20927-17 Johnson v The Sun on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      26th July 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20927-17 Johnson v The Sun on Sunday 

Summary of complaint

1. David Johnson, acting on behalf of his son Adam Johnson, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an online article headlined “Sex fiend fantasy footie storm Paedo Adam Johnson sparks fury by running online fantasy football team from prison…in a division called the Demons League”, published on 18 March 2017, and an online article headlined “Back on D-wing: Shamed footie star Adam Johnson leads a team of sex perverts in prison footie match on grim, pot-holed pitch”, published on 1 April 2017.

2. The first article reported that Adam Johnson had “sparked fury” by running an online fantasy football team from prison. It said that he was listed as the manager of a team “despite being jailed last year for online grooming and sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl”. The article said child safety campaigners were worried that Mr Johnson had access to the internet, and quoted an MP who had said “the Ministry of Justice need to look at this with urgency to make sure he doesn’t have access to anything which could potentially see him carry on offending in jail”. The article referred to Mr Johnson as a “paedo” at multiple points.

3. The second article reported that Adam Johnson was “back on the pitch” as captain of a prison football team. It was accompanied by one blurred picture of Mr Johnson wearing an orange kit with other inmates, and two blurred images, taken at a distance, showing some players on the pitch. The article contrasted the playing conditions inside the prison to those Mr Johnson would have enjoyed while playing in the Premier League. It also included a section headed “It’s Right” in which the Howard League for Penal Reform expressed its view that sport in prison should be welcomed, and a section headed “It’s Wrong” in which an anti-crime campaigner expresses his view that prison has become “all about rehabilitation and nothing about punishment”.

4. The complainant said that his family had been the subject of a witch-hunt by the press. He said that “numerous inflammatory newspaper articles” had been published about his son, many of which were “completely untrue”. He was particularly concerned that his son had been continually referred to as a “paedophile” or “paedo”. He said this term described a “male predator who had sexual attraction towards prepubescent children”; his son was not a paedophile.

5. The complainant also expressed serious concern that the newspaper had paid inmates to take photographs of his son in prison. He said this was illegal, intrusive and had represented an unjustified use of clandestine devices. He denied that there was any public interest in publishing the second article.

6. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that it was not inaccurate or misleading to have referred to Adam Johnson as a “paedophile” given that he had been convicted of sexual offences against a minor. It quoted the Chief Crown Prosecutor for the northeast, who, when the trial had concluded, had said “we should all be clear that there is only one victim in this case: the 15-year-old girl [Adam Johnson] sexually assaulted”.

7. The newspaper did not accept that the second article had intruded into Adam Johnson’s private life or that it had engaged in practices referred to under Clause 10. The photographs had been provided by a source; they had not been taken by anyone working for The Sun on Sunday; and they had been taken while Mr Johnson was in an open-air section of the prison; there was no need for the person who had taken the photographs to have used a hidden device or subterfuge. It said that Mr Johnson had no reasonable expectation of privacy while walking towards the football pitch or while playing football on the pitch itself.

8. While it maintained that it had not intruded into Adam Johnson’s private life or published material obtained with a hidden device, the newspaper said that the public interest had been considered before proceeding with publication. The source had informed the newspaper that there was a sense of anger in the prison that Mr Johnson had been allowed to pursue his passion for football while serving a prison sentence for sexual offences against a minor. In addition, it provided correspondence between senior editorial staff and the legal department, which noted their position that “the nature of the photos, in a communal exercise area, and the ongoing concerns about [Adam Johnson’s] lack of remorse after the appeal process – added to his apparent privileged status within prison – provide a reasonable public interest in using these images”. The newspaper also considered that the article itself, which discussed how prisoners are rehabilitated, additionally showed that the public interest in the story had been carefully considered.

Relevant Code provisions

9. 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. 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 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 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 information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

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

10.The Committee noted the complainant’s position that Adam Johnson was not a paedophile because he was not a predator who was sexually attracted to prepubescent children. However, Mr Johnson had pleaded guilty to sexual activity with a minor and grooming, and he had subsequently been jailed for six years. Both of the articles under complaint had made clear the nature of his conviction and had stated the age of the victim. In this context, describing Adam Johnson as a “paedo” or “paedophile” had not given a misleading impression of his conviction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

11.The Committee noted that the second article had included images taken of Adam Johnson in prison without his knowledge, and they had been published without his consent. The Committee considered that while one of the purposes of prison is to punish people who have been convicted, prison is also where people live and in some areas of a prison, inmates may have a reasonable expectation of privacy. In this instance, the Committee did not consider that Mr Johnson had a reasonable expectation of privacy. He had been photographed in a communal area of the prison, where he was clearly visible to other inmates. Furthermore, the images had not disclosed anything private about him. One image, which was blurred, had shown him wearing a football kit, walking towards the football pitch; and it was unclear from the remaining two images whether Adam Johnson was in fact pictured. The Committee did not consider that publishing the images represented an intrusion into Adam Johnson’s private life. In any case, there was a public interest in publishing the photographs in order to verify the story which concerned the rehabilitation of offenders, a matter of public interest and the subject of public debate. There was no breach of Clause 2.

12.The newspaper had not set out to obtain material about Adam Johnson by using clandestine devices or subterfuge, and it was not necessary for the newspaper’s source to have used a hidden device in order to take photographs of Mr Johnson while he was in a communal area of the prison. There was no breach of Clause 10.

13.The Committee acknowledged that the complainant and his family had been distressed by the coverage and by the conduct of the press generally. However, he had not identified any behaviour specifically on the part of the Sun on Sunday which would represent harassment under the terms of the Code. While it understood the family’s position that stories about Adam Johnson had caused distress, the publication of the articles under complaint did not represent harassment in breach of the Code.


14.The complaint was not upheld.

Date complaint received: 20/03/2018
Date decision issued: 05/07/2018