PCC clears sex emails and council pay-off stories

The Press Complaints Commission has rejected privacy complaints against two regional newspapers, ruling that there was sufficient public interest to justify publication in each case.

Mark Thorburn, a DJ from Northumberland complained to the PCC about a Sunday Sun article headlined “Sex-emails DJ suspended”, which was published on 4 October, claiming that it had intruded into his private life under clause 3 (privacy) of the Editors’ Code.

The article included a transcript of suggestive emails Thorburn sent to a female listener.

Thorburn was subsequently dismissed from his job, but made a complaint to the PCC based on the grounds that the emails were not in the public interest, and intended only for the female listener.

The Sunday Sun said that the man was a prominent local figure who had cultivated an image of a caring family man, and that the emails, which were sent from his work email, had been given to the newspaper by the female listener in question.

They also said that publication of the article led another woman to come forward with allegations that Thorburn had a similar exchange with her.

Thorburn’s complaint was not upheld by the PCC because the emails had been sent whilst on air, had been freely provided by the listener to the newspaper. They said the story “illustrated the behaviour in the work place of someone of local prominence, whose job it was to interact with members of the public”.

The second privacy complaint came from Sean Little, ex-head of waste and street scene at Richmond District Council, to the Darlington & Stockton Times. Little said that an article headlined ‘Secret deal over departure of council waste official’contained confidential information.

The article said he had received a substantial termination payment from Richmond District Council which was allegedly paid on the basis that he would not take the council to an employment tribunal after his departure, which followed a period of sick leave.

Shortly before this he had been involved in the controversial introduction of fortnightly waste collections.

Little said publication of the exact amount of money paid and details about his private health problems breached the confidentiality agreement between a public body and its employee.

The Darlington & Stockton Times argued that because the payment was from taxpayers’ money and Little had been dealing with a controversial issue the amount paid and nature of his illness were both important. The newspaper also pointed out that Little was not the first senior officer to leave the council after a period of sickness caused by stress.

The PCC ruled that references to Little’s health were general with no precise details, thus were proportionate to the level of public interest in his departure from the council.

Details about the financial settlement were also proportionate, the PCC said, because they involved public money.

Whilst the PCC acknowledged that Little had entered into an agreement assuming it would remain confidential, they said that this agreement was not applicable to the newspaper which only needed to show that the disclosures were in the public interest.

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