Complaints Officer John Buckingham on some of the issues around reporting on inquests and what IPSO can do to help.
We are often contacted by members of the public who are concerned about press coverage of a loved one’s inquest. We also sometimes receive complaints from people who see a report about an inquest into a stranger’s death and are worried that the person’s family and friends may be distressed by what has been written. As a complaints officer, I've spoken to many of these people, and while our complaints team is always happy to discuss people's concerns, I hope this blog might answer some of the questions that people often have about inquest reporting.
What can journalists report at an inquest?
Inquests take place in public and anyone can attend one if they choose to. This means any information heard there is already in the public domain so publications are generally free to report it. If you are attending a loved one’s inquest, you may see journalists present. There is a chance that you may see a report of the inquest in the press, and if you give evidence, it might be quoted in any article.
Journalists are allowed to attend inquests and this reporting is within the rules of the Editors’ Code of Practice – the set of rules IPSO enforces – but journalists must make sure they take care to avoid breaching the Code in terms of what they write about the inquest.
Why report on inquests?
Newspapers might report on inquests for a number of reasons – to make sure that the public understands how and why a person has died; to draw attention to the circumstances of a death, in the hope that this will prevent other such deaths in the future; or to clear up any suspicions about a person’s death.
However, a newspaper does not need to have a specific reason in order to report on a particular inquest: they routinely report what happens in court and at other legal proceedings such as inquests as part of making sure justice happens fairly. It is important that the public is told about what happens in court, so that they can see justice in action.
What if I have concerns about what’s written in an article?
Journalists must make sure that what they write about the inquest is accurate. This means they must, for example, explain the Coroner’s findings correctly, and quote accurately from witnesses’ testimony or statements. They do not have to include all the details given at the inquest, as long as they don’t give a misleading impression overall of what was said.
The Editors’ Code also has a specific rule – Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) – which protects individuals who’ve recently been bereaved. It says that, although journalists have the right to report on all the details heard at inquests – including things which will be very distressing for bereaved people to read – they must make sure that the publication of this information is handled sensitively – they should not, for example, mock or trivialise the death.
What about reporting inquests relating to suicide?
Usually, newspapers are entitled to report on everything heard at an inquest. However, there is a special rule – Clause 5 (Reporting of suicide) – that restricts the reporting of information about suicides. This says that journalists must take care not to include “excessive detail” about the method of suicide used to avoid other people trying to copy it. You can find more information about the reporting of suicide here.
What if a journalist approaches me?
You may be approached by a journalist at an inquest or they might contact you by another means such as visiting you at your house, phoning you, or sending you a message. The reason for this is to give you the opportunity to speak if you wish to. Sometimes bereaved people want to pay tribute to their loved ones, or to make a comment about the circumstances of the death. Inquests sometimes spark campaigns and calls for government action from bereaved people, who may want to speak further about what happened to their loved one.
Many people do not want to speak to the press, and you don’t have to if you don’t want to. If you say to a journalist that you do not wish to speak to them and ask them to stop contacting you, they must go away. Click here for more information about how to deal with approaches from the press, and how we can help.
You should also be aware that journalists may use information or photographs from your social media profiles in writing articles about inquests – so you may wish to make sure you have good privacy settings beforehand. You can find out more information about how journalists use social media here.
Who can complain?
If you believe that an article about an inquest into the death of a member of your family is inaccurate or insensitive, or otherwise breaches the Editors’ Code, you can make a complaint to us. You can also complain to us if you believe journalists have been insensitive in their reporting of the story, for example in the way that they approached you for comment.
We also often get complaints from members of the public who do not know the individual who has died. Whilst anyone can complain under Clause 1 (Accuracy), we will always consider the position of the deceased person’s family, and think about whether it would be appropriate to take a complaint from a stranger about a report of an inquest that they did not attend. Usually, it will be more appropriate for a complaint to come from a close family member.
For all the other Clauses of the Code – including Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 5 (Reporting on suicide) – we can only accept complaints from the directly affected family members. This is because we need to be sure that this is what the family want – and because we might need information that only family members would be able to provide.
For more information
IPSO has produced information for members of the public about reporting deaths and inquests, which you can read here. We have also issued guidance for journalists, which can be read here. If you are worried that reporting on an inquest may have breached the Editors’ Code, you can make a complaint here.
If you have any concerns relating to a recent or upcoming inquest, or any reporting around inquests, please don’t hesitate to contact our office on 0300 123 22 20, or to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.