The Press Council of Ireland has found in favour of Mrs Janet French in her complaint against the Irish Star Sunday, that an interview dealing with the death of her daughter Ms Katy French, published on 6 January 2008, was in breach of Principle 3 of the Code of Practice (Fairness and Honesty). In respect of a further complaint, that the interview was in breach of Principle 5.3 (Privacy), the Press Council found in favour of the newspaper.
The case was referred to the Press Council by the Press Ombudsman under the Articles of Association, which give him discretion to refer some complex or significant cases to the Council for decision.
The substance of Mrs French’s complaint was as follows:
On January 2nd a man appeared unannounced at her home and presented himself as a friend of her recently deceased daughter Katy. According to Mrs French’s account he said he had come to commiserate and to show her photos of Katy that had been taken the day before she died. While the reporter subsequently identified himself as a reporter with the Star, at no time did he ask for an interview. It was only after the questions grew more personal that Mrs French and her daughter Jill, who had joined the conversation, became suspicious. Mrs French asked the reporter to leave, but he persisted with more questions and took a tape recorder, which up to that point had been concealed, from his pocket. She said she wanted nothing recorded as this was a personal conversation and that she trusted it would be kept confidential. He assured her it would. Two days later, the alleged interview was printed in the Star Sunday as an exclusive first interview with Katy’s family. Mrs French maintained that this breached Principle 3.2 (Fairness and Honesty) and Principle 5.3 (Privacy).
Mrs French further alleged that the same reporter harassed Katy’s best friend and had called to her home several times, and that this was a breach of Principle 3.3.
The newspaper responded that the interview had been conducted in good faith, that the reporter had identified himself from the outset and had conducted the interview with the use of written notes and, at times, recordings taped using equipment that was in full view. The newspaper accepted that the reporter said he had been a friend of Katy but it rejected entirely the substance of the complaint.
The Press Council recognises the difficulty of adjudicating a case involving conflicting accounts. It therefore sought a statement from Mrs French’s daughter, who was present for part of the conversation. This statement corroborated Mrs French’s assertion that the conversation was private.
The Press Council considered that other factors also lent credence to the claims of Mrs French that the conversation was private. The reporter arrived without prior contact or arrangement at the home of Mrs French and presented himself as a friend of Katy and said he wanted to show Mrs French photographs that had been taken of her daughter. None of this is contested by the newspaper. The reporter did indicate at some point that he worked for the Star, but there is no evidence that he ever made clear in that context that he was there in his professional capacity and was treating the conversation as an interview on the record.
On the evidence provided to it, the Press Council could find no reason to doubt Mrs French’s insistence that the conversation was a personal one and that no interview was sought. She and her family had refused all previous requests for interviews and it is highly improbable that she would have accepted a doorstep request on this occasion. Moreover, if she had, she would have had no reason subsequently to construct a detailed and critical complaint about a reporter who was a friend of her daughter and whose report, as Mrs French stated, “was not negative or demeaning to Katy”.
Principle 3.2 provides that publications shall not obtain information, photographs or other material through misrepresentation or subterfuge, unless justified by the public interest.
The Press Council concluded, on the evidence available, that the reporter obtained the interview with Mrs French and her daughter by misrepresentation or subterfuge, and that the publication of this interview was a serious breach of Principle 3.2 of the Code of Practice. It also concluded that the breach of Principle 3.2 could not in any way be justified by a claim that the misrepresentation or subterfuge was justified in the public interest.
After a lengthy and detailed discussion, the Press Council decided that there had been no breach of Principle 5.3.
The Press Council also decided that it could not consider the complaint of harassment made under Principle 3.3 of the Code, since the complaint concerned a third party and was therefore outside its remit.