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Complainant Name:
Mrs D Wilkinson

Clauses Noted: 1, 6, 12

Publication: Scottish Sun


Mrs D Wilkinson of Millport, Isle of Cumbria complained that an article in The Sun (Scottish edition) on 9 December 1998 headlined "Mrs Sponge" contained inaccuracies, invaded the privacy of her children and was prejudicial and pejorative in breach of Clauses 1 (Accuracy), 6 (Children) and 13 (Discrimination) of the Code of Practice.

The complaint under Clause 6 is upheld. The complaints under Clauses 1 and 13 not upheld.

The article reported local controversy concerning the amount of state benefit the complainant and her family receive. An editorial in the same edition criticised social security for making the complainant "better off than people who work".

Clause 6

The complainant objected that the article identified her children in breach of Clause 6. It included their names, ages and the schools they attend. The newspaper had also published a photograph apparently showing two of the children being picked up by a taxi. The complainant said that as a result of the article her children had been bullied at school. Although she had given an interview to the reporter, she had not given the newspaper permission to reveal the names of her children.

The newspaper believed that it was justifiable, in a story about the payment of state benefits, to include details of the family in order to enable readers to decide whether it was right for her to receive the benefits described.

Clauses 1 and 13

With regard to the complaints under Clauses 1 and 13, the complainant denied that her children are provided with taxis by the social services to prevent them playing truant or that she gets "home help" three times a week. The article implied wrongly that she illegitimately receives benefits. She said that the reference to her disability - "Epileptic Wilkinson ... " - was prejudicial and pejorative in breach of Clause 13.

The newspaper replied that the story stated which benefits the complainant receives and gave both her and her neighbours a chance to air their views. It was based on some people's concern that she was receiving preferential treatment. The information on the benefits and council help she receives came from her. The article made clear that her two eldest attend a special needs school and she was quoted in the piece saying she gets extra help because of her poor health. The claim that the taxis were provided to prevent the children from playing truant was based on information provided by a local councillor. After seeing the documentation provided by the complainant regarding her children's school attendance record, the newspaper offered to publish a correction and an apology as a partial resolution of her complaint. However, the complainant did not accept the offer.

With regard to the complaint under Clause 13, the newspaper believed that it was justifiable, in a story about the payment of state benefits, to include details of the complainant's illness in order to enable readers to decide whether it was right for her to receive the benefits described.



While the Commission recognised that the story about the complainant was one of public interest, and that it inevitably involved her children, there was no need to identify them. This was a serious breach of Clause 6(ii) of the Code, which is designed to protect the often vulnerable position of children and must be strictly observed.

The Commission welcomed the newspaper's offer to publish a correction and apology making clear that the complainant's children have a good school attendance record, contrary to what was reported. It considered that this would have represented an adequate remedy to the complaint under Clause 1. With regard to the remaining alleged inaccuracies, it was clear that a large part of the article and the editorial concerned comment, both by the newspaper and the local councillor, about the level of benefits received by the complainant. Both the complainant and her critics had been given space to express their views. The Commission did not make any finding on the validity or otherwise of the views expressed, but found that the newspaper had clearly distinguished comment, conjecture and fact in accordance with the Code. The Commission did not find that the remaining alleged inaccuracies would be so significant as to raise a breach of the Code.

The Commission found that the reference to the complainant's disability was relevant to the story as it concerned the benefits she receives, including disability benefit. It appeared that the complainant had been happy to discuss these details with the newspaper and the Commission noted that the information was presented as no more than a matter of fact. The Commission did not find that the reference was prejudicial or pejorative in the sense of Clause 13.

The complainant raised further complaints under Clauses 3 (Privacy) and 11 (Misrepresentation). She said that the article represented an unjustified intrusion into her private life and that the reporter had used misrepresentation to gain an interview with her by claiming that he wanted to give a sympathetic account of her situation. The Commission did not find that the complainant had made out either of these complaints. It was clear that the amount of state benefits received by the complainant had become the subject of local controversy and was a matter of public interest. The complainant had willingly spoken about her side of the story to the reporter, who had identified himself.


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