Clauses Noted: 3, 10
Publication: Daily Mirror
Mrs Primrose Shipman complained through Messrs Pannone and Partners of Manchester that material contained in an article headlined “Shipman wife begs him: tell me truth” published in The Mirror on the 9 July 2001 was obtained in breach of Clause 11 (Misrepresentation) and was intrusive in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice.
The Commission upheld the complaint under Clause 3 but did not censure the newspaper. It made no finding under Clause 11.
The article was accompanied by extracts from a letter sent by the complainant to her husband, the convicted murderer Dr Harold Shipman. The piece said that the letter suggested that the complainant had a ‘lingering doubt’ as to whether her husband had told her the truth.
The complainant said that publication of her private correspondence was intrusive and that the letter had been stolen from her husband by his cell-mate Tony Fleming – a convicted thief. The material was therefore obtained in breach of Clause 11 of the Code and publication constituted a breach of the complainant’s copyright.
The newspaper said that it was satisfied that the letters had been obtained legitimately after they were given by Dr Shipman to Mr Fleming. The complainant denied this, but the newspaper said that there was no reason why they should believe the word of a murderer. The newspaper sent the Commission a copy of an article that had appeared in the Manchester Evening News in February 2000 which was based on an interview with Mr Fleming and which included his assertion that he had been given a number of letters by Shipman. More importantly, the article was accompanied by a letter sent from the complainant to her husband – and no complaint had been lodged about its publication. The newspaper sent the Commission a full copy of the letter from which it had quoted in its piece and pointed out that the views of Mrs Shipman were considered to be of such importance that she had been asked to appear before the public inquiry to give evidence about her knowledge of unexplained deaths.
The complainant said that the Manchester Evening News cutting was irrelevant and that the newspaper’s source was not to be trusted.
The Commission noted that part of the complaint had related to an alleged breach of copyright. This was clearly a legal matter which was not for the Commission to consider.
Clause 3 of the Code specifically states that everyone is entitled to respect for their private lives and correspondence. The Commission would normally find that publishing private letters was a breach of the Code unless there were strong reasons for doing so: for example, if consent had been given for their publication, if there was a public interest in publishing them or if they were otherwise legitimately about to be made public. Having read the entire letter from which the newspaper quoted it was clear that the contents were personal and the Commission disagreed with the newspaper’s interpretation of what Mrs Shipman had written. It therefore found a breach of Clause 3.
However, there were extenuating circumstances which the Commission took into account in deciding not to censure the newspaper.
First, while there was clearly a clash of evidence about how the letter was obtained, the Commission noted that Tony Fleming’s claims about having been given the letters by Harold Shipman had appeared before without complaint. The Commission accepted that the fact that these claims had not been challenged may have lent them credibility when the editor was deciding whether or not to publish the story. Had the claims been correct – which it was not possible to ascertain – then there would have been implied consent for their publication from the recipient of the letters.
Second, the Commission did bear in mind the fact that the complainant’s uniquely intimate relationship to Dr Shipman, coupled with the fact that she had stated hardly anything in public about his crimes, would inevitably arouse considerable interest in any statement that she does make – whether written or verbal. The editor believed that there was sufficient public interest in publishing an excerpt from the letter – which was supported by the fact that he had not published much more personal material from it even though it was available to him.
Third, the Commission appreciated that the editor may have had regard to the fact that another letter had been published elsewhere but without complaint.
These circumstances mitigated in the editor’s favour and the Commission, while finding a breach of Clause 3, did not censure the newspaper.
While noting that the editor himself may have had some grounds to believe Mr Fleming’s version of how the material had been obtained – for the reason set out above – the Commission could make no finding under Clause 11. It noted the two contrary assertions of Dr Shipman and Mr Fleming but did not consider that it could be expected to make a reasoned judgement about the relative probity of these two convicted criminals and considered that the exact circumstances of the transfer of the correspondence would be impossible to establish given that they rested on a straightforward clash of evidence. In any case, if the allegations made by the complainant about how the material was obtained were true, then they would clearly be matters for the police to consider.
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