Clauses Noted: 3
Publication: The Bath Chronicle
Mrs Linda Bushell of Bath complained that on 2 October 1997 The Bath Chronicle published without consent a report about her husband, "Fears grow for missing father", which was intrusive to the family in breach of Clause 4 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice.
The story described police concerns for the safety of the complainant's husband who had disappeared, and his family's appeal for him to make contact. It carried details of his car, his appearance and also a photograph of him, explaining that it had been circulated in North Wales where he had posted a letter. It also quoted an Avon & Somerset police spokesman saying that the man had two young children and that his disappearance was completely out of character. A police spokeswoman for Colwyn Bay was also quoted.
The complainant is now reunited with her husband but considered the behaviour of the newspaper had been unscrupulous by interfering with the lives of distressed family and friends at a very difficult time, especially as she was forced to explain the situation to her children. She explained that during her husband's disappearance it was decided to publicise the case on local radio in North Wales where the letter as posted. However, due to a misunderstanding at the police press office, details of the case were released onto the
voice bank .
The complainant described how, two days after the disappearance, a reporter from The Bath Chronicle arrived at her house. The reporter showed her a photocopy of the photograph which the complainant had given to the police. Her seven year old daughter and three year old son also appeared in it and the reporter asked if the complainant really wanted the newspaper to print the photo with the children in it as well. The complainant considered the reporter's manner inappropriate, turning up unannounced, especially as the voice bank message had made clear that the complainant did not wish to speak to the media. She told the reporter that she did not want anything printed locally because her husband was not in the area covered by the newspaper and she did not want her children to find out what was happening. The complainant then contacted her local police who agreed to telephone the reporter to inform her that permission to use the information had been withdrawn. Two other local newspapers agreed not to run the piece at the complainant's request, but The Bath Chronicle had told her that as the complainant had authorised publicity the story could be taken up by anyone.
In his response the editor explained that the story was obtained on the Avon & Somerset police voice bank - the missing man had been named, as was the area of Bath in which he lived. The same message referred to a picture of the man with his children which was available to be copied at Bath police station and also indicated that the complainant's wife did not wish to talk to the media. However, the editor felt it appropriate that the complainant should have the opportunity to add something and so the reporter visited her - the newspaper also wanted the complainant to know that her children were included in the photograph which was available. Local radio and regional teletext was featuring the story at the time and the editor said that they tried to explain to the complainant that the story was already in the public domain. Later that evening the police took the message off the voice bank. Several officers then rang and asked the newspaper not to run the story, but the newspaper pointed out to the police the same facts they had presented to the complainant.
The Commission considered the complaint under Clause 4 (Privacy) of the industry's Code of Practice. This stated that intrusions and enquiries into the private lives of individuals without their consent were only acceptable if in the public interest, or were reasonably believed to have been, and that publication of material obtained in such a way was only justified when the facts showed that the public interest was served.
The key to consideration of this complaint was the issue of consent. The complainant had decided that the case should be given publicity - albeit in a defined geographical area - and the police had as a result widely publicised details of her husband's disappearance. This publicity - which happened with consent - was not confined to North Wales but to other areas, including that of the local newspaper. Details were also available on local radio and teletext.
In the circumstances - where there was a matter of significant local interest and information was already in the public domain - the newspaper acted in accordance with the Code's provisions. They also acted reasonably in approaching the complainant to discuss with her the use of the photograph of her children.
There was no breach of the Code, and the complaint was not upheld.
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