Clauses Noted: 3, 4
Publication: Scottish Daily Express
Mrs Janet M Rutherford of Glasgow complained that The Express (previously Scottish Daily Express) carried a photograph of, and published details about, her 15 year old daughter in a piece on 10 June 1996 headlined "Mystery of CJD victim" thereby invading her daughter's and the family's privacy, in breach of Clause 4 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice. The complainant also raised complaints of harassment under Clause 8 (Harassment) of the Code.
The complainant's daughter was described in the article as "Britain's youngest alleged CJD victim" who, her friends said, was "virtually a vegetarian". Her Consultant, an expert neurologist, had appeared six weeks previously on television, not naming his patient but confirming his diagnosis and that she had a "predeliction" for hamburgers. The article therefore cast doubts on the diagnosis.
The complainant said that the name and photograph of her daughter, diagnosed as a CJD victim (although her daughter was herself unaware of the diagnosis) had been published without her daughter's permission or that of her parents who had made it quite clear they did not wish to be interviewed.
The newspaper reported that another publication had named the patient the day before and in addition it was further published by the Press Association wire service during the course of the same day. The photograph published by it had been supplied by the patient's friend. The newspaper considered the story one of intense public interest in the then climate of fear about CJD; it had wished to set straight the previous erroneous views about the patient's lifestyle (eating hamburgers).
The Commission considered the newspaper's explanation that these details were already in the public domain was insufficient when they had only become so the previous day. While the Commission had some sympathy with the newspaper's eagerness to publish along with other newspapers which were likely to carry the story, it was nonetheless unacceptable to breach the Code in this way simply because somebody else had done so.
The Commission considered that publication of the identity of a patient was not essential to informing the public of the vital information about the illness and diagnosis, and indeed any doubts about the diagnosis. The Commission also considered that the newspaper should have taken it as an indication that the family did not wish personal details about their daughter's life and situation put further into the public domain by their obvious reluctance to talk, regardless of information which was more readily obtained from non-family members.
The complaint of intrusion into privacy was upheld.
The complainant also described what had been a period of intense media interest resulting in constant press presence near her home and her daughter's school for nearly two weeks. However, it had been impossible to identify individual press representatives. The newspaper gave its account of its representatives' visits and attempted communications with the complainant's family, which included parking outside the family home for two hours on the day before publication, posting two notes through the letterbox and a number of unsuccessful attempts at reaching the family by telephone. Information had been sought from the complainant's husband and from her daughter's friends. The Commission did not consider this was clear evidence that the newspaper representatives had breached Clause 8 (Harassment) of the Code and made no finding on this part of the complaint.
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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