Clauses Noted: 3
Publication: The People
Mr Stephen Billington, c/o Granada Studios, Manchester, complained that an article published in the Sunday People on August 23 1998 invaded his privacy in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice. The article detailed how a man claiming to be an associate of the complainant had been prepared to make allegations about the complainant's private life in return for money. The newspaper did not pay the man but described in considerable detail the sort of material he claimed to be willing to disclose.
The complainant said that he did not wish to comment on his private life. However, although the story had purported to be something different - the exposure of a man seeking money in return for salacious allegations - the result had been the publication of speculative and highly intrusive allegations about his private life.
The newspaper contended that the complainant - whom they had contacted about the allegations - had offered an interview to the newspaper in which he would talk about his private life if the newspaper did not run the article. The newspaper thought that in these circumstances - where the complainant was willing to use private details as a bargaining counter - the Commission should not entertain the complaint. The newspaper said that it had not made any further inquiries about his personal life, and had not taken intrusive photographs. Readers would have understood the allegations to be false and that the thrust of the story related to the exposure of wrongdoing, not the complainant's private life. The complainant accepted that he had negotiated about a possible future interview, but this was only a tactic to seek to prevent publication. He claimed the offer had come from the newspaper, not from him, and he had instantly regretted it. He had no intention of talking about his private life.
The Commission noted that one of the newspaper's defences was its duty in the public interest, protected by the Code, to expose wrongdoing. In this instance, it had been uncovering the attempts of an extortionist to obtain money in return for apparently salacious material about a high profile figure. The Commission recognises that it is a fundamental right of newspapers to expose crime or misdemeanour - and it will always protect that right. However, its task in this complaint was to discern whether the newspaper had been doing that, or whether the result of the article was in fact an unjustified intrusion into the complainants privacy.
The Commission noted that there had been some possibility of an interview with the complainant. Given that no agreement had been reached on this, however, the key to the Commission's consideration was the substantive point of whether the newspaper could have exposed the way in which the attempted extortion had taken place without reporting a great deal of intrusive material about the complainant himself. The Commission believed that it would have been possible to do so. The fact that someone had approached the newspaper demanding money for intrusive material about a star of Coronation Street was newsworthy in itself; there was no need to report on the substance of the allegations.
In this case, the newspaper repeated the allegations at length - resulting in an impression, whether or not the allegations were founded, about the alleged lifestyle of the complainant. This resulted in a breach of the Code in one of two ways. If the allegations peddled by the extortionist were unfounded, then the impression created by the article was misleading, breaching Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code. If there was substance to the allegations, then the amount of information provided intruded into the complainant's privacy in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Code, for which there was no justification. While the newspaper may have been acting to protect the public interest in good faith, this had been an error of judgement.
The complaint was upheld.
In the light of this case, the Commission wished to underline that newspapers should not seek to circumvent the privacy provisions of the Code by claiming to expose those who peddle stories about people in the public eye as a cover for publishing the gist of those stories, whether founded or not, in colourful detail which results in unjustified intrusion.
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