Friday 30 September 2016

Press Ombudsman: A woman and Independent.ie

Published 05/08/2016 | 10:01

Office of the Press Ombudsman
Office of the Press Ombudsman

THE Press Ombudsman has upheld a complaint that Independent.ie breached Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty), Principle 5 (Privacy) and Principle 9 (Children) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.

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On 1 April 2016 Independent.ie published an article under the heading “Irish woman reveals her struggles with postpartum psychosis after April Fool’s Day post causes major upset”. The article stated that a named woman (the complainant) “shared an image of a stork onto the cult Facebook page ‘Oh My God, what a complete Aisling’ and evoked an angry response from women who said her joke was inappropriate and made light of the difficulty many couples face while trying to conceive”. The article went on to say that the person who posted the comment “apologised to the masses” for her unintentionally offensive joke and “opened up about her struggle with post-natal depression and psychosis”. The article gave the name of the woman’s child. It also identified what city she lived in and gave some very personal and intimate details of her mental health in the aftermath of the birth of her child.  The article was accompanied by a wedding photograph of the woman with her husband.

The article was taken down when the complainant’s concerns were made known to the editor.  However it remained accessible through a Google search. Independent.ie undertook to approach Google to have any references to the article deleted. In addition the complainant received an apology.

Solicitors representing the woman wrote to Independent News and Media, the publishers of Independent.ie, claiming that the article breached their client’s privacy and that of her husband and child. They claimed that the “details for the article were lifted from a private Facebook group without their client’s knowledge or consent” and that their client had not been approached prior to publication.  They stated that the “contents of the article dealt with an extremely personal and traumatic time in their client’s life and this had been disclosed solely to a small group of people and could not have been considered to have been intended to be shared with a wider audience”.

The woman made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman. She claimed that the article breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3  (Fair Procedures and Honesty), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights), Principle 5 (Privacy) and Principle 9 (Children) of the Code of Practice.

In its formal submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman Independent.ie acknowledged that the article should not have been published without the consent of the complainant. They stated that the journalist “took it at face value that it was OK to publish as the post was a public Facebook page and the (complainant’s) own story”. They went on to say that the photographs used to illustrate the article were taken from the complainant’s public Facebook page. Independent.ie also acknowledged the child of the complainant should not have been “named or identified in any way”.

Independent.ie offered to publish a response piece from the complainant or an apology, and to meet with her to resolve the matter.   

As the complaint could not be resolved through conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision

This complaint highlights the important issue of privacy when the subject matter of an article is sourced from social media.  In this instance, a private person posted highly personal information about herself on a Facebook group.  This information was available to anyone who was a member of that group. Independent.ie decided that it was acceptable to use that information in an article.  It  made no effort to contact the woman to find out if she was willing to have personal information posted on Facebook included in an article.  This is a breach of Principle 3 which states that information, photographs or other material shall not be obtained through misrepresentation or subterfuge. The journalist received this information as a member of a Facebook group, not as a journalist. At a minimum, in order to avoid breaching Principle 3, Independent.ie needed to contact the woman in advance of publication to seek her permission to include personal information in the article.

Even allowing for the large size of the particular Facebook group the article was a breach of Principle 5 (Privacy).  Privacy considerations can be qualified if the matters being reported are on the public record or in the public interest.   In this instance the publication of the information was decidedly not in the public interest.  Except in exceptional circumstances it is inconceivable that the publication without permission of personal information about a person’s mental health could be regarded as in the public interest.  In addition under Principle 5 there was no justification for the publication of a wedding photograph of the complainant and her husband.

I am also upholding the complaint on the basis of a breach of Principle 9 (Children).  There was no justification for publishing any information about the child of the complainant. 

The response of Independent.ie to take down the article immediately it was made aware of the complaint, to approach Google to remove a reference to the article on Google and to apologise was appropriate and welcome.  However given the serious breach of the Code of Practice it was not sufficient to resolve the complaint.

Other parts of the complaint were not upheld.  The complainant argued that there were inaccuracies in the article and as a result Principle 1 had been breached.   The accuracy of the information that is disputed by the complainant is not of such significance to justify upholding a complaint under Principle 1.  I can find no evidence that the article failed to distinguish between fact and comment.  Therefore there is no breach of Principle 2. As I have found that any inaccuracies in the article were not significant I am not upholding the complaint that Principle 4 had been breached by the failure to take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. 

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