Clauses Noted: 1, 10
Publication: The Sun
A representative of Norfolk Constabulary complained to the Press Complaints Commission that two articles published in The Sun newspaper on 4 and 5 September 2012 were inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice. The complainant also raised concerns that the newspaper had published information obtained in breach of Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Code.
The newspaper had failed to take care not to publish misleading information in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy); however, the remedial action offered in response was sufficient to remedy any significantly misleading impression in accordance with Clause 1 (ii).
The articles related to the police investigation into the deaths of John Didier and Annette Creegan, whose bodies had been discovered in the Norfolk Broads. The 4 September article reported that "the police list of items retrieved from the boat [on which the two had been staying at the time of their deaths] was revealed yesterday" and described several of the items. The information had come from an evidence log which a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) had inadvertently displayed while he carried it at the scene, and which an agency photographer had captured in an image.
The complainant said the contents of the evidence logs were for police eyes only. The writing would not have been visible to the naked eye from more than one metre away, and the forensic officers had been working some distance from the media representatives and photographers. The complainant argued that police officers should be able to go about their duties without fear of their work being intercepted by high-powered or long-range photography. She considered that the newspaper's publication of this information breached Clause 10.
The newspaper said that on arrival at the scene the photographer had identified himself to police officers before openly taking photographs while standing in an area to which journalists and members of the public were permitted access. He had used a standard camera to take shots, focusing on the boat and the CSI officers at work. He had not deliberately sought to photograph the evidence list, and it was only when a reporter subsequently noticed it in the frame that they "cropped in" on the original image. The newspaper contended that there had been no element of subterfuge and that the information had been obtained as a result of "legitimate journalistic enterprise".
The complainant also raised concerns about the accuracy of the coverage. In respect of the 4 September article, she said that the newspaper's presentation of the evidence list inaccurately suggested that Norfolk Constabulary had "proactively and officially" released the information to the media, which would have been contrary to police practice, and carried the risk of compromising its own investigation, as well as the confidence of the victims' families and the public.
The complainant had similar concerns about the newspaper's presentation in the 5 September article of an account of events leading to the deaths of Mr Didier and Ms Creegan. The complainant said the claim that "Cops believe suspected strangler John Didier hurled his lover's body off a boat ... before leaping overboard to drown" suggested that this information had been released and verified by the police. The complainant noted that a police press release issued the day before publication had stated only that Ms Creegan was "likely to have died as a result of strangulation" and that "the male victim died as a result of drowning".
The newspaper emphasised that the information included in the 4 September article had come from police sources, although it had not been officially released. With regard to the 5 September piece, it explained that the account had come from on- and off-the-record guidance given by police officers and the police press office. The newspaper appeared to accept that the words ‘hurled' and ‘leaping overboard' had not been used by the police sources but contended they were accurate where it had been confirmed that Mr Didier deposited Ms Creegan's body in the water, and where his body was later found in the river.
The newspaper did not accept that its report had been significantly misleading. Nonetheless, it offered to publish a clarification, on page 2 of its print edition and online, noting that police had not volunteered the evidence list and that the account of events had not been provided by an official police spokesman.
Press coverage of ongoing police investigations serves an important public interest, enabling the public to scrutinise the criminal justice system and in some cases to assist the police in inquiries. However, there are legitimate concerns about the dissemination of such information, which carries with it risks, not least of compromising public trust in the police to conduct such inquiries with appropriate regard for the privacy of individuals concerned. This means there is a particular value in publications being transparent, to the extent possible, about the provenance of such information.
The 4 September article had not expressly attributed the information about the items to a police spokesman or police source. Nonetheless, it reported on the progress of the police investigation and contained a number of details attributed to police sources, including comments by the officer overseeing the investigation. In the view of the Commission, readers would have understood from the coverage that the information about the items had been provided voluntarily by police sources, whether officially or unofficially. The claim that the police list was "revealed" was, in the context of the article as a whole, misleading on what was, in the view of the Commission, a matter of significance. It was therefore incumbent on the newspaper to publish a clarification regarding its source of the information.
While it was regrettable that the error had been allowed to occur, the Commission was satisfied that the proposed clarification would adequately remedy the position under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code. While it was appropriate that publication was delayed pending agreement of its terms, the Commission trusted that the newspaper would now proceed with publication of the statement at the next opportunity.
With regard to the 5 September article, the Commission understood the complainant's concerns and agreed that the newspaper might have taken greater care to ensure that the basis of its account had been clearly explained to readers. Nevertheless, where the sequence of events was not disputed, and where the article had not specified a particular police source, it did not consider that readers would have been significantly misled on this point. While the Commission noted the complainant's objections to the language employed, it was satisfied that this was identifiable as the newspaper's own, rather than that of an official police source. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
The Commission turned to consider the matters raised under Clause 10 of the Code, which states that "the press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages, or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent".
The Commission emphasised that Clause 10 is specifically designed to prevent the press from seeking to obtain and publish information which has been acquired through the use of subterfuge or clandestine devices. There was no evidence that the photographer had sought to disguise his motive or actions, and it was accepted that he had been standing at an approved location. With all of the above in mind, the Commission could not conclude that the conduct under complaint breached Clause 10.
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