complaint about flight altercation report partly upheld

Ofcom has upheld, in part, a complaint made by a woman about a report of her involvement in an altercation on a flight from Manchester to Lahore. ‘Mrs D’ stated that she had been the victim of a physical assault on the flight, but was unfairly portrayed by Channel 44 as violent and the aggressor. The reports had described the incident by saying that two women were involved in a fight, that they pulled each other’s hair and slapped each other, and that both were taken into custody in Lahore. It was also said that the ‘violent ladies’ were released after giving written apologies.

Mrs D also complained that her privacy had been unwarrantably infringed because her passport had been shown on screen, with none of the details (such as date of birth) obscured.

There was plainly a factual dispute about what had happened on the aircraft and during the aftermath at the airport in Lahore. Channel 44 sought to justify the description of the incident as broadcast by reference to contemporaneous documents from the Lahore Airport Security Force. Mrs D relied upon other documents, including a police report she had filed.

Ofcom found that there was no evidence for some of the details in the report – in particular that both ladies slapped and pulled one another’s hair and were violent. This was a failure to follow Practice 7.9. However, a failure to follow a Practice only constitutes a breach of the Rule (and therefore the Code) if it results in unfairness. Ofcom did not consider that the inclusion of these extra claims would have made a material difference to viewers’ perceptions of Mrs D and the incident in such a way as to cause unfairness to her.

Channel 44 said that the unobscured image of Mrs D’s passport had been broadcast in error. It did not seek to defend it on public interest grounds. Accordingly, Ofcom upheld the infringement of privacy complaint.

This is a useful reminder that personal data on documents like passports should normally be obscured unless the person has consented to the disclosure of such information (or disclosure is in the public interest); and also that whilst the Code’s Practices should be followed, non-compliance with them is not always a breach of the Code – it is the Rules themselves that must not be breached.