Ruling

16237-17 Ahmed v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      5th February 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 16237-17 Ahmed v The Sunday Times

Summary of complaint

1. Mohammed Ahmed complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “I’m not altruistic, I’m pretty selfish, but I had to do something, so I took in a refugee…”, published on 28 May 2017. 

2. The article, published in the newspaper’s magazine section, was the journalist’s first-person account of her experience hosting the complainant, who was an asylum seeker at the time, in her home. The writer explained that she had wanted to offer assistance to a refugee, and a person she had met in a pub “rang to say he’d met a Sudanese migrant, [the complainant], and perhaps I would take him?” She described her experience as “a story of two parts, without a happy ending”. 

3. The article included various details about the complainant’s background, including that he was Sudanese, that he was married, and that he had told the writer's daughter that he was “one of eighteen siblings” and that his father “married four times”. It reported that the complainant had registered with the Home Office as an official asylum seeker, and had an identity card, which stated that he was not allowed to find employment but instead “got a weekly £35 living allowance while waiting for his asylum hearing”. 

4. The article reported the journalist’s recollection of various conversations that she had with the complainant, including an occasion when the complainant said that he planned to treat her like his mother. The journalist said that she did not want to be treated like a Sudanese mother as this might include “a lot of cooking, cleaning and washing”. The journalist also recalled that she had a disagreement with the complainant about central heating and that they had argued. The article included the text of a letter of apology that the complainant had written to the journalist after this argument. 

5. The writer explained that she had initially written an article about her experience while the complainant was living with her. She had sent a draft version of this article to the complainant’s friend, so that he could show it to the complainant, and discuss it with him. The complainant had been distressed by the draft, and the writer had not understood why. She had asked his friend about it, and been told that the article had triggered the complainant’s “paranoia”. The writer and the complainant had argued about the draft. He had called her “heartless,” and said that she was racist and “had no feelings”. The complainant had queried why she had written the article, speculating that it was for financial gain. He said that his family were “very rich”, and “could buy you up like that”. Following the argument, the journalist had arranged for the complainant to move out of her house as she thought that he was “mad”. She had agreed not to publish any article about the complainant while his application for asylum was ongoing. 

6. The second part of the article was written after the complainant had moved out of the journalist’s home, and his application for asylum had been granted. The writer said that she felt like a “fool” for trusting the complainant, and that his conduct showed that those who thought that he was a “bad lot” and that she had been “insane to trust him”, were correct. The journalist set out a number of incidents from the complainant’s time living with her which she presented as “warning signs” about the complainant. She recalled 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 the journalist recalled giving him a “lecture about not abusing the NHS”. She also wrote that he had asked her on one occasion whether there was a park nearby as “he needed to buy some dope”, and said that she believed he had smoked cannabis in her home. The writer queried how the complainant was able to afford this when he was “supposedly living on £35 a week”. 

7. The journalist described photographs which she said the complainant had left on her computer. These included photographs of his journey across Europe to the UK, which the writer said “looked more like a holiday jaunt than a desperate flight to asylum”. The journalist also said that the complainant had left pornographic images on her computer, and she described the content of these images. 

8. The article was published online in substantively the same format, headlined “Lynn Barber: I took an asylum seeker into my home. It didn’t end well”. Both articles included a picture of the complainant and the journalist together in the journalist's house. 

9. The complainant was concerned that his life and experiences had been the focus of a story in a national newspaper, which he considered to be an intrusion into his privacy. He was not a public figure, and had not expected to be the subject of an article. He had not consented to its 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. 

10. The complainant 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 described in one instance in the article. 

11. The complainant said that the article was discriminatory towards him, because of his refugee status. He questioned why the journalist had criticised him 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 him and his friend in support of his position. 

12. 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. 

13. The newspaper said that the article was a first-hand piece on a challenging topic written by a widely acclaimed journalist of great experience and integrity, who honestly and accurately recalled the behaviour of a non-paying guest in her house, including information that he had voluntarily shared with her. In sharing her story, the journalist was exercising her right to freedom of expression. She was entitled to report her experiences and reasonably held opinions, and was contributing to a topic of general discussion and debate. It said that the article covered topics as wide as her own issues with trust, the "enormous pulling power of middle-class liberal guilt" and altruism as a concept, and the newspaper did not accept that the article had breached the Code. 

14. The newspaper said that, due to the journalist’s reputation and experience, it had no reason to doubt the veracity of her report but nonetheless, the article was fact-checked in the usual way, in compliance with the Code. It said that it did not contact the complainant for his comment because the article was written one year after the journalist had any contact with him, and she did not have his contact details. 

