Ruling

16770-23 Abbas v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      29th June 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 6 Children

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 16770-23 Abbas v Mail Online

 

Summary of Complaint

1. Syed Abbas complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Grieving parents demand answers over 'mysterious' death of their daughter in a Pakistan hospital and the disappearance of their grandchildren as they fight to have youngsters, 10 and 8, returned to Britain”, published on 5 February 2023.

2. The article was an account from a couple whose daughter had died in Pakistan, after having flown there with her two children. The names and the ages of the children were included in the article. The article described how the couple were left “searching for answers after their daughter died suddenly on a trip to Pakistan with her two children, whose location is still unknown 18 months later”. The article described how their daughter “had already been buried by the time her parents found out she had died”. The article also contained a quote from the couple, who said that when they called the hospital, they “was ill with coronavirus, then sepsis, and that she was in a coma”. The article also stated that the couple had claimed that their daughter’s death certificate contained “‘huge inconsistencies’” such as stating she “died of sepsis, a stroke and cardiopulmonary arrest”, and had inaccurately stated she had been an epileptic from birth. It contained a photograph of one of the children with their mother and a photograph which contained a collage of the children and their mother.

3. The complainant was the father of the children. He said that the article had a huge impact on himself, and his children and their wellbeing at school and in life, in breach of Clause 6. He noted that the article contained an image of his child and their mother, as well as the collage showing both of his children, and both of their names and ages. He had not consented to the publication of this information. He said that the grandparents did not have custody, or similar responsibilities so could not give their consent, and therefore this also breached Clause 6.

4. The complainant also said that the topic of the articles – as well as the names of his children, their mother, and himself, and the photographs of the children – intruded into his and his children’s privacy, in breach of Clause 2.

5. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as his children were not missing: they were enrolled in school in Pakistan. He stated that the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, British High Commission and Wirral Education Department knew their location. He also said that the grandparents had numerous ways to contact him, such as his WhatsApp number and email.

6. The complainant also said the article gave the misleading impression that the circumstances of the woman’s death were suspicious. He supplied a Facebook post from the grandmother of his children – one half of the couple quoted extensively in the article – which stated that the investigation into her daughter’s death was closed with “no suspicious circumstances”.

7. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the information and images published in the article had been syndicated from a different publication. It said that after receiving the complainant it had contacted the original publisher.

8. Whilst it accepted that the article concerned the children’s welfare, it considered that in circumstances where it did not consider the complainant to be contactable, the children’s maternal grandparents could be considered as responsible adults able to give consent to publish the images. It noted that the complainant was not named, and that it had used the names of the children as the grandparents said they had no way of contacting the children or the complainant in order to appeal for more information about them. It also noted that the complainant was not named, and naming his partner was not a breach of the Code. It said, therefore, that neither Clause 2 nor Clause 6 had been breached.

9. Whilst the publication denied any breach of the complainant or children’s privacy, it said the concerns of the grandparents, the apparent lack of official assistance from Pakistani authorities and MPs getting involved demonstrated this, and that the scrutiny and investigation of a suspicious death of a UK national abroad, whose children were cut off from their grandparents, was manifestly in the public interest. It said that names and images of the children were proportionate to this aim – as the article was essentially a “missing persons” article, and that this was considered at the time of publication. It supplied an email chain between the reporter, the managing editor’s office and the legal department regarding whether it should blur the images – which it decided was not necessary “taking it that family want to publicise them”.

10. With regards to Clause 1, the publication said that it was the position of the children’s grandparents that the children were missing, as they had not had contact with them since 2021 and did not know how to contact them, and the complainant had not provided evidence to suggest their concerns were not genuine. The publication also said that the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office had sent the following statement to the original publisher: “We are supporting the family of a British national who sadly died in Pakistan”. The publication also said the original publisher had said it attempted to contact the complainant using contact details provided by the grandparents but had not received a response. It said that syndicating stories from another regulated publisher demonstrated that it had taken care not to publish inaccurate information.

11. The publication offered to update the article to clarify where the children were living; to publish a statement from the complainant; and to remove the images of his children if it resolved his complaint, which he did not accept.

Relevant Clause 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 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 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.

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. Clause 6(iii) requires that 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. The article in this case clearly involved the children’s welfare – it described their grandparents’ concern regarding their whereabouts, as well as the circumstances in which their mother had died – and the newspaper accepted it did not have consent from a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult for their publication. Clause 6 was, therefore, engaged.

