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Complainant Name:
Mr Rodney E B Atkinson

Clauses Noted: 1, 3, 10

Publication: The Mail on Sunday


Mr Rodney E B Atkinson of Stocksfield, Northumberland, complained that an article in The Mail on Sunday on 20 July 1997 headlined "Meet the real Mr Bean" contained inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), confused comment, conjecture and fact in breach of Clause 3 (Comment, conjecture and fact), represented an unjustified intrusion of his privacy in breach of Clause 4 (Privacy), and that the reporter had used subterfuge in breach of Clause 7 (Misrepresentation) of the Code of Practice.

Although part of the article dealt generally with the portrayal of the character of "Mr Bean" by the complainant's brother, Rowan, a sub-headline asked "Is Rowan Atkinson's brother the model for his comic masterpiece?" The article speculated, in part, on this theme.

The complainant said that there was no truth in the speculation and provided a letter from Rowan Atkinson's producer, on behalf of Mr Rowan Atkinson, refuting the claim. The complainant questioned the identity of a "close family friend" quoted, whose views, he said, were reported as though they were fact. The newspaper could have asked those who were in a position to know the truth. The complainant denied saying some of the words attributed to him in the piece. He also said that he had not instigated a search for his late father's tractor as the article claimed; he had not always lived with his mother; he was not planning to see his brother's new film at the cinema in Consett; his attempt in 1993 to have the then Foreign Secretary prosecuted for treason did not justify the newspaper in labelling him "eccentric"; and details about his brother, Rupert, and the family farm were incorrect.

The complainant argued that the newspaper's inquiries into his private life represented an unjustified intrusion of his privacy. The reporter had given no indication of the true thrust of the article. Had it been disclosed to him, he would not have given permission for a photograph to be taken of him. He also complained that the photographer had asked him to pose in a ridiculous position, although he had refused to do so.

The newspaper said the article was intended to be a light-hearted piece about Rowan Atkinson and it was sorry if the complainant was upset by the references to himself. It said that the reporters had spoken to several people who knew the complainant and they had confirmed the similarities between him and the character of Mr Bean. It stood by the quote attributed to the complainant. The newspaper accepted that it was Rowan and not the complainant who had searched for the tractor and that Rupert was the complainant's younger brother. It did not agree that a reference to the family home was inaccurate. In addition the complainant had said that he spent most of his time in the North East and the reporter had met him at the house where he lived with his mother. It accepted that Mr Atkinson had not specifically mentioned the cinema in Consett but had said he would go and see the film and was very proud of it. The newspaper believed that it was the view of many people that the attempt to prosecute the then Foreign Secretary for treason was "eccentric".

The newspaper did not believe the piece confused fact with conjecture as it was based on the information obtained through normal journalistic inquiries and on previously published material. The newspaper denied it was in breach of the provision of the Code dealing with privacy and subterfuge.

Not Upheld


There was no breach of the Code where the newspaper speculated on whether a well known fictional character was based on the complainant; the speculation was described as such and quoted a denial by the complainant, although he did not accept the specific words used were said by him. Under the Code the newspaper was entitled to withhold details of the source quoted in the article; it did not appear to have confused facts with conjecture.

The Commission accepted that the complainant had been rightly irritated by a number of factual inaccuracies in the piece; Rupert was not an elder brother; it was Rowan Atkinson who had searched for a tractor; the article appeared to suggest wrongly that the complainant had always lived with his mother; he had not mentioned going to the cinema in Consett; and the former family home was not the hotel mentioned. But these were minor inaccuracies which were not significant within the context of the article as a whole. Nor were the disputes over the identity of the source quoted or the exact words used by the complainant in denying he was the basis for the character concerned.

The newspaper was entitled to express its own opinion (as to which the Commission made no finding) that the complainant's action in relation to the then Foreign Secretary was "eccentric".

The Commission noted that the complainant had consented to being interviewed by a reporter (who had asked about the origins of the character Mr Bean) and had given permission for his photograph to be taken. The complainant had not made out his complaint of subterfuge or unjustified intrusion into his privacy.

The complaint was rejected.


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