15. The newspaper said that the journalist had provided an accurate account of a conversation she had heard, in which the complainant said that he was one of eighteen siblings and that his father had four wives; this was recorded contemporaneously in her diary. 

16. The newspaper said that the article did not report that the complainant received a £35 weekly living allowance. Rather, it reported that he showed the journalist his official asylum-seeker's card which she was told entitled the complainant to receive this allowance. The newspaper said that the journalist had written a letter to the Home Office stating that she was not providing the complainant with financial support, and it was her belief that this was needed to support his claim for the allowance. 

17. The newspaper also said that the journalist had only referred to the complainant as a migrant when indirectly quoting another individual, and that throughout the article she had described him as either a refugee or an asylum seeker. 

18. While it did not accept that the article was significantly inaccurate on these points, the newspaper said it would be willing to publish the following clarification in the Corrections column of the newspaper: 

“The subject of an article in the Magazine (I took an asylum seeker into my home: it didn’t end well, May 28) has told us that he is one of 15 siblings and his father had three wives, not 18 and four as we reported, and that he did not receive a £35 a week asylum seeker’s allowance. We are happy to make this clear.” 

19. The newspaper also said that it would be willing to publish the following clarification as a footnote to the online article: 

“Since this article was published Mohammed has told us that he is one of 15 siblings and his father had three wives, not 18 and four as we reported, and that he did not receive a £35 a week asylum seeker’s allowance. We are happy to make this clear.” 

20. The newspaper said that the publication of the complainant’s first name and photograph did not amount to harassment, and noted that his name is so common that the reference would not identify him. The newspaper also said that the photograph of the complainant was innocuous, that it did not reveal any private information about him, and noted that he had not objected to being photographed at the time. 

21. The newspaper did not accept that the article had intruded into the complainant’s privacy. It said that the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to his behaviour, or conversations with the journalist, while staying at her home. It noted that he was a non-paying guest in the house, and that he had shared most of the information in the article with his host voluntarily, in the knowledge that she was a journalist working for a major newspaper. 

22. The newspaper said that the journalist was entitled to report the common, minor ailments that the complainant had complained of, and that these could not be viewed as private medical information in the context of the article. It said that, in any event, there is a public interest in discussing the use or abuse of Accident and Emergency services for such minor conditions when the use of GP surgeries would have been more appropriate.  

23. The newspaper also said that the journalist had provided copies of the pornographic images, which she had found on her computer. It did not accept that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to them; he had used the journalist’s computer and internet to access them, and had not deleted them from the computer when he had moved out of the journalist’s home. 

24. The newspaper said that it was not discriminatory to note that the complainant had used drugs or viewed pornography, as both are common throughout many groups in modern society. It also said that the journalist was entitled to express her view that the complainant was misusing Accident and Emergency services, and that she did not discriminate against the complainant in doing so. 

25. The newspaper said that it was reasonable for the journalist to set out what she believed the role of a mother in an alternative culture to be, given that she was being placed in a similar position by the complainant. The newspaper said that the journalist did so without making any prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual, but as a form of cultural insight and an explanation for the issues that can arise when people from different cultures share a house together. 

Relevant Code Provisions

26. 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. 

Findings of the Committee 

27. First-person journalism has a long history as a means to exercise the right to freedom of expression. The article discussed the asylum process, and the experience of asylum seekers in the UK, through the journalist’s account of the complainant’s experiences, and her relationship with him. These were matters of considerable public interest. When columnists share their experiences, the right to freedom of expression may conflict with another individual’s right to privacy. Editors must carefully balance these competing considerations in order to ensure compliance with the Code. 

28. Clause 2 of the Code makes clear that everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence. This reflects the enhanced privacy rights that people have in their own homes. The Committee rejected the newspaper’s position that, as the complainant was not paying rent, these rights were forfeited. It also did not accept that, as his host was a journalist, the complainant should have presumed that any information he shared with her might be published without his consent. 

29. 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, and a letter he had written to her, expressing his feelings about the disagreement; his psychological and physical 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.   

30. The Code makes clear that editors are expected to justify intrusions into an individual’s private life without consent. In considering whether any intrusion is justified, the Committee will take into account any steps a publication has taken to limit the extent to which an individual is identifiable. In this case, the article effectively identified the complainant by including his first name, and an unpixelated photograph of him. 

