A Woman and the Wexford People
The Press Ombudsman has upheld a complaint that the Wexford People breached Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
The Wexford People published a report that an elderly man was missing and as a result searches were taking place involving the RNLI, the Coast Guard and the Gardaí. The published article included information that the man had been convicted some years previously of sexually assaulting a relative, at the time a minor. The article provided information on the years the offences took place and named the victim (the complainant). The article stated that at the time of the trial she had waived her right to anonymity so that the offender could be named.
The woman stated that she was very upset to see her name published in a report on a missing person when information on the trial and conviction of the man was not relevant to whatever had become of the missing man. She said that she didn’t expect to have to re-read the details of what had happened after so many years.
The editor in responding to the complainant stated that “there was never any intention of upsetting” her. He went on to state that the “decision to publish a brief account of the court hearing … was made because the sentencing was in the relatively recent past and it was considered germane background to a missing person’s story given what had happened.
The complainant was not satisfied with the editor’s response and made a complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman, stating that Principle 5.2 of the Code of Practice had been breached. This states:
Readers are entitled to news and comment presented with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record or in the public interest.
The publication of her name was not, the complainant stated, in the public interest or relevant to the missing person article. She sought a written apology from the editor which she did not require to be published.
The editor sent a letter of apology to the complainant via the Office of the Press Ombudsman.
The editor subsequently stated that the Wexford People had taken into account the rights of privacy of the complainant and had excluded details of the assaults which led to the court case and subsequent conviction of the complainant’s relative. He stated that these details were on the website of the newspaper in the report of the case some years earlier and were a matter of public record. He repeated again the newspaper’s apology to the complainant.
The complainant said that while she accepted that the editor had given the apology as requested, she still felt that he did not understand the stress and anguish that the article had on her and therefore asked that the complaint be referred to the Press Ombudsman for decision.
As the editor said that there was no suggestion or implication in the report that the missing man’s conviction for sexual assault of his relative some years previously had anything to do with his disappearance the inclusion of details of the name of his victim was a breach of her privacy. Principle 5.2 requires editors to respect the sensibilities of individuals. The complainant had courageously waived her right to anonymity to allow her relative to be named. To see details of the crime and conviction republished some years later in an unrelated matter was a clear failure to respect her sensibilities.
In its defence the newspaper did apologise as requested by the complainant. But after consideration the complainant decided that although she had said that this would be sufficient, she had changed her mind. I think that in the circumstances this change of mind was not unreasonable.
The main argument put forward by the editor justifying the publication of the details of the conviction of the missing man is that the information was on the public record and that Principle 5 allows for the publication of matters of public record. However, this entitlement to publication cannot be unqualified and the relevance of information on the public record has to be taken into consideration when deciding to re-publish, especially when those records refer to sensitive personal matters. In this case no explanation or even hypothesis has been put forward that the criminal conviction some years previously was a factor in the man going missing and therefore I do not find the editor’s argument persuasive.
Note: The complainant has exercised her right under data protection legislation to have this decision reported in an anonymous form
6 April 2018