Ruling

20298-17 A woman v Thurrock Independent

    • Date complaint received

      19th April 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20298-17 A woman v Thurrock Independent

Summary of complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Thurrock Independent breached Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “SAINTS OR SINNERS?”, published on 19 October 2017.

2. The article detailed allegations made by “whistleblowers” concerning a “financial crisis” and “staff bullying” at a local hospice, where the complainant is employed. The article identified the complainant by name, in addition to her job title as the head of a department which was responsible for bringing revenue into the hospice. The article reported that the complainant’s department had been placed under “unrealistic pressure” and claimed that employees were finding it “tougher and tougher to achieve their annual income targets”. The article reported that the complainant was “currently reported to be on leave with stress related issues” as it had emerged that “grievance procedures” had been taken out by staff alleging bullying.

3. The article was also published online under the headline: “Hospice stays silent over cash crisis and bullying concerns”.

4. The complainant said that the fact that she was off work, and the reason for this absence, was private information which the article had disclosed without her knowledge or consent. The complainant accepted that it was in the public interest to report on the alleged financial crisis and mismanagement at the hospice, however she did not accept that the disclosure of her name and her job title, in order to illustrate that story, was justified.

5. The newspaper expressed regret that the article had caused the complainant distress. However, it said that it had a duty of care to the community to report on the claims made by its confidential source, who, in addition to informing the newspaper of the complainant’s absence from work, had detailed financial pressure, bullying and administrative failures at the hospice following recent changes to its management.

6. The newspaper maintained that it was in the public interest to name the complainant in the article: it was not possible to report the full extent of the problems within the hospice’s organisation, without reporting that a senior member of staff’s health had been jeopardised as a consequence. It noted that a number of people from within the organisation, as well as its corporate partners, had been aware of the reasons why the complainant had been absent from work, prior to the disclosure of this information in the article.

7. The newspaper said that the complainant was a well-known member of staff at the hospice, who held a public facing and senior position within a key department, which involved her working closely with corporate partners, major sponsors and attending a wide range of public events. This was the same department which had been adversely effected by the changes in the hospice’s structure. It said that the public interest in reporting on these changes could only be achieved by identifying that a key and senior figure in the organisation was being bullied and victimised as a consequence. The newspaper said that given the complainant’s senior position within the organisation, and her popularity within the community, naming her was essential to place public pressure on the senior management at the hospice and demand change.

Relevant Code provisions

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. 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 14 (Confidential sources)

Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.

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

8. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s distress that information which she had chosen to disclose to a small number of people had been published by the newspaper without her knowledge or consent. It was a matter of considerable regret that the publication had failed to contact her prior to publication. 

9. The article had reported on alleged serious governance issues at the hospice with a particular focus on the pressures which had been placed upon the complainant’s department in order for it to meet its targets. The complainant occupied a public-facing role which required her to engage regularly with both internal and external stakeholders. It was not intrusive to report the fact that the complainant was on leave from work in those circumstances: her absence from the hospice would have been self-evident. However, the reason for the complainant’s absence from work was given as “stress related issues”. This represented private information about her under the terms of Clause 2, both because it was a medically-diagnosed condition, and because it represented a detail of her private life. This was not a detail which would have been widely known within or outside the organisation in which she worked. This was information over which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy, and the publication required a substantial public interest in order to justify its inclusion in an article which mentioned her by name.

10. The article had highlighted the alleged unreasonable pressures faced by the fundraising department, and allegations of a “culture of bullying” at the hospice. It said that grievance procedures had been taken out by staff in relation to bullying allegations, and also discussed the validity of the hospice’s claim to be struggling for funds. The Complainant was a senior member of a key department, and was therefore associated with the allegation of undue pressure and with the wider funding issue. In this context, the disclosure of the reason for the complainant’s absence from work illustrated the extent to which these alleged failings had seemingly had an impact on the running of the hospice, by suggesting that a senior member of staff had been adversely affected as a result, to the extent that she had felt the need to take time off work. There was a significant public interest in identifying the reason for the complainant’s absence, where it illustrated the article’s concerns regarding alleged management failings at the hospice, which was an important and well-known local organisation which many readers would have been aware of. This public interest was sufficient to justify publication of this information, and there was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

Conclusions

11.  The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 22/11/2017

Date decision issued: 03/04/2018