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Complainant Name:
Mr Andrew Thomson

Clauses Noted: 10

Publication: Sunday Mail

Complaint:

Mr Andrew Thomson of Kirkcaldy, Fife complained that representatives of the Sunday Mail breached Clause 11 (Misrepresentation) of the Code of Practice in approaching him and that resulting articles about him were distorted. The articles were dated 27 September and 4 October 1998, headlined "Antiques rogue show" and "End of the rogue show" respectively.

The Commission rejected the complaint because the subterfuge undertaken by the newspaper was in the public interest.

The complainant, who had several convictions, explained how a reporter from the Sunday Mail visited his shop without identifying herself, and claiming that she was clearing a relative's house so needed information about a painting which she had with her. The complainant said he gave her a particularly low estimate and afterwards telephoned the police, as he was concerned that the painting may have been stolen. Unaware of the Sunday Mail's involvement, he also contacted a daily newspaper within the same group which, according to the complainant, offered to publish his story about the suspicious visit. Then, apparently as a result of this conversation, the same woman who had visited his shop telephoned the complainant, introducing herself as a Sunday Mail representative. On challenging the daily newspaper about the woman's identity, the complainant said he was told that the woman was from a named tabloid newspaper, and that the tabloid was the newspaper responsible for misleading him on the day of the visit.

The next day a photographer arrived at the complainant's premises indicating that he had been sent by the daily newspaper, so the complainant said he duly posed. However, to the complainant's consternation, instead of the daily newspaper publishing his own story to counter any story obtained by the tabloid's alleged misrepresentation, the Sunday Mail carried its own version. He complained that this version inaccurately suggested he had been dishonest, whereas he was fully rehabilitated and no threat to his customers.

The editor of the Sunday Mail confirmed the newspaper's 'set-up', stating that the reporter had acted in the public interest; the complainant had a conviction for stealing works of art but was running an antique shop, his customers unaware of his background. The editor also stated that it was in the public interest to inform readers that when asked to value a painting worth between 2,000-3,000, the complainant had given a valuation of only 80. When approached, auctioneers Christie's had expressed concern at the complainant's low estimate.

Decision:
Not Upheld

Adjudication:

As the newspaper had admitted misrepresentation, the Commission had only one task: to assess whether the newspaper's action was in the public interest.

The Commission had sympathy with the complainant's personal circumstances, and noted that the police had confirmed he had called them to express his concern about the possibility the painting was stolen.

However, the principle at stake in this complaint was whether the newspaper had the right in the public interest to investigate the complainant's business in order to ensure he was not involved in fraud or in misleading the public.

The Code makes clear that misrepresentation of the sort deployed by the newspaper can only be justified if there is no other method of obtaining such information. In this case, the Commission could not see how any newspaper could conduct such an investigation without deploying subterfuge: somebody involved in a crime or in deception would be unlikely openly to admit the fact.

Furthermore, there was ample evidence that the newspaper had strong prima facie grounds for believing such an investigation was necessary in the public interest: regardless of the complainant's subsequent actions, the newspaper was only offered 80 for a painting worth between 2,000 and 3,000.

Although the complainant's actions may well have been blameless, the Commission could not therefore fault the basis on which the investigation took place and the subterfuge deployed. Indeed, upholding the complaint would be seriously to undermine the ability of every newspaper to detect or expose crime by means of misrepresentation.

Report:
45



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