Ruling

20360-17 A Woman v The Northern Echo

    • Date complaint received

      20th July 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20360-17 A Woman v The Northern Echo

Summary of complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Northern Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Women’s boozy hotel sex party”, published on 14 September 2017.

2. The article was a follow-up report regarding an outbreak of food poisoning at a hotel. It reported that a group of unnamed women who had become ill after a birthday celebration at the hotel had taken part in a “booze-fuelled orgy with sex toys and candle sticks”. The article said that “graphic” CCTV footage had shown the women carrying out “lewd sexual behaviour including passing around sex toys and taking part in sex acts with hotel candlesticks while climbing on restaurant tables and chairs”.

3. The article explained that Public Health England (PHE) had conducted an investigation into the outbreak of the food poisoning at the hotel, in order to determine whether chicken liver parfait eaten by the women had caused the sickness. The article claimed that PHE’s final report had cleared the hotel of “any wrong doing”: it said that the report had found that “no obvious defect was noted in the production of [the chicken liver parfait] and therefore cannot be concluded with certainty why this caused illness, nor why illness was seen only in the one large party”.

4. The article was published in substantially the same form online, under the headline “Booze-fuelled orgy with sex toys and candlesticks - what really happened at Saltburn hotel at the centre of food poisoning claim”.

5. The complainant was one of the women who had attended the birthday celebration. She said that the newspaper had published an inaccurate and wildly exaggerated account of the evening’s events. She said that the newspaper had attempted to draw an association between the outbreak of food poisoning and the actions of the group. She said that this was misleading as the environmental health department had dismissed the CCTV contents viewed by the Northern Echo as irrelevant to the investigation into the cause of the food poisoning.

6. The complainant said that the party was not an “orgy”: there were no sex toys, or any sexual activity, and all members of the group had been fully clothed throughout. She said that the party had not been drinking to excess. The complainant provided video clips and photographs, taken by members of the party on their mobile phones; she said that these showed that the group had been acting in high spirits only, and not in the manner alleged by the newspaper. The complainant noted that two members of the group had imitated a sex scene with a candelabra and one member had used a unicorn horn, which was a party prop, to imitate a sexual pose, but said that these individuals had been fully clothed throughout.

7. During the course of IPSO’s investigation, the complainant provided a copy of the CCTV footage from the evening. The complainant had obtained this footage from the hotel; it had been heavily pixilated by the hotel in order to comply with data protection rules relating to the images of the other members of the group. It was not possible to see the entire room, or all the members of the group, on account of the heavy pixilation. The complainant said that the behaviour which could be seen from the footage did not support the article’s claim that the group had been engaged in a “sex party” or an “orgy”. It noted that one woman in the group had a unicorn horn in her hand, and suggested that this may have been confused with a sex toy by the reporter.

8. The complainant said that the article had also misrepresented the findings of the report by PHE. She said that the multi-party investigation into the outbreak of the food poisoning was still ongoing, although the PHE element of it had come to an end. She said that the article had omitted key conclusions from the PHE report, namely concerns about the hotel hygiene. She said that the PHE report had said that the samples of parfait from the evening had been destroyed so were unable to be tested; however, during the inspection “no obvious defect was noted in the production of this food item". She said that this meant that at the time of the environmental health inspection the parfait was produced and handled correctly; however, the report did not wholly conclude that the hotel had not been negligent in the case of the food poisoning. She said in those circumstances, it was inaccurate to report that the hotel had been cleared of “any wrong doing”.

9. The complainant alleged that the article contained a number of further inaccuracies: the party had been located in a private side room, not in a public part of the hotel, and the group had not been asked to move there because of concerns about their behaviour.

10. The complainant said that the newspaper had viewed CCTV images of her and her friends, which had been taken while at a private event, without their knowledge or consent. She said that this amounted to the newspaper accessing digitally held information without consent. Publishing information taken from this CCTV footage was intrusive and unjustified. The complainant said that she was identifiable as the subject of the article, because during the birthday celebration, members of the group had posted pictures on social media and had “tagged” their location as the hotel.

11. The newspaper did not accept that the article had presented a misleading account of what took place during the evening. It suggested that the party-goers’ drinking and behaviour may have been relevant to the way they handled, consumed and reacted to the food, as well as how they recollected the events of the night. 

