Clauses Noted: 1, 3, 6, 10
Publication: Sunday Life
A woman, a former officer of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that articles headlined "Killer rapist and his prison love", published in the Sunday Life newspaper on 24 April 2011; "We're just friends", published on 1 May 2011; "I could have been next", published on 3 July 2011; "Prison funds used to clear killer's debt", published on 18 December 2011; and "Drug debt lag killed pensioner", published on 1 January 2012, contained inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy); intruded into her privacy and that of her young son in breach of Clauses 3 (Privacy) and 6 (Children); and included material obtained through clandestine means in breach of Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
The complaint was not upheld.
The articles under complaint, which remained published on the newspaper's website in abridged form, reported that the newspaper had obtained mobile phone footage showing the complainant and Ken Callaghan, who had a conviction for murder, "behaving like lovers" at a supermarket. The complainant had supervised Mr Callaghan in a Prisoner Assessment Unit (PAU) in Belfast; he had evidently been on day release at the time of the incident. The newspaper said that its reporter had witnessed the complainant allowing Mr Callaghan and Francis Ferris, who it described as a "recently freed sex killer" and a "paedophile" who "has convictions for abusing children", to interact with her son. The newspaper had contacted the Prison Service about the footage before publication, as a result of which the complainant had been suspended and then resigned from her position. The Prison Service had later closed the PAU.
The complainant considered that the publication of still images from this footage breached Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge). She also complained that the use of stills showing her two-year-old son raised a breach of Clause 6 (Children), as they had been taken and published without her consent. She was further concerned that several of the articles had been illustrated with a photograph of her in a public park, which she said was taken without consent as she emerged from a public toilet. She considered that the use of this image was intrusive in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy).
The complainant also raised a number of concerns under Clause 1 (Accuracy). In particular, she denied any suggestions that she had a romantic relationship with Mr Callaghan and behaved affectionately towards him in the supermarket; being aware of the full extent of Mr Callaghan's "sickening past" or that Mr Ferris was a sex offender; and allowing Mr Ferris to hold her son. The complainant also said she had been misquoted by the newspaper.
The newspaper did not accept any breach of the Code. It argued that there was an exceptional public interest in highlighting misconduct by a member of NI Prison Service staff and said that as a result of the story, the complainant had resigned from her post rather than face disciplinary proceedings; Mr Callaghan had been returned to prison; and the PAU had been closed. The newspaper noted that the unit remained closed nearly one year later and said it had no indication that the site would re-open in the near future.
The newspaper said that the story had originated with a chance encounter: its reporter had been in the supermarket on his day off when he contacted the newspaper to say that he had seen Mr Callaghan (who had been the subject of previous coverage by the newspaper) holding hands with an unknown woman; he had received approval to film the pair using his phone. He had then observed the pair with another man (later identified as Mr Ferris) and a child (later identified as the complainant's child). On returning to work, he had provided a copy of the mobile phone footage to the Prison Service's press office; the newspaper provided a copy of the accompanying email, which said in part, "It was clear from what I saw that Callaghan is in a relationship with the woman. Given his history - a murderer and rapist - I found it frightening that he was so close to this woman and her child... I think this matter needs investigation especially is [sic] Callaghan's girlfriend is not aware that he is a murderer and rapist". Several days later, he had been informed by a source of the identities of the complainant, Mr Ferris, and the complainant's son.
The newspaper argued that there was an exceptional public interest in the story, and that the complainant's child was an inextricable part of it. It did not consider that the complainant's son was identifiable from the published stills. It strongly defended the accuracy of its story and the reporter's account of what he had seen, and quoted extracts from a report by social services (that had been provided to it by a source) suggesting that the complainant had refused to confirm or deny the reporter's account that she had allowed Mr Ferris to hold her son.
The newspaper accepted that it had used a mobile phone to record images of the complainant, her son and the two men in the supermarket without their knowledge. This raised a prima facie breach of Clause 10 of the Code. The question for the Commission was whether it had demonstrated a sufficient public interest to justify the publication of this material.
