210/2019 - A Woman, her Son and the Sunday World
The Press Council of Ireland has upheld an appeal by the Sunday World against a decision of the Press Ombudsman that an article breached Principle 5 (Privacy) and Principle 9 (Children) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
On 7 November 2019 the Press Ombudsman upheld a complaint that the article breached Principle 5 and Principle 9 of the Code of Practice. The Sunday World published a report that a woman had been visiting her husband who was in prison. Several photographs of her with a teenage boy whose face was pixilated accompanied the report. These showed her and the boy outside the prison.
Solicitors representing the woman and the boy, who was her son, complained that the report had breached Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice by reporting their clients’ prison visit. They stated that given that “two members of the public, who have neither committed any crime nor been convicted of any offence, are attending at a prison to visit a family member” was not newsworthy and was a breach of their clients’ privacy. They further claimed that Principle 9 (Children) had been breached as irrespective of the blurring of the face of the son he was easily identifiable in the photographs published in the Sunday World to “those known to him in the locality”. They stated that the publication of the photographs breached Principle 9.2 which states Journalists and editors should have regard for the vulnerability of children … and what circumstances if any make the story one of public interest.
The Sunday World defended its report stating that “the article and the photographs simply record matters that any member of the public could have witnessed”. In regard to the son they stated that there was a “conspicuous absence of any reference to (the son) in the article, he is not named or referred to in the copy or in any picture captions”. The newspaper gave an assurance to the woman that they “do not presently intend to revisit this story”. In conclusion the Sunday World stated that the offence for which the woman’s husband was convicted was “one of intense public interest” and that the “criminal justice system extends beyond the court room to include the prison service – where people are incarcerated and on what terms and arrangements, and for family members such as (the woman), the burden of having to visit (her husband) in three separate prisons in the three months since his conviction, to maintain family relationships”
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
This Principle recognises that privacy is a human right. It goes on to state that the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record or in the public interest. No persuasive argument has been put to me that the reporting of the visit of the woman to her husband in prison was in the public interest. I therefore conclude that her privacy was breached by the Sunday World.
This Principle states that the press shall take particular care in seeking and presenting information and comment about a child under the age of 18. In my view the son, despite having his face pixilated, was recognisable to his peers and therefore the Sunday World breached Principle 9 of the Code.
Another part of the complaint was not upheld.
The solicitors also claimed that Principle 3.3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) of the Code of Practice had been breached. This Principle states:
Journalists and photographers must not obtain, or seek to obtain, information and photographs through harassment, unless their actions are justified in the public interest.
The solicitors complained that the woman had been approached by a journalist at the prison and asked to comment. She had declined to do so. They said that the same journalist called to the woman’s house on two occasions on the same day. In my view this level of approach by a journalist falls within an acceptable level of behaviour and falls short of harassment, particularly as the newspaper claimed that on neither occasion was the door answered and that it appeared to the journalist that she was not at home on either occasion.
The newspaper appealed the decision to The Press Council of Ireland on the grounds that there had been an error in the Press Ombudsman’s application of Principle 5 and 9 of the Code of Practice.
At its meeting on 6 December 2019 the Press Council considered the appeal. It decided to uphold the appeal under Principle 5 (Privacy) on the basis that the photograph of the woman had been taken in a public place and the subject matter of the article was of public interest. The Council also upheld the appeal under Principle 9 (Children) on the basis that the newspaper had taken reasonable steps to conceal the identity of the child.
Note: The complainants requested that the complaint be reported in a manner that protected their privacy.