Ruling

17587-23 A man and a woman v Sunday World

    • Date complaint received

      23rd November 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 17587-23 A man and a woman v Sunday World


Summary of Complaint

1. A man and a woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Sunday World breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published on 12 March 2023.

2. The article reported on the ‘stag do’ of the man making the complaint, and his wedding to the woman making the complaint with him. The couple lived in Belfast, and the man was described in the article as a “top loyalist…businessman”. The article included an image of the man dressed as Jimmy Savile and a second image of him dressed in the strip of Celtic FC which the article reported had been taken the previous summer when the complainant had embarked upon a series of stag nights.

3. The article also reported the couple had married “in Benidorm last August” and that “the bride wore a stunning white wedding dress and veil with shoes specially purchased from Brown Thomas in Dublin.” It then stated a bridesmaid at the wedding “also turned heads with a silky black number while carrying a beautiful bouquet of white roses” and that the groom and his “best budd[y] […] wore bespoke checked short trouser and waistcoat suits, with white shirts and black bow ties. They also sported matching white trainers and single white roses in their lapels”. It went on to report that the groom was “tying the knot with his long-term partner and mother of his three sons” and named his wife (the second complainant). It said the “bride and groom” and “best man and bridesmaid”, who were also named, were “living proof that religion matters little to new-age couples, 25 years after the signing of Good Friday Agreement”. The article also included an image of the complainants at their wedding, showing them holding hands and smiling.

4. The complainants said the article breached Clause 2 (Privacy) because it included images and details of their wedding day, which they said was a private event. The couple said they had shared some images and details of the wedding on Facebook. However, they said the images had been shared on a private profile, which was subject to controlled privacy settings, and were only viewable by around 200 friends.

5. The complainants also said the article intruded on their right to a private life because it contained details of the man’s stag do, including the published images. They said these images had appeared on Facebook, but were subject to the same privacy settings as those on the wedding pictures.

6. The complainants also said the article intruded into their private life because it revealed that they were married and shared children, information they said had not previously been publicly disclosed.

7. The complainants also said the article breached Clause 2 because it disclosed that the woman was Catholic. They said this was information she had deliberately not disclosed publicly and had sought to keep private, as she lived in a strongly Protestant area.

8. The complainants also argued the disclosure of the woman’s religious background breached Clause 12, as Clause 12 specifies that references to an individual’s religious background must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story. They said the woman’s religion had no relevance to the article under complaint.

9. The publication did not accept the article breached Clause 2. Its position was that the couple did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over the images and details of the wedding and stag do, as it said the photographs and information came from the woman’s publicly available Facebook profile. To support its position, it supplied screenshots of the woman’s Facebook profile. One screenshot appeared to show at least some posts on her profile had been publicly accessible on 8 March, 4 days before the publication of the article. It also shared a screenshot showing the man’s Facebook profile picture was him and the second complainant at their wedding. The publication did not supply screenshots which demonstrated that the specific images published in the article were available to the public, although it did share a screenshot of an itinerary of wedding events posted as a Facebook status by the second complainant. The publication also said the images did not reveal anything private about the complainants, such as details about their children or any medical information.

10. The publication also said it had not breached Clause 2 by mentioning the complainants were married with children. It supplied screenshots from the woman’s Facebook profile, where she named her children and mentioned her relationship to them. It added the only reference to the children in the article was the mention of the man marrying “his long-term partner and mother of his three sons” and said that – unlike on the woman’s public Facebook page – no names, ages or photographs of the children were referenced in the article under complaint.

11. It also did not accept that including the woman’s religion breached Clause 2. It disputed the woman had sought to keep her religious background private, and supplied a screenshot, from what appeared to be the woman’s publicly available Facebook profile, showing her in a Celtic FC football shirt at an event where numerous people could be seen in the background of the photograph. Its position was – given the widely understood link between Catholicism and Celtic FC – this amounted to public disclosure of her religion, and therefore this was not information she had a reasonable expectation of privacy over.

12. The publication also did not accept it had breached Clause 12 by mentioning the woman’s religion. It argued, given the article mentioned the cross-community aspect of the couple’s marriage, the reference to the woman’s religion was genuinely relevant to the story and therefore not in breach of Clause 12.

13. Additionally, while the publication did not accept a breach of the Code, it argued even if there was a breach, its reporting was in the public interest. It said the article followed up on a previous front-page story, about a viral video showing a man, suspected to be a UVF member, demanding £10,000 from a woman at the door of her home. The article reported on claims that one of the two men in the video was the complainant, and his denial. The publication said there was a public interest in further reporting on the individuals associated with this previous story, as well as the cross-community marriage aspect of the story. It said the public interest was considered by the editorial team in accordance with the publication’s editorial code of conduct, although it did not specify whether this was before or after publication and was not able to provide a note of the conversation.

