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Complainant Name:
Mrs Janet M Rutherford

Clauses Noted: 1, 3, 4

Publication: Sunday Express (Scotland)


Mrs Janet M Rutherford of Glasgow complained that The Express (previously the Scottish Sunday Express) identified and published details about her 15 year old daughter in a piece on 9 June 1996 headlined "CJD girl on family outing" thereby invading her daughter's and the family's privacy, and that a reference in the piece to a "day trip in the summer sun" was inaccurate, all in breach of Clauses 1 (Accuracy) and 4 (Privacy ) of the Code of Practice. The complainant also raised complaints of harassment under Clause 8 (Harassment) of the Code.

The article described how the complainant's daughter had made a remarkable improvement six weeks after her Consultant, a leading neurologist, diagnosed her as suffering from CJD contracted through her "predilection for hamburgers". He had appeared on television six weeks before giving information about the case but had not named his patient. The article cast doubts on the diagnosis, quoting other experts.

The complainant said that her daughter was not aware of the diagnosis and that publication of her name had been without permission. The newspaper obtained it from a source unknown to her and had then approached her husband who had refused to be interviewed and whose return home was hindered by press harassment. She said that no thought was given to the potentially devastating effect on her daughter and that the article was the genesis of other press and broadcast reports.

The newspaper replied that in his television appearance the Consultant had provided a wealth of clues as to his patient's identity and in the days following many newspapers tried to find this out. The Express learned that she was allowed home for weekends. The recovery was, in the newspaper's response, "a shining beacon of hope to the families of those allegedly suffering from CJD". They had been reassured by the hospital that the patient was aware of the diagnosis. The complainant produced a letter in which a hospital spokesman denied this.



The Commission considered that there had been an intrusion into privacy by publication of the identity of a patient, something which was not essential to informing the public of the vital information about the illness and diagnosis, or indeed any doubts about the diagnosis. It also considered that the family's obvious reluctance to talk indicated that they did not wish personal details about their daughter put further into the public domain, regardless of information obtained from non-family members.

The complainant said the alleged "family outing" was a fabrication but the newspaper replied that neighbours had said the complainant's daughter had gone on a day trip. The Commission considered there was little evidence for the detail given by the newspaper about the outing.

The complaints under Clauses 1 and 4 were upheld.

The complaint of harassment related to unwelcome enquiries made at home and at the complainant's place of work but given the lack of clear evidence the Commission made no finding under Clause 8.

Against that background, the Commission was concerned to learn of the harassment experienced by the complainant and her family from repeated and uninvited approaches at home, in person and by telephone, at the workplace and at her children's schools.

It noted that such pressure inevitably resulted from the combination of a few enquiries from each of many sources - and while it found no clear evidence of harassment from this newsaper, had much sympathy with the complainant. The Commission believed that this was an example of what was effectively collective (if unintentional) harassment - which could occur when a large number of enquiries from different sources were being made of people who found themselves at the centre of an interesting news story.

While in this case the Commission did not find evidence to justify criticising this or any other individual newspaper, it would not hesitate to do so if in a future case it became apparent that an individual newspaper or reporter either played a leading part in unjustified collective harassment or did not desist when personally asked to do so.


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