31. The complainant was not a public figure, and had not publicly disclosed the information about his experiences contained in the article, or consented to the article’s publication. The writer had agreed not to publish the article while the complainant’s asylum claim was ongoing. The publication was aware, as recorded in the article, that the complainant had been distressed at the idea of being the subject of coverage in a national newspaper.  

32. The article identified the complainant and included a lot of detailed information about his personal life and background. The extent of this detail, published without his consent, and where no steps were taken to obscure his identity, represented an intrusion into his private life.  While the journalist was entitled to publish her story, and the Committee recognised that the matters discussed in the article were of significant public interest, this was not sufficient to justify the extent of the information published 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. 

33. The Committee then turned to consider the issues raised under Clause 1. The complainant had not been receiving the £35 living allowance, as reported in the article. The newspaper had argued that it had been unable to verify this information with the complainant, as the journalist did not have his contact details. However, the journalist had not attempted to contact friends of the complainant with whom she had previously been in touch, to obtain his contact details, or to ask them to verify the claim that the complainant, who came from a wealthy family, was receiving this allowance while living rent-free with the journalist. This was used as evidence to support the journalist’s general contention that the complainant was untrustworthy. This was therefore a significant inaccuracy, and the failure to seek to verify this claim 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 clarification, setting out the complainant’s position that he had not received this allowance. This should now be published in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).                                              

34. 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. 

35. Throughout the article, the journalist had made clear that the complainant was seeking asylum, and that his asylum claim had subsequently been granted. The one reference to him as a “migrant”, presented as the description given by the person who had introduced the complainant to the writer, did not suggest that the complainant’s asylum claim was illegitimate. The article was not misleading in its presentation of the complainant's immigration status, or his reasons for travelling to the UK. 

36. The complainant said that the article 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. 

37. 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

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

Remedial action required

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

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

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

42. The article had been published on pages 16-21 of the newspaper’s magazine section. The adjudication should therefore be published on page 16 of this section, or further forward. Alternatively, it should be published in a position with equivalent prominence in the main newspaper section. The prominence for publication in the main newspaper section should be agreed with IPSO in advance. 

43. 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. 

44. 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. 

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

Following an article published in The Sunday Times on 28 May 2017 headlined “I’m not altruistic, I’m pretty selfish, but I had to do something, so I took in a refugee…”, Mohammed Ahmed complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times had breached Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The complaint was upheld and IPSO has required The Sunday Times to publish this adjudication.

The article, which included the complainant’s first name and unpixelated photograph, was the journalist’s first-person account of her experience hosting the complainant, at the time an asylum seeker, in her home. The article included various details about the complainant’s background and personal life, and reported the journalist’s recollection of various conversations that she had with the complainant. It also included the text of a letter of apology that the complainant had written to the journalist after they had argued. 

The journalist recalled that, while living with her, the complainant had suffered from an illness and the article included details of the illness. She also said that the complainant had left pornographic images on her computer, and she described the content of these images. 

The complainant was concerned that his life and experiences had been the focus of a story in a national newspaper, which he considered to be an intrusion into his privacy. He was not a public figure, and had not expected to be the subject of an article. He had not consented to its publication. 

The newspaper said that the article was a first-hand piece on a challenging topic written by a widely acclaimed journalist of great experience and integrity. In sharing her story, the journalist was exercising her right to freedom of expression. She was entitled to report her experiences and opinions, and was contributing to a topic of general discussion and debate. 

The newspaper did not accept that the article had intruded into the complainant’s privacy. It said that the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to his behaviour, or conversations with the journalist, while staying at her home. It noted that he was a non-paying guest in the house, and that he had shared most of the information in the article with his host voluntarily, in the knowledge that she was a journalist working for a major newspaper. 

IPSO’s Complaints Committee emphasised that first-person journalism has a long history as a means to exercise the right to freedom of expression. Clause 2 of the Code makes clear that everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence. This reflects the enhanced privacy rights that people have in their own homes.  The Committee rejected the newspaper’s position that, as the complainant was not paying rent, these rights were forfeited. It also did not accept that, as his host was a journalist, the complainant should have presumed that any information he shared with her might be published without his consent. 

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, and a letter he had written to her, expressing his feelings about the disagreement; his psychological and physical 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 not a public figure, and had not publicly disclosed the information about his experiences contained in the article, or consented to the article’s publication. The extent of this detail, published without his consent, and where no steps were taken to obscure his identity, represented an intrusion into his private life. While the journalist was entitled to publish her story, and the Committee recognised that the matters discussed in the article were of significant public interest, this was not sufficient to justify the extent of the information 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: 26/06/2017
Date decision issued: 17/10/2017