14. The complainants did not accept the publication had demonstrated the images were publicly available. It said the publication had only provided a screenshot of one Facebook post but had not been able to provide a screenshot of where it had obtained the published images from.

15. The complainants also did not accept the publication’s public interest defence, and disputed there was any public interest justifying an intrusion into the private life of the family.

Relevant Clause Provisions

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 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

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

16. The Editors’ Code makes clear that the private lives of individuals must be respected. However, it also stipulates that complainants’ own public disclosures of information will be considered in establishing whether they have a reasonable expectation of privacy over the information under complaint. As such, the complainants’ own disclosures on social media of information about their personal lives was pivotal to the Committee’s consideration of this case.

17. The Committee began by considering whether the images and details of the complainants’ wedding included in the article breached Clause 2. Weddings, which may be intimate and exclusive events related to the personal lives of individuals, can clearly be private events. However, this is not the case with all weddings, and some may be events intended to publicise the act of marriage. The Committee therefore carefully considered the public disclosures the couple had made about the wedding event, compared to the information which appeared in the article under complaint.

18. The published image of the wedding showed the complainants standing together on their wedding day, looking directly at the camera. The photograph, therefore, included information about the relationship between the complainants and how they were each dressed on the day of their wedding. Although the publication was not able to demonstrate that the precise image which appeared in the article had first been published on the complainants’ open Facebook pages, it had demonstrated that an image of the wedding, which contained similar information, had been posted openly by one of the complainants. The details of the wedding published in the article included the destination of the wedding and what had been worn by the complainants and their bridesmaids and groomsmen. The Committee did not consider this information to be intrusive in nature; the limited details provided were not explicit or embarrassing, the article had described what the couple and the groomsmen and bridesmaids were wearing and where the wedding had taken place. Furthermore, similar information had been disclosed in the pictures and the detailed wedding itinerary which had been posted on the complainants’ social media accounts. Given the nature of the information contained in the article and where the publication was able to demonstrate that the couple had made public disclosures of similar information about their wedding, the Committee did not consider the complainants to have a reasonable expectation of privacy over the information about the wedding that appeared in the article. As such, there was no breach of Clause 2 on this point. However, although there was no breach of the Clause, the Committee wished to note its concern at the absence of screenshots to support the publication’s position that the published images had been taken from one of the complainants’ open social media accounts.

19. The Committee next considered the images of the complainant, which the article reported had been taken at the time of his stag parties. In one, the complainant appeared dressed in the strip of Celtic FC and was smiling into the camera and in the other, he was dressed as Jimmy Savile which the article reported had been taken in the street. The images did not show anything intrinsically private about the complainant, showing how he looked and had dressed for the events. In these circumstances, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over the information contained in the photographs. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

20. Although the article referred to the fact that the complainants were parents to three sons, it did not include any further detail about the children. The fact an individual has children is not information in respect of which they generally have a reasonable expectation of privacy and publishing this information therefore did not represent an intrusion into the family life of the complainants. Furthermore, the publication was able to demonstrate that one of the complainants had disclosed that she was the mother of three children on social media herself. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

21. The Committee then considered whether the mention of the woman’s religion breached Clause 2 or Clause 12. The Committee acknowledged that within Northern Ireland support for certain football clubs can be aligned to an individual’s religion or faith and the communities where they reside. Wearing a recognised Celtic FC football shirt in a photograph posted on the complainant’s social media post, amounted to a public disclosure of her religion. As such, the information had entered the public domain via the complainant’s own public disclosures and the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over it. In terms of Clause 12, the reference to the complainants’ religion was not prejudicial or pejorative and the article had highlighted the advancements which were evident in Northern Ireland around religious issues since the Good Friday Agreement. The cross-cultural aspect of the complainant’s marriage was, therefore, genuinely relevant. For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 12.

22. Although the Code was not found to have been breached, the Committee wished to note that under the Code there is no public interest exception for possible breaches of Clause 12. It also noted that the publication was not able to produce any supporting material to demonstrate that the public interest was considered before publication, for instance meeting minutes or a diary entry for any relevant meeting they may have held, which the Committee will expect to be provided when a public interest justification is available.

Conclusions

23. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action required

24. N/A


Date complaint received: 17/03/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 08/11/2023