Ruling

16236-17 Ahmed v Daily Mail

    • Date complaint received

      15th February 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 16236-17 Ahmed v Daily Mail

Summary of complaint

1.  Mohammed Ahmed complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “While liberal hand wringers made empty pledges to take in a refugee, one acclaimed writer quietly did so – only to have her kindness betrayed”, published on 1 June 2017. 

2.  The article reported that a journalist had written a first-hand account, published in the magazine section of The Sunday Times, of her experience while the complainant, who was an asylum seeker at the time, was living as a guest in her house. The article reported details of The Sunday Times article, in the context of the plight of refugees travelling to Europe. It said that this article had raised “troubling issues”, such as “the true status of these would-be refugees, their attitudes to British society… and their often ungracious attitude to the country that has given them a new home”. The Committee considered a separate complaint about The Sunday Times article. 

3.  The article reported details about the complainant’s background, including that he was from Sudan, that he was married, that he was one of eighteen siblings, and that his father had four wives. It reported that the complainant had told the columnist that he planned to treat her like his mother, and that she said that she did not want to be treated like a Sudanese mother as this might include “lots of cooking and cleaning”. 

4.  The article included details about the complainant’s journey to the UK. It reported that he was waiting for his asylum claim to be processed, and therefore was not entitled to work, so “received a weekly £35 living allowance”. It described the complainant as a “’shy, but polite’ young migrant”, who turned out to be a “Walter Mitty figure”, who it said the columnist had accused of “taking advantage of her hospitality, lying about his circumstances, and fabricating much of his life story”. The article reported that the columnist had asked the complainant to leave her home after he revealed during an argument that “he wasn’t actually a refugee”, and that this “recipient of taxpayer funds made it very clear he was independently wealthy”. It noted that despite this, the complainant “experienced no trouble in persuading the British authorities to grant him asylum”, and that he was granted leave to remain in the UK in March 2016. 

5.  The article went on to report a number of incidents recounted in The Sunday Times article, which the journalist described as “warning signs” about the complainant. She had said that, while living with her, he had suffered from various illnesses, and had regularly attended the Accident and Emergency department at a hospital, rather than a GP surgery. The article included details of the illnesses, and that the journalist had given the complainant a “lecture about not abusing the NHS”. She also wrote that he had asked her “where he could find the nearest park, as he’d been told that London parks were the best place to buy marijuana”, and had subsequently ignored requests not to smoke marijuana in her house. 

6.  The article noted that the journalist had prepared an article for The Sunday Times in advance of the complainant’s asylum hearing. She had shown him a draft of the article, and he had been “deeply upset and shaken” by its contents. When the writer had asked him why he was upset, he had “launched a rambling attack on her”, saying that he was not a refugee, that his family was “very rich”, and that she was “heartless”. The journalist had asked the complainant to leave her house, and had subsequently discovered a file of his photographs on her computer. These included photographs of his journey across Europe to the UK, which she said “looked more like a holiday jaunt than a desperate flight to asylum”, and pornographic images, the nature of which was described in the article. 

7.  The article was published online in substantively the same format, headlined “Kind-hearted woman who took in a 'desperate refugee' only to have it thrown back in her face: Sudanese man smoked drugs and 'milked the UK’s benefits system' before admitting he wasn't even an asylum seeker”. Both articles included a picture of the complainant. 

8.  The complainant expressed concern that he had become the subject of a story in a national newspaper, which he considered to be an intrusion into his privacy. He had not consented to the publication of The Sunday Times article, and did not believe that there was any justification for its re-publication. He also expressed concern that the article might compromise his safety, and said that the publication of his photograph together with his first name amounted to harassment. 

9.  The complainant said that The Sunday Times article included inaccuracies, which had been reproduced in the article under complaint. He said that the article gave the impression that he was acting dishonestly, and claiming benefits that he was not entitled to. He provided a letter from his solicitor, confirming that he had never received a £35 weekly allowance from the Home Office. He said that the article also included other inaccuracies; he was one of fifteen siblings; his father had three wives; and he was a refugee, not a migrant, as he was described in the article. 

