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Complainant Name:
Wilton Park School

Clauses Noted: 6

Publication: The Mail on Sunday

Complaint:

Wilton Park School complained to the Press Complaints Commission through solicitors, on its own behalf and on behalf of seventeen pupils at the School, that an article headlined "Probe into strict Christian sect school that ‘shut up' girl pupil for 37 days....for making Facebook page", published by The Mail on Sunday on 20 January 2013, breached Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors' Code of Practice.

The complaint was not upheld.

The article reported that the School, which is run by the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (also known as the Exclusive Brethren), was under investigation by Wiltshire County Council, police and the Department for Education following allegations of child cruelty made by a former teacher. The teacher had compiled a "dossier" of allegations, including that six pupils had been "confined to their homes and forbidden to have any communication with anyone outside their close families", a practice known as "shutting up", after they were discovered to have set up a Facebook page. The School did not accept any misconduct, but the day after the article was published it closed for four weeks in the middle of term because of a "breakdown of trust between staff and pupils". The following month, the School was informed that the investigation had been closed with a "unanimous agreement" by all participants that no further enquiries would be undertaken and that the safeguarding concerns were unfounded.

The School said that the report had caused serious intrusion into the education of its pupils, particularly in light of the closure, which it directly attributed to the press coverage. The parents of seventeen pupils confirmed that the School was complaining with their consent, and said their children had lost trust in their teachers as a result of the coverage, and that they had been left anxious and were now behind in their work. The School provided analysis by a former Ofsted inspector to demonstrate that pupils' education had been impaired, and said future pupils would also be affected because funds spent on handling the consequences would not be available for educational purposes. The School contended that any intrusion caused by the publication of the report was "unnecessary", in the terms of Clause 6, because the publication of the allegations at this time had been "unnecessary": if they were true, the investigation would uphold them, and the outcome could then be reported appropriately. Alternatively, if they were untrue, no legitimate purpose was served by publicising them, and indeed the subsequent investigation had shown they were wholly false.

The newspaper did not accept that the complaint engaged Clause 6, as it had not named or identified individual pupils. While photographs of pupils had accompanied the article, their faces were pixelated. It defended its report as an accurate account of serious allegations, which had included the School's position. While it had concluded that there were no safeguarding issues, the Council had acknowledged that the dossier "did raise concerns that needed to be further explored, with enquiries being conducted and concluded as expeditiously as possible" and formally classified it as a "whistleblowing" letter.

The newspaper noted that the School had first raised concerns about the coverage in January 2013, before discontinuing correspondence until March 2013. After a further delay, it had resumed correspondence in August 2013; and again in November 2013. While it did not accept any breach of the Code, it offered to publish an update in print and online noting the outcome of the investigation.

The School's correspondence had been delayed because its focus had been in recovering from the damage inflicted by the report. It requested reimbursement by the newspaper of the costs of the closure and related expenses, estimated to be 176,205, along with its legal costs. It considered that because the newspaper had referred to a public interest in the publication of the allegations, it should be required by the PCC to demonstrate that it reasonably believed that publication would be in the public interest and how, and with whom, that was established before publication.

Decision:
Not Upheld

Adjudication:

The School contended that no legitimate public interest can be served by publishing the details of whistleblowing allegations before they have been investigated by appropriate authorities. The Commission rejected this position. When handled responsibly, the publication of such information performs an important function, allowing the public to scrutinise the claims and the procedures being employed to investigate them. It also enables members of the public to contribute relevant information to the inquiries that might otherwise have been unavailable. With regard to this case in particular, the Commission was of the view that parents of current and potential pupils at the school were entitled to be made aware of the whistleblower's claims and that an enquiry was under way.

Clause 6 (i) states that "young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion". While any upset caused to pupils by the publication of the report was regrettable, it is inevitable that the free circulation of information will on occasion lead to consequences that are, in themselves, undesirable. The newspaper's report had accurately set out the nature and origin of the allegations, and the School's response had been included in the report. The newspaper had also taken steps to ensure that its coverage would not pose a gratuitous intrusion into the lives of individual pupils at the School, including by pixelating an accompanying image. Responsibility for the subsequent temporary closure lay with the School; for the Commission to rule that as a consequence of this subsequent decision, publication of an otherwise legitimate report had posed an "unnecessary" intrusion - and thus a prima facie breach of Clause 6 - would create a serious chilling effect on reporting of matters in the public interest. There was no breach of the Code.

Nonetheless, once the newspaper was notified of the outcome of the investigation it was required to update its readers on this matter. This update should now be published to avoid misleading readers.

Date Published:
25/02/2014



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