Ruling

16903-17 A man v Liverpool Echo

    • Date complaint received

      2nd November 2017

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment, 6 Children

Decision of the Complaints Committee 16903-17 A man v Liverpool Echo

Summary of complaint

1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Liverpool Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “School head ‘sorry’ for ‘Isis salute’”, published in print on 18 July 2017. The article was also published online with the headline “School newsletter contained photo of student ‘doing ISIS salute’”.

2. The article reported that a headteacher from a named school had “apologised” after a photograph of a pupil allegedly making an “Isis salute” during its sports day had been published in the school’s weekly newsletter. The article claimed that a “source” from the school had told the newspaper that the newsletter had caused “disquiet from parents”, and had said: “as you can see, one of the pictures is of a pupil doing the ‘ISIS finger’, draped in an Iranian flag.”

3. The article reproduced a heavily pixelated version of the photograph which had been previously published by the school, in which the complainant’s 14-year-old son had featured, standing beside the pupil who had made the alleged gesture. The article included comments made by the headteacher to the newspaper, who had said that the photograph would be “removed swiftly” from the school’s website and that its publication in the newsletter had been a “genuine error”.

4. The complainant said that the photograph had been published by the newspaper without his consent, or that of the school. He said that, by naming the school and the event at which the photograph had been taken, publication had risked the welfare of his son, and had intruded into his privacy and his time at school, despite the fact that his son’s face had been pixelated in the photograph.

5. The complainant acknowledged that the school had then re-issued the newsletter online, without the photograph, and had published on its front page the following statement: “We would like to apologise for any offence that may have been caused by a picture on the front page of last week’s newsletter”. The complainant said that as a result of the publication of the article under complaint, as well as the school re-issuing the newsletter, his son had experienced “abuse” from other pupils at school.

6. He further said that the newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the claim that the gesture was an “Isis salute”; he said that whilst the gesture is used by Isis, it is also recognised as a symbol of peace in the Middle East.

7. The newspaper said that the photograph was used to illustrate a legitimate news story, which was the subject of pre-existing controversy. It did not accept that there had been an intrusion into the complainant's son's privacy or his time at school. It said that the photograph had already been distributed, unpixelated, in a newsletter published by the school online and circulated to the parents of the 1,550 students at the school. The newspaper said that in those circumstances, no new information about the complainant’s son had been placed into the public domain by its publication of the photograph and that, in any event, it had taken steps to obscure the pupils’ faces so that they could not be recognised by people outside of the school.

8. It said that a “source” had been told by staff at the school that parents were concerned about the publication of the newsletter. The newspaper said that this had led the journalist to telephone the headteacher, to put the source’s claims to him. The newspaper provided shorthand notes of the headteacher’s response: “I'm sorry  it was issued in error. It was a genuine error by a member of staff. We will be dealing with it internally." The newspaper said that the headteacher had informed the journalist that the alleged Isis salute had been flagged up to the school prior to the newspaper’s enquiry and that the school was already looking to remove the image and to deal with the matter internally.

9. The newspaper said that there was an exceptional public interest in publishing the photograph and identifying the particular school and the way it had handled the incident, particularly as the newsletter had previously been circulated and then withdrawn with an apology. It noted that the complainant’s son had been photographed next to another pupil making a gesture which was recognised as being associated with Isis, at a time when people in Britain and all over the world were being killed in that name. It also noted that since the article’s publication, a public debate had begun surrounding the controversy about the school's alleged failure to deal with extremism.

Relevant Code provisions

10. 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 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

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 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

11. The article had focussed on the school’s publication of a photograph of a pupil, who appeared to be making an “Isis salute”; criticism of the school; and its apology and subsequent comment about the controversy. The photograph in question, in which the complainant’s son had appeared incidentally, had been published alongside the article to illustrate the story. The Committee noted that the complainant’s son had not been making the gesture which had been the subject of concern and noted that the article had not included any criticism of the complainant’s son, or his actions.

12. Against this background, the Committee first considered the complaint under Clause 6. The article had named the complainant’s son’s school, and had been accompanied by a photograph of him wearing his school uniform while at the school’s sports day. The article had, therefore, contained some information which related to his schooling. Critical to the Committee’s considerations was whether the publication of the photograph had resulted in an unnecessary intrusion into his time at the school. The Committee noted that an unpixelated copy of the photograph had previously been published online and circulated to the parents of the 1,550 students at the school. The Committee noted that the photograph published by the newspaper had been heavily pixelated and that the complainant had not asserted that, as a result of its publication, his son had been identifiable to anyone who had not already seen the photograph in the newsletter. Given this, and particularly where the complainant’s son had been incidental to a story which had focussed upon the gesture being made by a fellow pupil, the Committee considered that any intrusion into the complainant’s son’s time at school as a result of the publication of the pixelated photograph, had been limited.

13. The concern that the child pictured with the complainant's son had been making an "Isis salute" and that the school had apologised for publishing the photograph, were issues which related to the complainant's son’s welfare. However, publication of the pixelated photograph did not materially affect his welfare in circumstances where the complainant’s son had not been pictured making the gesture and the unpixelated photograph had been previously disclosed to a wide audience.

14. In any event, there was a strong public interest in reporting the fact that the school had previously published the photograph, and its decision to withdraw it and to publish a statement apologising for any offence which had been caused. The publication of the pixelated photograph, to illustrate a story of such public interest, was justified. There was no breach of Clause 6.

15. While the unpixelated photograph of the complainant’s son had previously been circulated to parents at the school, the Committee recognised the complainant’s concern that publication of the image in the article, albeit pixelated, had the potential to represent a greater intrusion, given that it would have been able to be seen by a much larger audience. However, the photograph had been heavily pixelated and the article did not include any personal information about him. In those circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the publication of the photograph by the newspaper, in a pixelated form, represented an intrusion into the complainant’s son’s privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2.

16. The article had reported on the criticism made by the newspaper’s source, as well as the concerns expressed by parents at the school, that the named school had published a photograph which appeared to show a pupil making an “Isis salute”. The complainant did not dispute that such criticism had been made, and the article’s report was supported by the apology which had been published by the school, together with the ‘on the record’ statement issued by the school, both of which were included in the article. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that the gesture being made was open to interpretation, it did not conclude that there had been a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. There was no breach of Clause 1.

17. The photograph which accompanied the article had been taken by the school, and reproduced by the newspaper. There was no suggestion that it was taken in circumstances of intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit. The terms of Clause 3 were not engaged.

Conclusion

18. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

19. N/A

Date complaint received: 17/07/2017
Date decision issued: 18/10/2017