10. The complainant said that the article was discriminatory towards him, because of his refugee status. He questioned why he had been criticised for using recreational drugs and viewing pornographic material, which he noted were unremarkable and not unusual activities within the British community. He said that, in any event, he had not left pornographic images on the computer, and provided a screenshot of a WhatsApp conversation between himself and his friend in support of his position. 

11. The complainant also said that the reference in the article to his use of Accident and Emergency services was discriminatory; he was not allowed to register with a GP at the time, and was not acting illegally in using the service. The complainant also said that the journalist’s reference to the role of Sudanese mothers in society was discriminatory towards Sudanese women. 

12.  The newspaper apologised for any upset caused by the publication of the article, bit did not accept that there had been a breach of the Code. It said that the matters complained of had already been placed in the public domain when the journalist’s account was published by another newspaper, and on its Facebook page, which had a readership of two million people. It said that the article had been derived entirely from this first-person account and that the article was clearly attributed as such. 

13.  The newspaper said that, although the complainant was concerned by the repetition of the conversations which he had with the journalist, she was entitled to share her story, pursuant to her right to freedom of expression. The journalist had a reputation for probity and honesty, and had provided a personal account of recent events that had taken place in her house. The newspaper had no reason to doubt the veracity of her account, and there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. It noted that the complainant had confirmed during IPSO’s investigation that a friend of his had been given a copy of an early draft version of The Sunday Times article. It took from this that he was given a reasonable opportunity to comment on the majority of the information published prior to publication, but had chosen not to do so.

14.   The newspaper said that it was the journalist’s honest belief, set out in the original article, that the complainant was one of eighteen siblings, that his father had four wives and that he received a £35 weekly living allowance. It had accurately reported claims made in The Sunday Times article. It also said that it was not inaccurate to describe the complainant as a migrant and noted the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a migrant as “a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions”. 

15.   The newspaper said that first-hand journalism inevitably involves a degree of intrusion into privacy, both that of the journalist and of others who have shared the experiences about which they write. It said that the journalist was entitled to speak publicly about her experience living with the complainant and that this right outweighed any right to privacy that the complainant might have had in this instance. 

16.   The newspaper said that in any event, the information published was not of an intrinsically private nature and noted that the article referred to the complainant by his first name only. It said that, while the article included his photograph, this would have only identified the complainant to a limited group of individuals, who would have likely already known of at least some of the information in the article. The newspaper emphasised again that the information in the article had been previously published in a national newspaper and was therefore already in the public domain. 

17.   The newspaper said that the information about the pornographic images reported in the article was not particularly private or specific to the complainant, and that he would have deleted the images if he had considered them to be private. It said that the computer belonged to the journalist and that, according to her account, the complainant was no longer living with her when the material was discovered. The newspaper said that the journalist maintained that she had seen them and was able to provide significant descriptive details about the images. 

18.   The newspaper said that the article added to the public conversation surrounding the UK’s reaction to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East, which was a matter of public interest. Furthermore, the newspaper said that the complainant had failed to use the NHS in an ethical manner, by attending the Accident and Emergency department at a hospital when suffering from minor ailments, and that there was a strong public interest in discussing matters surrounding the use – or alleged abuse – of limited NHS resources. There was also a public interest in reporting that the complainant had used illegal drugs. The newspaper said that the level of detail included in the article was limited and entirely proportionate to the public interest. 

19.   The newspaper said that no references in the article suggested that the complainant’s behaviour was linked to any characteristics protected under Clause 12, and that this Clause was not engaged. 

20.   While the newspaper did not accept that there had been a breach of the Code, it offered to remove the complainant’s photograph from the online article; to remove the reference to the £35 which he was reported to have received from the Home Office; to write him a private letter of apology; and to publish the following clarification as a footnote to the online article and on page 2 of the newspaper: 

On 30 May we published a commentary on an article by [the journalist] for The Sunday Times Magazine, which detailed her experience of opening her home to a Sudanese asylum seeker, Mohammed. We have since been asked to make clear that, contrary to our piece, Mohammed did not receive £35 per week from the Home Office, that he denies placing a folder of pornographic images on [the journalist’s] computer and that his father had three wives and fifteen children. We are happy to set the record straight. 

