The Northern Echo has been sanctioned by the UK’s largest press regulator after incorrectly dubbing a woman’s 40th birthday celebration at a hotel an “orgy” and “sex party”.
The story was a follow-up to an earlier report about an outbreak of food poisoning at a hotel that led to a group of women becoming ill.
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It explained Public Health England had conducted an investigation into the food poisoning outbreak to determine whether chicken liver parfait eaten by the women had caused it, but cleared the hotel of any wrongdoing.
The article said “graphic” CCTV footage had shown the women engaged in “lewd sexual behaviour including passing around sex toys and taking part in sex acts with hotel candlesticks while climbing on restaurant tables and chairs”.
The Newsquest-owned daily published the story under the headline: “Women’s boozy hotel sex party” on 14 September, while the online story – which can still be read with an edited headline – said: “Booze-fuelled orgy with sex toys and candlesticks – what really happened at Saltburn hotel at the centre of food poisoning claim.”
The newspaper’s reporter was invited by the hotel to see the entire unpixelated CCTV of the evening, which he said showed “vulgar sexual behaviour in a public place” had occurred.
In its ruling, the Independent Press Standards Organisation said: “It [the newspaper] said the reporter had observed that members of the party took it in turn to lie on their back on top of a table in the room where they had been eating while other people in the party rubbed a plastic item and candlestick between the person’s legs.
“Following this, the reporter had also observed the plastic item being passed around members of the party who took it in turns to lick it; other members of the party pushed plastic objects up their skirts.”
The newspaper maintained it was entitled to characterise the party as a “sex party” and an “orgy” because the event had included sexualised behaviour.
It gave the definition of “orgy” as “a wild party characterised by excessive drinking and indiscriminate sexual activity”.
But IPSO said the term “gave the clear implication that explicit sexual activity had taken place, beyond sexualised posing”.
One of the women who attended the party, who complained to IPSO, had said she and her friends were fully clothed throughout and that there had been no sex toys or sexual activity.
The regulator said the article had fallen well short of justifying its headline claims and called it a “significant distortion, which created a misleading impression of the complainant’s and the other attendee’s actions”.
The Northern Echo was ordered to publish an adjudication, which was published online today, with a reference to it on its front page in the same font size as the original article’s sub-headline.
The woman’s other complaints, under Clause 2 (privacy) and Clause 10 (clandestine devices and subterfuge) were not upheld.
IPSO said there was a public interest in investigating the circumstances of a significant public health incident and that none of the women had been identified in the article.
It added that the newspaper had not engaged in subterfuge as it had been authorised to view the CCTV by the hotel and that the hotel’s cameras were not “hidden”.