication of the information had caused him severe distress.

4. The complainant said that about two months after publication of the article the journalist contacted the council press office and said that he had been informed that the complainant did not in fact have cancer, and he was considering publishing a story to that effect. The complainant said that contacting the press office about a health matter without consent, and proposing to run a story which accused him of lying about his illness, intruded into his privacy. He said that the combination of the published article, the proposed article, and an approach by the journalist at a recent council meeting, constituted harassment and a breach of Clause 4.

5. The newspaper did not believe that its article raised a breach of the Code. The journalist had spoken to the complainant on the telephone and had also emailed him. The newspaper provided a copy of the emails between the journalist and the complainant, in which the journalist had said that he was preparing a story about local councillor attendance, and was giving people an opportunity to explain the reasons for low attendance in advance. The complainant had responded with the details which were later published.

6. The newspaper said that it had not published any article which reported that the complainant had been lying about his illness, nor did it plan to do so in future. Following the journalist’s enquiries he had had been satisfied that there was no issue to pursue.

7. The newspaper said that the journalist had contacted the complainant in a genuine attempt to ensure the accuracy of his story, and at no point did the complainant ask the journalist not to contact him again. It did not believe that the journalist had harassed the complainant.

Relevant Code Provisions

8. Clause 3 (Privacy)

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.

Clause 4 (Harassment)

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

Findings of the Committee

9. The complainant had told the journalist that he had cancer and had undergone multiple operations in response to a request for information from the journalist, in which the journalist had made clear that he was writing a story about attendance at council meetings; said that he was seeking comment for that story on the complainant’s comparatively low attendance; and provided a deadline for responding. There was no basis on which the Committee could conclude that the journalist’s email was anything other than a request for comment for publication. It was reasonable for the newspaper to conclude that the complainant was providing the information in order to publicly explain the reasons for his low attendance at council meetings, and that he understood that the information would be published. In these circumstances, the newspaper did not need to take further steps to confirm his consent. There was no breach of Clause 3.

10. The journalist had contacted the council press office to follow up on information he had received and try and assess its veracity. Relaying to the press office the suggestion that the complainant might not have cancer did not in itself reveal any private information about him, and no article about the complainant’s health was subsequently published; there was no intrusion into the complainant’s private life and no breach of Clause 3.

11. There was no suggestion that the journalist had persisted in making enquiries once being asked to desist; there was no breach of Clause 4.

Conclusions

12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 14/12/2015
Date decision issued: 07/03/2016