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May 4, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:17am

IPSO upholds Lily James harassment complaint against Mail Online

By Bron Maher

IPSO has upheld a complaint made by actress Lily James against Mail Online relating to 51 articles the site published about her in a four-month period.

The Downton Abbey star successfully argued the Mail harassed her in commissioning freelance journalists to linger near her home after she had asked them to desist.

She told the press regulator the intense photographer attention had caused her to move home.

The actress also convinced the press regulator that Mail Online breached her privacy with photos of her dining at a London restaurant.

IPSO found that that the number of articles published about James was not in itself harassment, but the persistent attention of journalists at her home was.

The Mail argued the level of attention it gave James was protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The 51 articles under complaint were published between 12 October 2020 and 2 February 2021. Some 18 were published in a single week – between 12 and 19 October – and of those, seven on the 13th alone.

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The articles published that week focused on James’ travels abroad with another, married actor, IPSO said. The regulator did not identify the actor in its ruling, but other Mail Online articles published in the period indicate the man was The Wire star Dominic West, with whom she spent time in Rome.

The next month, the Mail published photographs of James dining with two people at a London restaurant.

According to IPSO, James said that “she had intentionally sat in a corner towards the back of the restaurant so that she was not readily visible to other diners; therefore, she said, she had a reasonable expectation of a privacy, where she had taken steps to seat herself away from public view.”

James gave IPSO a floorplan of the restaurant, with her location that night circled, to illustrate the point.

The actress argued Mail Online had created “a market for photographs of her”, as a result of which “a photographer had pursued her while she was in a removal van, in an attempt to discern the location of her new home; another photographer had approached a driver to ask them where she lived; and she had been photographed in the grounds of a private hotel…

“At the height of the coverage, she had been unable to return to her home due to the presence of photographers and, as a result, was forced to move address.”

IPSO said that, before the formal complaint was made in March 2021, James contacted the regulator three times “to make it aware of what she considered to be persistent and intrusive approaches from the press”.

Each time, the regulator said, it circulated privacy notices to the media, including Mail Online, “to make the press aware of the complainant’s concerns and to remind the press of its obligations under the Editors’ Code, with particular regard to Clause 2 [privacy] and Clause 3 [harassment] of the Code”.

The notices were circulated on 30 March 2020, 13 October 2020 and 27 November 2020.

According to IPSO James’ representatives had repeatedly contacted Mail Online, saying “coverage of [the complainant] by the MailOnline has been absolutely incessant and your harassing behaviour is nothing short of bullying”, “Please stop” and “I am not sure why you are bullying her so much.”

The Mail acknowledged an “email of 12 January 2021 by removing a line from an article ‘with no admission of liability’” but otherwise “did not respond to the representative’s concerns”.

Mail Online did not accept a breach of either clause of the Editors’ Code.

With regard to the harassment claim, according to IPSO the publication argued “it was not possible for the number of published articles to amount to a breach of Clause 3, [because] an upheld ruling on such grounds would be in contravention of the publication’s fundamental right to freedom of expression as protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights”.

The Mail noted that a previous IPSO ruling had said “[i]t is not usually the case that publishing a number of articles on one issue constitutes harassment”, and said that while it had commissioned freelances to watch and look for James in Rome and London, none of those commissions had led to pictures being taken.

Instead, the original set of photos it did end up publishing had not been its commissions, and were subsequently republished by other outlets.

With regard to the claim it had breached her expectation of privacy, the Mail said the photographs of James at the restaurant had been taken from the street while she had been in a public place, and that the photographer had not been tipped off she would be there.

Moreover, it argued, there was a public interest in the publication of the photographs because “they appeared to show the complainant congregating inside a restaurant with a friend, in contravention of the Covid-19 regulations in force at the time, which allowed only for meetings between people from different households for the purposes of business”.

IPSO said James, having attempted to sit in a less conspicuous spot and only been snapped using a 200mm camera lens, had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the restaurant.

In addition, “the complainant’s representative had confirmed that the dinner was a business meeting and it was not in dispute that such meetings were permissible according to the regulations at the time”. Therefore, it said, the Mail had not demonstrated there was a public interest in the publication of the photos.

Similarly, IPSO said that the volume of articles published did not constitute harassment, but that its failure to abide by James’ desist request did.

In directing a journalist to attend the area around the complainant’s house to ‘watch’ for her in the immediate aftermath of the circulation of the notice, the publication had ignored the terms of a request to desist from attempting to contact and approach the complainant in the vicinity of her home, and the request for members of the press to disperse from the area around her home.

“The publication had not sought to argue that there was a public interest in persisting with its approaches or that there had been an interval of time such that the request could no longer be considered to reasonably apply.”

IPSO ordered that a link to the full adjudication be linked on the top half of Mail Online’s homepage “for at least 24 hours, and should then be archived in the usual way”.

The correction was published at midnight on Wednesday morning.

[Read more: IPSO v Impress: Ten years after Leveson, how are the press ‘watchmen’ faring?]

Correction, 4/5/22: The previous version of this article stated that IPSO determined James did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the restaurant. In fact, the regulator determined she did. The headline was also updated on 6/5/22 to make clearer that the volume of articles complained about was not the basis of IPSO’s harassment decision.

Picture: Kevin Mazur/WireImage via Getty Images

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