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Complainant Name:
Messrs Eversheds on behalf of Mrs Renate John

Clauses Noted: 3, 4, 10

Publication: Sunday Mirror

Complaint:

Messrs Eversheds, solicitors, complained on behalf of their client Mrs Renate John that an article headlined “Sad, lonely life of the woman who loved and lost Elton”, published in the Sunday Mirror on 4 June 2000, intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice. They also complained that the conduct of the paper’s reporters had constituted a breach of Clause 4 (Harassment) and Clause 11 (Misrepresentation) of the Code of Practice.

The complaint was upheld on one count but rejected on the others.

The article compared Mrs John’s current lifestyle to the one she had experienced with her former husband, the pop star Sir Elton John. It was accompanied by photographs of the complainant in a car park and at a petrol station – allegedly taken with a long lens – and one of her home.

The complainant considered that she had a ‘reasonable expectation’ of privacy while in a public car park or on a petrol station forecourt. With regard to her complaint about subterfuge, the complainant said that journalists from the paper – who did not reveal their identities – had made local telephone and house calls in search of information about her. The complainant said that these approaches, coupled with an aggressive response from the paper when she telephoned them to ask them to desist from writing a story about her, constituted harassment in breach of the Code. She also objected to the inclusion of her address in the piece and said that she had received unwanted personal correspondence as a result. The complainant considered that the article was intrusive and offensive and had, in fact, incriminated itself by highlighting her current quiet and private lifestyle in contrast to the life she had led when married to Sir Elton John. She pointed out that she was not a celebrity in her own right and that since her divorce fourteen years previously she had endeavoured to stay out of the public spotlight, rejecting offers of money from the media – including the Sunday Mirror – for interviews.

Dealing first with the complaint about misrepresentation, the newspaper said that its reporter identified himself at all times to everyone that he spoke to in the village and did not use subterfuge. There can have been no harassment of the complainant, in the sense of Clause 4 of the Code, as the reporter did not contact her again having been asked to desist from doing so. The paper denied that any of its staff were aggressive when the complainant phoned the paper and at no stage did the reporter harass any of the complainant’s neighbours. It then argued, with regard to the photographs of the complainant, that she was in a public place where she must have appreciated that photographs of this nature could have been taken at any time. It was not obvious that the photographs had been taken with a long lens. The photograph of the complainant’s home had likewise been taken from a public place.

The newspaper further responded that the press had previously reported the complainant’s address in relation to her move to the property and to a fire which had occurred there in 1989. Reference to the name of the complainant’s home and its partial address had been published by a newspaper as recently as February 2000 and had also been stated in a biography of her former husband which had appeared in the same year. The article had not, therefore, brought any new information into the public domain. The complainant’s link to the address had been public knowledge for a number of years and could not now be considered private.

With regard to the content of the article, the newspaper said that it did not contain any material that was intrinsically about the complainant’s private life. Merely to state that someone leads a private life is not in itself revealing private information, and neither was the fact that she drove a Mercedes. That she was upset by the divorce and had not spoken to her former husband had been well established in the public domain.

In general, the paper said that as someone who had previously embraced publicity and been one half of a very high-profile marriage, the complainant should expect occasional publicity.

Decision:
Upheld

Adjudication:

Before considering the individual parts of the complaint, the Commission underlined its sympathy for the position that the complainant found herself in. It recognised that she had sought to maintain a private lifestyle for over ten years without attempting to garner any form of publicity during this time. The Commission further recognised that the occasion for the article was not of the complainant’s making and that she had specifically told the newspaper in advance of publication that she did not want any publicity.

The Commission dealt first with the complaint of subterfuge. Although the complainant had suggested that the reporter had not identified himself to villagers when questioning them about the complainant, the Commission noted that the newspaper had denied this and in the absence of any firm evidence considered that a breach of the Code had not been established on this point. Neither was there any evidence of harassment in breach of the Code. It noted that a journalist from the newspaper had telephoned the complainant and requested an interview which had been declined. It was apparent that no further attempt to contact the complainant with regard to this issue had been made by the newspaper. The Commission considered that this sole approach to the complainant did not raise a breach of the Code under Clause 4 and no complaints of harassment or subterfuge had been received from any members of the village.

Next, the Commission considered the complaint about the taking and publication of photographs of the complainant. The Commission could certainly understand the complainant’s position as she had apparently not been aware that they had been taken and was, as she pointed out, just going about her normal routine. However, the issues for the Commission to consider were firstly whether the complainant was in a place where she had a reasonable expectation of privacy when the photographs were taken, and secondly whether their publication did not show her respect for her private life in accordance with Clause 3 (i) of the Code.

The Commission could not consider that a public car park or a petrol station were places where anyone could have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The complainant was outdoors in places where any number of people were entitled to be without restriction. The Commission appreciated that the complainant was unaware that the photographs had been taken but considered that this was not relevant under the Code. Having decided that the complainant was in a place where she did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, the issue of whether long lens photography was used or not was therefore irrelevant.

The Commission then considered whether publication of the photographs showed a lack of respect for the complainant’s private life. It concluded that it did not. The Commission understood that the attention that the complainant had received was clearly unwanted but recognised that the photographs had been taken in a public place while she was not engaged in any private activity. Furthermore, they could not be held to illuminate any aspect of her private life.

The Commission then considered whether the content of the article itself breached Clause 3 of the Code by failing to show the complainant respect for her private life. While the complainant may have been insulted by the tone of the article this was in effect a matter of editorial comment. The Commission accepts that a free press will from time to time write about people who have formerly been in the public eye and it is not the Commission’s job either to restrict this right or to afford individuals a veto over future publicity, provided, of course, that newspapers abide by the terms of the Code in such reporting. In this case, they had – because the article did not contain any material that on any reasonable criteria could be described as private. There were no details about matters that could reasonably be considered to concern her private life – for example details of her state of health, current relationships, private conversations or photographs of her in private places. Had such genuinely private matters been included in the article the Commission might have taken a different view but it could not uphold a complaint about the article when the objection appeared to be more to do with unwanted attention than the publication of truly intrusive details.

The Commission did uphold the complaint on one point – the publication of the complainant’s address. The Commission was not persuaded that the address was sufficiently established in the public domain to justify its full publication in the article. Part of the newspaper’s defence on this point was based on cuttings from the late 1980s – before the Code of Practice or the Commission were established. Since that time there did not appear to be any examples of the complainant’s full address having been published and the Commission has previously been very clear that newspapers should not publish material that might enable third parties to identify the precise whereabouts of potentially vulnerable people. In this case the Commission considered that the newspaper had breached the Code in including details of the complainant’s address.

Report:
53



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