Clauses Noted: 3, 4, 5, 12
Publication: Scottish News of the World
A woman complained through solicitors for BBC Scotland that an article headlined “Gay BBC weather girl is having DIY baby” published in the Scottish News of the World on 21 July 2002 was intrusive in breach of Clauses 3 (Privacy) and 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and discriminatory in breach of Clause 13 (Discrimination) of the Code of Practice. She also complained that she had been harassed by the newspaper in breach of Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Code.
The complaints under Clause 4 and partially under Clause 3 were upheld. The complaints under Clauses 5 and 13 were rejected.
The article discussed the ‘DIY’ pregnancy of the complainant, a BBC radio reporter, with her female partner. The woman complained through BBC Scotland that the article was intrusive in its intimate coverage of her pregnancy and pejorative in its reference to her sexuality. The unwelcome nature of the attention was exacerbated by the fact that she had suffered a miscarriage – about which she informed the newspaper at the first opportunity - in the previous year and was particularly distressed at the time. The newspaper had also harassed the woman by persistently seeking her comments: a reporter approached her home on Thursday 18 July and was asked to desist; she telephoned her on the next day and was told to speak to a representative of the BBC; and she returned the day after to seek a further interview.
The newspaper pointed out that the complainant's pregnancy was well-known, physically obvious and could not be considered a private matter. The manner of conception was also widely known and its details formed a subject of considerable public interest. The article was not prurient and did not discuss the complainant's sexuality in a pejorative way. The newspaper also pointed out that the complainant has subsequently been happy to pose for a photograph with other mothers for a national newspaper. The complaonant did not ask the reporter to desist on the Thursday, although a BBC representative did inform the newspaper on Friday 19 July that she did not want to discuss the matter. She was merely given another opportunity to tell her story on Saturday 20 July.
The complainant maintained that the details included in the article – including the fact of the miscarriage - were clearly private. The newspaper’s unconfirmed speculation about the manner of conception was not handled in a manner that could serve the public interest.
The complaint was upheld under Clause 4 and partially under Clause 3.
The Commission has previously accepted that stories concerning same-sex parenting have a public interest element to them – and this is particularly so in the current climate of political debate about the subject. As always, however, this has to be balanced with an individual’s right to privacy, particularly as a general rule in matters relating to health. It is the Commission’s view, in this context, that it is perfectly possible to write articles on the subject without unnecessarily intruding into private detail. In this case, the Commission considered that while the reporting of the fact of the pregnancy was not intrusive, some of the references – such as to the detailed description of the method of conception and the fact that the complainant had previously had a miscarriage (a matter regarding an individual’s health) when it should have been obvious she had revealed the fact of the miscarriage to the newspaper on a confidential basis – were. There was therefore a breach of the Code on this specific point.
The Commission then turned to the complaint under Clause 4, which states that ‘journalists must not persist in telephoning [or] questioning individuals after having been asked to desist’. It noted that there was some discrepancy between the two parties over whether the complainant had asked the reporter to desist at the first point of contact. The Commission did not consider that it was necessary to reconcile these positions as it considered in any case that – by her own account of events – the reporter had persisted in her attentions in breach of Clause 4 of the Code. It was not in dispute that the reporter had been informed by a BBC representative – acting on the complainant's instructions - on the day before her second visit that she did not want to speak to her. As the reporter had been made aware of the complainant's position at least once prior to her final approach, the Commission considered that a breach of the Code had been established. It therefore upheld this aspect of the complaint.
The Commission rejected complaints framed under Clauses 5 and 13. It emphasised that Clause 5 is designed to prevent insensitive reporting of recent distressing events and the Commission did not consider that this clause therefore applied in these circumstances, where a miscarriage had tragically occurred in the previous year. Regarding the discrimination point, the Commission made clear that there were two tests set out by Clause 13 regarding reference to a person’s sexuality: was it pejorative; and was it relevant? It noted that the newspaper had not referred to the complainant's sexuality in anything other than a factual way. As the Commission also considered that the sexuality of the complainant was relevant to a story that included comparisons with the childbearing of other same-sex couples, it did not conclude that a breach of Clause 13 had been established in this instance.
Pirie v News of the World, Report 49
Feltz v Sunday Mirror, Report 56
Swire v Mail on Sunday, Report 54
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