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Publication of ex-directory phone number 'breached PCC Code'

The Ballymoney Chronicle has been found guilty of intruding into the private life of a woman by publishing her ex-directory telephone number without her consent.

An article appeared in the paper in February about plans by Merlyn Brown of Coleraine to run the London Marathon.

The front page story included direct quotes and a photograph of the complainant as well as details of her family’s health problems and her phone number.

But she complained to the Press Complaints Commission because she said she had not given her permission for the article to appear and, when contacted, had told the paper she did not want any publicity.

She said the article was misleading as it suggested she had given an interview to the paper – when in fact the information had come from a leaflet – and that the inclusion of her phone number had led to hoax telephone calls.

She claimed the article had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Privacy) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Code of Practice.

The PCC found a breach of Clause 3, but did not censure the newspaper as it said the breach had been inadvertent.

The complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld because the article had accurately quoted the leaflet, although without consent, and so was not misleading in breach of the Code.

No finding was made under Clause 10 as there was a sharp conflict of evidence in relation to the circumstances in which the newspaper had obtained the leaflet in question.

The newspaper said that its intention was to promote a prominent charity and highlight a local ‘good news’ story.

The complainant said the leaflet was taken from her desk at work without permission, but the newspaper provided a signed statement claiming she had given its staff photographer a copy.

Moreover, 50 copies of the leaflet had been produced – with 35 being distributed to family, friends and local businesses – and the paper said the information was therefore in the public domain.

Nonetheless, it had attempted to discuss the article with the complainant and a breakdown in communication had occurred.

The editor took responsibility for this and wrote a letter of apology to the complainant – but she was unhappy with the letter and said that a reporter from the newspaper, not the staff photographer who provided the statement, had apologised directly to her for taking the leaflet from her desk.

Finding a breach of clause 3, the PCC said that while much of the information in the article was not of a private nature, it was clear that some of it – especially the complainant’s ex-directory telephone number – was.

Publication of an ex-directory phone number, in circumstances where the complainant had telephoned the newspaper in advance of publication to request no publicity, raised a breach of the Code.

However, there were mitigating factors. In particular, the Commission took account of the fact that the complainant had voluntarily placed the information into the public domain to some degree by publishing it in a leaflet, albeit for limited circulation.

The purpose of the leaflet was to draw attention to her fundraising efforts, suggesting to the editor that the complainant was not concerned with keeping the information private – something which would have been corrected had the complainant’s wishes been passed on.