Relevant Code provisions

21.   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 2 (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.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. 

Clause 3 (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 property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii)  Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story. 

*The public interest 

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.

Findings of the Committee

22.  The article was based on a journalist’s first-person account of her experiences living with the complainant, which had been published on an earlier date in another publication. The article had taken this information, attributed it to the other publication, and provided a broader commentary on the account. The asylum process, and the experience of asylum seekers in the UK were matters of public interest, and the newspaper was entitled to comment on the journalist’s first-hand account of her experiences, in line with the right to freedom of expression. However, this right had to be balanced against the complainant’s right to privacy. 

23. The article included extensive information about the complainant, relating to: his family and personal relationships; his domestic arrangements; his financial circumstances; his journey to the UK; his asylum application; his relationships and interactions with the journalist, including an argument they had had; his health; his drug use; and allegations about the possession of private, sexual material. These details were used to create a detailed and intimate portrait of the complainant, and his life. The complainant was clearly identified in the article, which included his first name and an unpixelated photograph of him. The complainant was not a public figure, and had not disclosed any of this information publicly, or consented to its publication. The Sunday Times article had made clear that he had been upset at the idea of being the focus of coverage in a national newspaper.

24. The newspaper had sought to argue that the information in the article had been published by another newspaper, with a large number of readers, and so was already in the public domain. The Public Interest section of the Code makes clear that the regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain. However, the simple fact that information has previously been published in another publication does not relieve editors of the duty of considering whether material it intends to publish complies with the terms of the Code. The article identified the complainant, and included a lot of detailed information about his personal life and background. The re-publication of this information, given the extent of the detail, and the fact that no steps were taken to obscure the complainant’s identity, represented an intrusion into his private life. The fact that this material had been published by another newspaper was not sufficient to justify this intrusion in the public interest. The Committee recognised that the newspaper was reporting on material of significant public interest, but did not consider that it justified the extent of information reported about the complainant, and the resulting intrusion into his private life. The journalist’s right to freedom of expression did not outweigh the complainant’s right to privacy in this instance. There was a breach of Clause 2. 

25. The Committee then turned to consider the issues raised under Clause 1. The newspaper had repeated claims made by another publication, and had not taken any steps to verify the accuracy of the claims made. The complainant had not been receiving a £35 weekly living allowance, as reported in the article. This assertion was used to support the article’s general contention that the complainant was acting dishonestly in living with the journalist, and claiming benefits to which he was not entitled. Its re-publication represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1 (i). The newspaper had offered to publish a correction, making clear that the complainant did not receive this allowance, and to write a private letter to the complainant, apologising for any distress caused by the article. This correction should now be published, in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). 

26. The Committee did not consider that the small discrepancies about the complainant’s number of siblings and his father’s marriages were significant in this context. Nonetheless, it welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification on these points.  

27. The article had described the complainant as a “migrant”. However, it had made clear that he had applied for asylum, and that his claim was ultimately granted, notwithstanding the article’s scepticism about the validity of his claim. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

28. The complainant said that the newspaper had breached Clause 3 because it published his first name and a photograph of him. The terms of Clause 3 are designed primarily to prohibit journalists from engaging in the intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit of an individual. The publication of the complainant’s first name and photograph did not engage the terms of Clause 3. 

29. The journalist was entitled to criticise the complainant’s conduct, and did not make any prejudicial or pejorative references to him on the basis of any characteristics covered by the terms of Clause 12. The journalist’s reference to Sudanese mothers in general did not relate to an individual and did not therefore engage the terms of Clause 12. 

Conclusions

30. The complaint under Clause 1 and Clause 2 was upheld.

Remedial action required 

31. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered the remedial action that should be required. 

