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Complainant Name:
A man

Clauses Noted: 1, 3, 4, 10

Publication: Daily Mail


A man complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the Daily Mail had obtained material that intruded into his private life in a manner that breached Clauses 1 (Accuracy), 3 (Privacy), 4 (Harassment), and 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors' Code of Practice.

The complaint was not upheld.

The journalistic activity under complaint related to a potential story involving a doctor, who was allegedly offering to donate sperm by having unprotected sex with women rather than using artificial insemination.

The complainant said that a freelance journalist had contacted three women - connected to his activity as a sperm donor - whose details could only have been obtained by gaining access to digitally-held information without his permission. While he accepted that the journalist had not been directly responsible for accessing the information, the source of the information (who had been a donor recipient) had informed the journalist that she had obtained the details from his personal computer. It should have been apparent to the journalist that the information had been acquired without his consent and was of a private and confidential nature.

The complainant considered that the approaches to the women by the freelance journalist had been highly intrusive, given the sensitive issues involved.

The newspaper said that the journalist was not employed by the Daily Mail, and it had not commissioned the article from her. The first it was aware of the story was when the journalist approached the newspaper on 18 or 19 September, after she had been working on it for about a month. The newspaper then spent four days working on the story with the journalist - including offering the complainant the opportunity to respond to the allegations and putting the allegations to other women on the list provided by the source - before receiving a letter from the complainant's lawyers outlining concerns over the manner in which information used by the journalist had been obtained.

The newspaper instructed the journalist to urgently contact her source, who confirmed that she had obtained the information from the complainant's personal computer. There had been no previous suggestion to the newspaper that the details of the women had been acquired using these means. The women were not contacted again after questions regarding the genesis of the information had been raised. The newspaper's reporter had sent one further email about the complainant to the owner of a sperm donation website after the receipt of the lawyer's letter, but this did not relate to the information allegedly acquired from the personal computer.

The newspaper considered that there was a strong public interest in the allegations by the source that the complainant, a doctor, had abused his position by encouraging recipients to be "naturally inseminated" with his sperm. Claims that he had fathered large numbers of children raised additional public interest issues. As such, it had taken steps, over the four days prior to the receipt of a letter from the complainant's legal representative, to proceed with enquiries.

During this period, a Daily Mail reporter had contacted the complainant by telephone and email and subsequently made an approach to him at his home, which he had avoided. She made one further phone call to the complainant. It desisted in its approaches when it became apparent the complainant did not wish to engage on the matter. The newspaper had no current intention to publish an article on the subject and undertook not to make use of the information allegedly acquired from the complainant's computer. In view of the public interest in the general issues, it was not willing to offer an assurance requested by the complainant that it would not in any future articles identify him as a sperm donor or publish the identity of a donor recipient or child in a context that might lead to his identification.

The complainant maintained that there was no public interest in the matter - the information was inherently private. Furthermore, the majority of the information held by the newspaper was inaccurate.

Not Upheld


The preamble to the Editors' Code of Practice notes that editors should ensure that the terms of the 16 Clauses of the Code are observed by "all editorial staff and external contributors, including non-journalists". This case was an example of the difficulties that can arise in some circumstances in determining to what extent an individual publication is responsible for the actions of freelance contributors.

While the newspaper was obviously responsible for the conduct of its own staff, it also had responsibility on this occasion for the conduct of the freelance journalist insofar as her journalistic behaviour was carried out on behalf of the newspaper. This related to the work undertaken in late September, after she had approached the newspaper with the story. The newspaper was not responsible for the preceding behaviour by the freelance journalist in circumstances where it had apparently been unaware of the activity, had not commissioned the activity, and had not published any story that had originated from the activity.

It was not in dispute that the newspaper had gained possession, via the freelance contributor, of information that related to the complainant's private life, including material that had apparently been obtained without his knowledge or consent from a home computer. This material was contact information for women connected to the complainant's sperm donor activity. The source of this information was a woman who had been a donor recipient and had had access to his computer.

While the newspaper had made relevant inquiries over the course of four days, following receipt of the information, the Commission noted that it had not made use of the contact details once it was made aware - in the course of its journalistic enquiries - of the manner in which they had been acquired. Nothing had then been published on the story.

Clause 3 (Privacy) makes clear that "Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent." It was evident that the story had the potential to pose an intrusion into the complainant's private and family life. However, the Commission also had to have regard for the fact that it was legitimate for the newspaper to make enquiries to determine whether publication of the material was justified. The Commission could not agree that mere possession (unsolicited) of the information and instigation of relevant enquiries represented a breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Code in this instance, especially given that nothing had been published as a result.

Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) states that "the press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by... accessing digitally-held private information without consent". It was accepted that the names and contact details of a list of women connected to the complainant had been acquired from his computer. This information had been obtained by the freelance journalist's source and subsequently provided to the newspaper by that journalist. Once the manner in which the information had been obtained came to light, the newspaper had not made further use of it and had undertaken not to publish it. The Commission could not agree that the newspaper had in this case breached the terms of the clause: it had not sought to obtain the information by these means and it had not published the information. There was no breach of the Code.

The Commission then turned to the conduct of the Daily Mail's reporters. In its view, it was reasonable for the newspaper to approach the complainant in order to offer him the opportunity to respond to the allegations. Indeed doing so amounted, as required by Clause 1 (Accuracy), to the taking of care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information. Through the newspaper's attempts to contact the complainant for comment, questions had been raised as to the means by which certain information had been obtained.

It was clear that the newspaper had made a number of attempts to contact the complainant: by telephone, email, and in person. However, the Commission did not consider that this amounted to unduly persistent questioning, given the nature of the allegations. When the complainant did not respond to enquiries, the contact ceased. In the circumstances, which included the legitimate aim of seeking to ascertain the complainant's position, the Commission did not consider that there had been harassment in breach of Clause 4 (Harassment).

The complainant had raised additional concerns under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code in relation to incorrect information held by the newspaper. Clause 1 requires the press to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. The information in question had not been published and, as such, there was no breach of the Editors' Code.

Date Published:

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