12. The newspaper said that it was possible to engage in sexual activity without removing one’s clothes. It said that the reporter had viewed the entire un-pixelated CCTV recording and provided contemporaneous notes in which the journalist had recorded that “vulgar sexual behaviour in a public place” had occurred. It said the reporter had observed that members of the party took it in turn to lie on their back on top of a table in the room where they had been eating while other people in the party rubbed a plastic item and candlestick between the person’s legs. Following this, the reporter had also observed the plastic item being passed around members of the party who took it in turns to lick it; other members of the party pushed plastic objects up their skirts. The newspaper said that the definition of an “orgy” was a “a wild party characterised by excessive drinking and indiscriminate sexual activity”; this was accurate given that the group had been dancing on tables, drinking alcohol and using hotel property and other objects to imitate sexual activity.

13. The newspaper said that when the reporter had visited the hotel and watched the CCTV with senior hotel staff, it had not been pixelated and it had lasted approximately 2-3 hours in total. It said that the reporter was therefore afforded a full view of what had occurred. It said that the pixelated version of the CCTV footage provided to IPSO by the complainant had been shorter than the full footage seen by the reporter, and had not disclosed the more boisterous behaviour which had occurred; this included members of the party dancing on tables and playing with toys in a sexual manner.

14. The newspaper said it was accurate to report that the hotel had been cleared of any wrongdoing. It said that the PHE report had found that while “the epidemiological study supports the hypothesis that chicken liver parfait was the most likely cause of the illness no obvious defect in the production was noted.” The newspaper said that the report had concluded that while the parfait was, in theory, the most likely source of the food poisoning outbreak, there was nothing the investigators found which could make a clear link between the food and the illness. The PHE report had noted: “The preparation, cooking, chilling, storage and serving of the chicken liver parfait was discussed in detail. No obvious defect in the production of the parfait was identified and the temperature probe was assessed and correlated well with an independent one used by EHOs. There was no obvious difference in the way the food was prepared or served to the large party compared to other diners and it is not believed that the chicken liver parfait in particular was subject of any different procedure in terms of out of the fridge, serving or any other variable.”

15. The newspaper said that when the reporter met the senior members of hotel staff he was told by them that the room in which the activity took place was clearly visible to people in the adjacent room and there was no mention of any curtain or screen obscuring people from seeing inside. It said that the reporter had no reason to believe that hotel staff were not telling the truth and when the reporter viewed the room there were windows in the room – in the adjoining door and leading to the gardens – which would have allowed someone looking in to the side room to see what was taking place.

16. The newspaper did not accept that the article represented an intrusion into the complainant’s privacy. It said that it had carefully considered the public interest in reporting all the facts of the case, and balanced this against the party-goers’ right to privacy. These considerations had formed the basis for the newspaper’s decision not to name any of the group in the article.

17. The newspaper said that to the extent that the newspaper’s act of viewing the CCTV footage alone could be considered an intrusion, there was a public interest in reporting on the full events of the night, given that the outbreak of food poisoning had been widely reported on previously. Given the raucous nature of the party, it said that it was reasonable to consider how the party-goers may have contributed to the ill-effects they had experienced. The newspaper said that having made the allegation against the hotel, the complainant and her friends could not reasonably seek to impose a one-sided limitation on the scope of investigation, nor demand complete privacy for the events of that evening. Such events had become a proper matter of public inquiry and concern.

18. The newspaper said that it had viewed the CCTV footage, having been invited to do so by the hotel: there was no unauthorised access, no hidden camera and no subterfuge so as to engage the terms of Clause 10. It noted that the hotel advises guests via signage in the premises that CCTV is used throughout the hotel for their safety and security. It said that the public interest in reporting on the story, set out above, had been considered prior to viewing the footage and before publication.

19. The complainant disputed that the reporter had viewed the CCTV footage. Further, she did not accept that the reporter’s notes which the newspaper had provided, accurately recorded the actions of the party-goers.

Relevant Code 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.

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 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent.

Findings of the Committee

20. On its front page, the newspaper had characterised the birthday party attended by the complainant as an “orgy” and a “sex party”. The newspaper maintained that it was entitled to do so because the event had included sexualised behaviour. The Committee accepted that it had demonstrated that it had taken care over its claim that items had been used in a sexualised way and that there had been a sexual element to the events, including sexualised posing for photographs and imitative sexual activity. However, the reference to the events as an “orgy” and “sex party”, gave the clear implication that explicit sexual activity had taken place, beyond sexualised posing. Clause 1(i) requires that headlines must be supported by the text, and in the Committee’s view the details included in the article fell well short of justifying the headline claims. This was a significant distortion, which created a misleading impression of the complainant’s and the other attendees’ actions. The newspaper had failed to take care over the presentation of the evening’s events, in breach of Clause 1(i) and had then failed to correct the misleading impression created, in breach of Clause 1(ii).