The complainant was a public servant; her role as a prison officer meant that she had responsibility for the security, supervision, training and rehabilitation of people committed to prison by the courts. While there was some dispute over the nature of the complainant's relationship with Mr Callaghan, it was accepted that the two had a friendship. Mr Callaghan and Mr Ferris had been convicted of serious crimes; the existence of any friendship between the complainant and these men, or indeed any deliberate meetings between the three outside the context of the Prisoner Assessment Unit, was a matter of great concern. This was confirmed by the complainant's immediate suspension by the Prison Service once the newspaper made it aware of the story, and her subsequent resignation. In the view of the Commission, the publication of the stills served a specific role in advancing the public interest in the story; they illuminated the nature of the meeting at the supermarket, which was critical to the substance of the story. The Commission did not uphold the complaint under Clause 10.
The published images included several that showed the complainant's son. Under Clause 6 (ii) (Children), "a child under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child's welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents"; the Code also stipulates that in cases involving children, "editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interest of the child". It was indisputable that images showing the complainant's son with a convicted paedophile - illustrating claims that she had allowed "pervert murderers" to "cuddle" him - related to his welfare. The Commission therefore had to consider whether there was an exceptional public interest in the publication of these images in particular.
The Commission made clear that it regarded the complainant's concerns about the possible effect of publication on the child with utmost seriousness. However, it noted that the newspaper had taken steps to limit the extent of the intrusion; it had selected still images in which the child's face was not fully visible and used pixilation in other photographs that would otherwise have made him recognisable. The Commission considered that that the child
- who was not named in the piece - would not have been generally identifiable from the coverage. Further, it accepted the newspaper's argument that the presence of the child in close contact with the two men was an essential element of its concerns about the complainant's actions, the nature and extent of her friendships with the two men, and the possible implications for the security and integrity of the Prison Service. On this basis, the Commission found that an exceptional public interest in publication had been established on this occasion. It did not uphold the complaint under Clause 6.
While the Commission acknowledged that the complainant and her son might have had a reasonable expectation of privacy while shopping in the supermarket, the exceptional public interest in the story justified this potential intrusion. There was no breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) on this point.
The complainant had also raised concerns under Clause 3 about the publication of a photograph that had been used to illustrate several of the articles. Under the terms of Clause 3, "it is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent"; it defines private places as "public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy". In this instance, the Commission could not conclude that the complainant would have had a reasonable expectation of privacy while standing in the open in a public park. While it noted the complainant's concerns that she had been leaving a public toilet when the photographs were taken, this was not evident from the published image, which simply showed what she looked like; there was no indication that it had been selected to embarrass or humiliate her. The Commission was satisfied that the publication of these photographs did not represent a failure to respect the complainant's private life in this context in breach of Clause 3.
The Commission considered next the complainant's concerns about inaccuracy. Clause 1 (Accuracy) sets out that "the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures" and that "a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence".
It was evident that the initial report of the existence of the footage, published on 24 April 2011, represented the reporter's account of what he observed at the supermarket, including his position that she and Mr Callaghan had been acting like "smitten teenagers" and "snuggling", and that the men had been allowed by the complainant to "cuddle" her son. While the complainant denied this, she had accepted that Mr Callaghan "held [her] hand briefly to be compassionate" and she had "smiled a lot and went along". The Commission noted that the newspaper had approached the complainant before publication to allow her the opportunity to comment; it could not conclude that it had failed to take care over the accuracy of its account of these events. It was not in a position to reconcile the conflicting accounts of the reporter and the complainant in this regard and therefore could not establish a breach of Clause 1. The complainant had disputed the newspaper's account of the precise words that she had used in asking the reporter to desist when asked for comment; she said that rather than saying "Go away, I'm saying nothing", she had simply asked him to leave her alone. The Commission did not consider that the difference between these two accounts was a matter of significance.
The complainant had also disputed the accuracy of comments attributed to her in follow-up coverage - including her denial of any romantic relationship; her position that she had been unaware of the extent of Mr Callaghan's criminal background; and her position that she had been fearful for her safety during the encounter. In particular, she disputed "every single quote" in the article of 3 July 2011. Both parties accepted that a conversation had taken place; the newspaper had published several photographs of the complainant gesturing as she spoke to the reporter. The complainant said that when the reporter approached her, she simply said she "did not know anything". In contrast, the newspaper said that the complainant happily spoke to its reporter for ten minutes in the park. It said that she volunteered the information reported, which had been noted down by its reporter immediately after the exchange and accurately presented in the article. As the complainant had not provided further details of her concerns in this regard, the Commission was unable to make a finding under the terms of the Code on this point.
A woman v The Sun (2008)
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