Clauses Noted: 4
Publication: Sunday Mirror
The Rt Hon Andrew Robathan MP complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the Sunday Mirror had raised a breach of Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors' Code of Practice while seeking his comments for an article headlined "Nuke tests did damage our health", published by the Sunday Mirror on 30 October 2011.
The complaint was not upheld.
The article reported on the findings of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Health Needs Audit, a study conducted by the Ministry of Defence into the health of nuclear test veterans.
The complainant, the Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, said that on the day before the story was published, as he had left the drive at his constituency home in the family car with his wife and his child, two cars had followed him for around 13 miles or approximately 25 minutes. At the time he had considered the possibility that the vehicles posed a security threat but had concluded that this was unlikely, so he had stopped in a busy village and got out of the car to confront the drivers, one of whom identified himself as a journalist working for the newspaper. The reporter had then asked him questions about the report. The complainant suggested he call the Ministry of Defence and told him that he objected to his family being followed. The journalist had then attempted to ask further questions as the complainant drove away.
The complainant said that the roadside was not a good location to question him on the details of a complicated report that he had not studied in detail. He would have answered a telephone call from the newspaper, so there was no purpose for pursuing him. The case revealed an "irresponsible attitude" from the newspaper, which had distressed his family. He believed the newspaper's activities amounted to harassment.
The newspaper emphasised the background to the incident: its long-running campaign for justice on behalf of nuclear veterans. It said that since the 1950s, the Ministry of Defence had consistently denied that their serious health issues had been caused by witnessing test nuclear explosions. This was a highly emotive issue, which had been subject to legal challenge under successive governments.
The study, which had been conducted after years of campaigning, had been published "without fanfare" on the Ministry's website. The Ministry's press office had provided a statement from the complainant that the newspaper considered "looked like the work of a civil servant". Its reporter had asked the office for a "human" comment from the complainant, but had been told that there would be no further statement. The newspaper decided that it was appropriate to seek a personal comment from the complainant about the suffering of the veterans; it considered that such a statement was the "least that could be expected" from a Government minister in the circumstances.
The reporter had intended to visit the complaint's home but discovered that it was at the end of a private drive. He and the photographer decided to wait on the public road for the complainant to leave his house and approach him on foot. However, their attempts to get the complainant's attention as he left the drive had been unsuccessful, as he had driven straight out; the reporter decided then to follow the vehicle so that he could approach the complainant in a public place. He and the photographer had then followed the vehicle for around 10 to 15 minutes, until the complaint turned off the road and got out of the car to speak to them. The complainant had declined to comment further and made clear that he regarded the behaviour as harassment before driving away. The reporter and photographer had then left the area and had not followed the complainant further.
It did not accept that it had breached the Code. Nonetheless, it regretted the concern caused to the complainant and his family and was happy to express that in a letter to him. It was also willing to issue instructions that he should not approached again outside normal working hours when he was with his family.
The complainant denied that any attempt had been made to contact him or to "flag him down"; rather the two had just gotten into their cars when he left the drive. The complainant believed the issue was one of principle, which should be ruled on by the Commission; for this reason he was unwilling to resolve the matter with the newspaper.
It was accepted by both parties that the reporter and photographer had followed the complainant and his family, in vehicles, from their family home for a considerable distance before the complainant had pulled off the road to confront them.
Under the terms of Clause 4 (Harassment), "journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit". There could be no dispute that the decision by the reporter and photographer to follow the complainant's vehicle constituted "pursuit". The question for the Commission was whether it was "persistent pursuit" or otherwise constituted "intimidation" or "harassment".
The activity under complaint had occurred on a single occasion, and there was no suggestion that it had been carried out in an overtly aggressive manner or that either of the newspaper's representatives had driven in a manner that was likely to pose an immediate danger to the complainant or his family. The journalists had left the area once they had been asked to desist from their attentions. The Commission also noted that the complainant was a public servant, and that the newspaper had been seeking to obtain his comment on an issue that was undoubtedly of significant public interest. It had described the unsuccessful steps it had taken to obtain such comment through official channels, which the complainant had not disputed.
The Commission's strong view was that the decision to follow the complainant and has family had been ill-advised. While it warned the newspaper that such practices had the capacity to cause significant distress, on this occasion it concluded that the activity did not constitute harassment or persistent pursuit under the terms of the Code, and it therefore established no breach of Clause 4.
However, the Commission took this opportunity to note its position that the complaint highlighted the need for a change in the Editors' Code of Practice to address specifically the particular potential for danger and alarm posed by pursuit in a vehicle. It asked the Editors' Code Committee or a successor body to consider new provisions to address this issue. In so doing, it emphasised that any decision to engage in such pursuit should not be taken lightly and could not represent common practice.
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