32. The correction should now be published, as offered, to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). 

33. The appropriate remedial action in response to the breach of Clause 2 was the publication of an upheld adjudication. 

34. The article had been published on pages 30-31 of the newspaper. The adjudication should therefore be published on page 30, or further forward.

35. The wording of the headline to the adjudication should be agreed with IPSO in advance, or in the absence of agreement, as determined by the Complaints Committee. It should refer to IPSO, include the title of the newspaper, make clear that the complaint was upheld, and refer to the subject matter of the article. 

36. The adjudication should also be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing on the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. If the newspaper intends to continue to publish the article online without amendment to remove material which does not comply with the Code, the full text of the adjudication should also be published on the article, beneath the headline. 

37. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows: 

Following an article published in the Daily Mail on 1 June 2017 headlined “While liberal hand wringers made empty pledges to take in a refugee, one acclaimed writer quietly did so – only to have her kindness betrayed”, Mohammed Ahmed complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail had breached Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The complaint was upheld and IPSO has required the Daily Mail to publish this adjudication. 

The article reported that a journalist had written a first-hand account, published in The Sunday Times, of her experience while the complainant, who was an asylum seeker at the time, was living as a guest in her house. The article included the complainant’s first name and an unpixelated photograph of him. 

The article reported various details about the complainant’s background, including his journey to the UK, and went on to report a number of incidents recounted in The Sunday Times article, which The Sunday Times journalist described as “warning signs” about the complainant. The Sunday Times journalist said that she had discovered pornographic images on her computer, left there by the complainant. The nature of these images was described in the article. She had also said that, while living with her, the complainant had suffered from various illnesses, and had regularly attended the Accident and Emergency department at a hospital. The article included details of the illnesses, and reported that the journalist had given him a “lecture about not abusing the NHS”. She also wrote that the complainant had asked her “where he could find the nearest park, as he’d been told that London parks were the best place to buy marijuana”. 

The complainant expressed concern that he had become the subject of a story in a national newspaper, which he considered to be an intrusion into his privacy. He had not consented to the publication of The Sunday Times article, and did not believe that there was any justification for its re-publication. 

The newspaper said that the matters complained of had already been placed in the public domain when the journalist’s account was published by another newspaper which had a readership of two million people. It said that the article had been derived entirely from this first-person account and that the article was clearly attributed as such. The journalist was entitled to share her story, pursuant to her right to freedom of expression, and it noted her reputation for probity and honesty. The newspaper said that in any event, the information published was not of an intrinsically private nature and was in the public interest. 

IPSO’s Complaints Committee said that the newspaper was entitled to comment on the journalist’s first-hand account of her experiences, but rejected the newspaper’s position that publication of the article was justified as the information had been published by another newspaper, with a large number of readers, and so was already in the public domain. 

The article included extensive information about the complainant, relating to: his family and personal relationships; his domestic arrangements; his financial circumstances; his journey to the UK; his asylum application; his relationships and interactions with the journalist, including an argument they had had; his health; his drug use; and allegations about the downloading of private, sexual material on The Sunday Times journalist’s computer. These details were used to create a detailed and intimate portrait of the complainant, and his life. The complainant was clearly identified in the article, which included his first name and unpixelated photograph. The complainant was not a public figure, and had not disclosed any of this information publicly, or consented to its publication. The Sunday Times article had made clear that he had been upset at the idea of being the focus of coverage in a national newspaper. 

The Public Interest section of the Code makes clear that the regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain. However, the simple fact that information has previously been published in another publication does not relieve editors of the duty of considering whether material it intends to publish complies with the terms of the Code. The re-publication of the information, given the extent of the detail, and the fact that no steps were taken to obscure the complainant’s identity, represented an intrusion into his private life. The Committee recognised that the newspaper was reporting on material of significant public interest, but the fact that this material had been published by another newspaper, was not sufficient to justify the extent of information reported about the complainant, and the resulting intrusion into his private life. The journalist’s right to freedom of expression did not outweigh the complainant’s right to privacy in this instance. There was a breach of Clause 2. 

Review

The newspaper complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.  

Date complaint received: 20/06/2017
Date decision issued: 17/10/2017