13. The Committee then considered whether the publication of the photographs could be justified by an exceptional public interest, which was required to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16. The Committee made clear that its considerations did not relate to the public interest of publishing the article in general – but specifically to the issue of whether identifying the children, through both their names and the photographs, was in the public interest for the reasons provided by the publication. The Committee acknowledged the public interest arguments cited by the publication – in particular the concerns around the mother’s death and the investigation into it. However, it did not consider that publishing the children’s images or identities was warranted or justified under the exceptional public interest required in relation to children for the reasons cited, when balanced against the potential for intrusion into the children’s lives from identifying them in the context of these claims. On this basis, the Committee upheld the breach of Clause 6(iii).

14. With regards to Clause 2, the children had been identified by the publication of their names and photographs. The Committee found that the article contained information over which the children had a reasonable expectation of privacy: it raised questions regarding their whereabouts, their current life and wellbeing whilst living with their father, and speculated with regards to the circumstances of their mother’s death. The Committee found that their identification, in conjunction with these details, represented an unjustified intrusion into the children’s privacy. For the reasons set out above, the Committee did not consider this was justified under the exceptional public interest required in relation to children and there was a breach of Clause 2 in relation to the complainant’s children.

15. With regards to the accuracy of the article, it was presented as an account from the grandparents’ perspective – their comments were distinguished from fact and attributed to them by the use of quotation marks and language such as “claim[ed]” and “said”. The article also clearly characterised what it meant by the children having disappeared – it stated that they personally were not aware where the children were, and the article did not report that the children’s location was unknown to everyone. Where the article made clear that the children were missing to their grandparents, and where this was attributed as the opinion and comments of the grandparents, there was no breach of Clause 1 arising from this point of complaint.

16. The Committee also considered that the article made clear that it was the family that had questions regarding their daughter’s death and the death certificate – and sufficiently distinguished these opinions about their daughter’s death from fact. Whilst the authorities in Pakistan may have found that there were no suspicious circumstances, this did not mean that the family could not have their own doubts, and it was not a breach of the Code to report these. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. With regards to the complainant’s concerns his own privacy had been breached by the article, the Committee firstly noted he had not been photographed or named in the article. Rather he was complaining that his privacy had been breached by the reference to the death of his partner and the use of her name. As above, the Committee had found that the account was clearly attributed to the grandparents – and made clear their concerns regarding the circumstances and the subsequent investigation into their daughter’s death in another country. The Committee considered that the issues raised by the publication of the article were in the public interest, for the reasons cited by the publication. Where the complainant himself had not been named or photographed, and where the grandparents were entitled to express concerns about matters of potential public interest, the Committee found that the newspaper was justified in publishing the account. There was no breach of Clause 2 in relation to the complainant himself.

Conclusions

18. The complaint was upheld under Clause 2 and Clause 6.

Remedial action required

19. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 2 and Clause 6, 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.

20. The Committee considered the placement of this adjudication. The adjudication should be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication appearing on the top half of the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. If the article remains online and unamended, the full text of the adjudication should be added to the article. If the information which caused the breach is removed, a link to the adjudication should be published under the headline. The headline to the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, refer to the subject matter and be agreed with IPSO in advance of publication.

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

Syed Abbas complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, the press regulator, that the Mail Online breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Grieving parents demand answers over 'mysterious' death of their daughter in a Pakistan hospital and the disappearance of their grandchildren as they fight to have youngsters, 10 and 8, returned to Britain”, published on 5 February 2023.

The article was an account from a couple whose daughter had died in Pakistan, after having flown there with her two children. It referenced their concerns about what happened to their daughter and the current wellbeing of their grandchildren were. The names and the ages of the children were included in the article, as well as several photographs of the two children.

The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required the Mail Online to publish this adjudication to remedy the breach of the Code.

The complainant was the father of the children. He said that the article had a huge impact on his children. He said he had not consented to the publication of images of his children, or their names and ages. This was a breach of their privacy and the Editors’ Code.

The Editor’s Code requires that 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. The article in this case clearly involved the children’s welfare – it described their grandparents’ concern regarding their whereabouts, as well as the circumstances in which their mother had died – and the newspaper accepted it did not have consent from a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult for their publication. Whilst IPSO considered that the article raised matters that were broadly in the public, IPSO did not consider that publishing the children’s photos, or identifying them, met the test of exceptional level public interest required to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16. There was a breach of Clause 6.

IPSO also found that the publication of the images of the children, along with their names and ages, in this context, represented an unjustified intrusion into the children’s privacy.

IPSO upheld the complaint as a breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code and ordered the publication of this ruling.

 

Date complaint received:  09/02/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  12/06/2023