21. The PHE report had detailed a number of factors which may have contributed to the group succumbing to the illness, including concerns about hygiene in the hotel’s kitchen. However, the report had found no evidence to establish a causal link between these factors and the outbreak of food poisoning. It was accurate to claim that the PHE report had cleared the hotel of any wrongdoing, in those circumstances. The article has also made clear that the investigation was still ongoing, although the public health element had come to an end. There was no further breach of Clause 1 on this point.

22. The area in which the events were alleged to have taken place was a room which remained within the hotel building. There was no evidence that this room would not have been accessible to other members of the public, and the Committee noted that members of staff had entered the room on several occasions. It was therefore accurate to describe the area that the group had been in as “public”. Whether the group had been asked to move to the room as a consequence of “disruptive behaviour”, or whether they had moved their on their own accord, was not significant in the context of the article, particularly as the alleged behaviour which had been the focus of the article had taken place after the women had moved into this room. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

23. The Committee then turned to consider the complaint under Clause 2 (Privacy). There was a public interest in investigating the circumstances of a significant public health incident, which had resulted in a damaging effect on a local business. Critical to the Committee’s considerations under Clause 2, was the fact that the complainant had not been identified in the article, nor had her friends. This limited, in a significant way, the extent to which the article had the potential to intrude into the complainant’s private life. Further, the article had not disclosed personal details about the complainant or revealed any information relating to the members of the group which might lead to her identification. For these reasons, the Committee did not establish that the article represented an intrusion into the complainant’s private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.

24. Clause 10(ii) says that engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest. The newspaper had not engaged in subterfuge in order to view the CCTV footage; it had been authorised to do so by the hotel. Further, while the complainant did not realise that she was filmed using CCTV, this did not render these cameras “hidden” for the purposes of Clause 10(i). The terms of Clause 10 were therefore not engaged.

Conclusion

25. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

26. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

27. The newspaper had published a significantly misleading, prominent front-page headline. The newspaper had not offered to publish a correction. Given the nature of the claims, the prominence with which they had been published, and the lack of any offer of remedy, the appropriate remedy was the publication of an upheld adjudication.

28. The Committee considered the placement. The print article had been published on the front page and continued on to page 2. Due to the prominence of the article, the Committee required that a reference to the adjudication be published on the front page. This reference should direct readers to the full adjudication, which should appear on page 2. The front page headline should appear in the same font size as the front page sub-headline on the article under complaint (“Orgy came to light…” etc). A border should appear around the headline, to distinguish it from other editorial content. Both the headline to the adjudication inside the paper and the front-page reference should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, give the title of the newspaper and refer to the complaint’s subject matter. The headline, the placement on the page, and the prominence, including font size, of both the adjudication and the front-page reference must be agreed with IPSO in advance.

29. The adjudication should also 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. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

Following an article published on 14th September 2016 in the Northern Echo, headlined ”Women’s boozy hotel sex party”, a woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the newspaper had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO upheld the complaint and has required the Northern Echo to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.

The article reported that a group of unnamed women who had become ill after a birthday celebration at a hotel, had taken part in a “booze-fuelled orgy with sex toys and candle sticks”.

The complainant was one of the woman who had attended the celebration. She said that the newspaper had published an inaccurate and wildly exaggerated account of the evening’s events. She said that the party was not an “orgy”, although she accepted that some members of the party had mimicked poses of a sexual nature.

The newspaper did not accept that the article had presented a misleading account of what took place during the evening. It said that the definition of an “orgy” was a “a wild party characterised by excessive drinking and indiscriminate sexual activity”; this was accurate given that the group had been dancing on tables, drinking alcohol and using hotel property and other objects to imitate sexual activity.

On its front page, the newspaper had characterised the birthday party attended by the complainant as an “orgy” and a “sex party”. The newspaper maintained that it was entitled to do so because the event had included sexualised behaviour. The Committee accepted that it had demonstrated that it had taken care over its claim that items had been used in a sexualised way and that there had been a sexual element to the events. However, the reference to the events as an “orgy” and “sex party”, gave the clear implication that explicit sexual activity had taken place, beyond sexualised posing. This was a significant distortion, which created a misleading impression of the complainant’s and the other attendees’ actions. The complaint was therefore upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). 

Date complaint received: 24/11/2017

Date decision issued: 06/07/2018