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Complainant Name:
Alex Neil MSP

Clauses Noted: 6

Publication: Scottish Sun


Alex Neil MSP complained to the Press Complaints Commission on behalf of a constituent that two articles published in the Scottish Sun in September 2011 had intruded into her son's time at school in breach of Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors' Code of Practice.

The complaint was not upheld.

The articles reported that a former police officer had been hired by a school as a support worker for the complainant's son, who it alleged had "battered staff and pupils" and was "out of control". The complainant said that the information in the article had identified her child, to those at the school and more widely. Although the newspaper had not named the child or the school he attended, it had made reference to the general area in which the school was located; referred to a specialist unit (in which the child was enrolled); included the child's age; made clear that the child has autism; and provided details of his alleged misbehaviour. The complainant said that the school was the only one in the area with an autism unit, and the member of staff identified (a photograph of whom had been published) had been assigned only to the child.

The complainant said that her son had been publicly humiliated by the coverage, which had caused stress and upset. She had not been contacted by the newspaper before publication and was concerned that the newspaper had, instead, sought comments from elected representatives (including Mr Neil) as part of attempts to vilify the boy.

The newspaper said that the story was clearly in the public interest: it had been brought to its attention by a parent concerned about the disruption caused by the boy, including incidents of violence which were said to have scared staff. However, it would not seek to identify a child in such circumstances; rather, it had made the decision to omit his name and the name of the school from the story. It considered that the only people who would be able to identify him from the published story would already be aware of his situation. The area in question had five secondary schools with over 6,000 pupils and, although the autism unit was the only one in the area, other schools had specialist units. The newspaper's approaches to relevant individuals for comment - including MSPs - was part of its regular practice.

The complainant maintained that her son had been identified: people from his old school had made contact with her after reading the article. In addition, while there may have been other specialist units, the article had already referred to the child's autism.

Not Upheld


Clause 6 of the Editors' Code states that "young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion".

There were two overriding issues for the Commission to consider here: whether the references to the child intruded unnecessarily into his time at school; and whether there was a public interest in publishing the story.

The article did contain personal information about the unnamed child: his age, the fact that he had autism and details about the progress of his education. Given his age, it would have been entirely wrong - and a clear breach of the Code - had the newspaper named him, or his school. By referring only to the general area where it was located, the newspaper had taken steps to prevent the child from being identified. While the articles had referred to a specialist unit, the Commission was not convinced that this was sufficient to lead to his general identification.

On balance, the Commission considered that the newspaper had removed enough detail to limit the level of intrusion, given the considerable public interest in the story.

The Commission noted that the basic premise of the coverage was not in dispute: the child's behaviour had led to the decision to appoint a former police officer to work with him on a one-to-one basis. The newspaper had argued in its editorial that there was a balance to be found between teaching the child - at a significant cost to the public - and "the needs and rights of other children". The newspaper was entitled to ask important questions about how the rights of disruptive children to education must be balanced against the rights of other children and their teachers.

This was a difficult decision, and the Commission had deep sympathy for the complainant's concern that her son's education might have been affected by the newspaper's coverage. Ultimately, however, the Commission decided that the newspaper had appropriately balanced its responsibility to report on the matter in the public interest with its obligation to protect the complainant's son from unnecessary intrusion. The complaint was not upheld.

Relevant ruling

A married couple v The Sun, 2010

Date Published:

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