· Decision of the Complaints Committee
00122-14 Hart v Swindon Advertiser
Summary of complaint
Summary of complaint
1. George Hart complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Swindon Advertiser had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Privacy) and Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Police plea after legal highs death”, published on 11 September 2014 in print and online.
2. The article reported that police had issued a warning about the dangers of legal highs following the death of Simon Morse, the complainant’s brother-in-law. It reported that Mr Morse had been found dead at his home in Grange Park on 9 August, and that it was believed that his death followed intravenous use of a legal high. It included comments by a police constable, who said that Mr Morse “was known to be a Class A drug user. If he got his hands on legal highs he has tried to do the same thing with them and inject them”.
3. The complainant regarded the publication of the article, without the consent of his family, as cruel and damaging. He said that it had caused serious intrusion, and had informed at least one family member of the details of the death that the family had hoped to keep from her. The newspaper had failed to handle publication sensitively in breach of Clause 5, and its publication of Mr Morse’s full name and partial address constituted a failure to respect his privacy, in breach of Clause 3.
4. Further, the complainant said that the article was significantly inaccurate: Mr Morse’s death had not been attributed to legal highs; he had died following an infection, which was recorded on the death certificate as “bacterial endocarditis due to MRSA and multi organ failure”. He had not been found dead in his home on 9 August; he had died on 18 August after five days in hospital.
5. The newspaper expressed regret that it had inadvertently caused the family distress at a difficult time. It had not intended to cause upset but to highlight an issue of considerable public concern, following several deaths in the local area connected to legal highs.
6. It explained that the original source of the information had been a police constable on a neighbourhood policing team, who told members of the community at an update meeting that Mr Morse had died after injecting himself with a legal high. The following day, a reporter for the newspaper had contacted the officer to seek additional information. The officer explained that he had been working elsewhere for a portion of August, but that he had been briefed by the rest of his team. He said that he had been told that Mr Morse had died after injecting himself with a legal high. He was not sure of the date of death, but after being asked by the reporter to check by looking at the logs, he said that it was 9 August.
7. While the newspaper noted that it had been relying on information provided by police, it accepted that the claims in the article regarding the timing and location of Mr Morse’s death had been inaccurate.
8. It offered to publish a follow-up “tribute” from the family’s point of view and to correct and apologise for the inaccuracies in the article. It initially offered the complainant the opportunity to suggest a wording; after he declined, it proposed the following, to be published on the same page as the original article (page five):
Following a report into the death of Simon Morse in Swindon in the Swindon Advertiser on September 11 we have been asked by his family to point out that he was not found dead at his home as was reported but died later in Great Western Hospital. Our report was based on information given to us by Wiltshire Police but we are happy to make this clear and apologise to Mr Morse’s family for the distress this caused.
9. The newspaper believed it had acted responsibly in relying on information given by the police about the cause of death. At the time of publication it did not believe, given the public statements by police, that this information was in dispute; it did not accept any breach of Clause 1, but said it would publish the outcome of the inquest, once concluded.
10. The complainant said that this offer (and the newspaper’s reliance on information from the police) was inadequate; he wanted a full, published retraction of the article, including in relation to the cause of death. He reiterated his concerns that its publication was not in the public interest and that the family should have been contacted prior to publication.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
(i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
(ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
12. Clause 3 (Privacy)
(i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications
(ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.
13. Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock)
(i) In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests.
Findings of the Committee
14. It was understandable and regrettable that the publication of inaccuracies regarding the circumstances of Mr Morse’s death had caused his family distress. Nonetheless, given that the claims had been published in good faith based on information provided by an apparently authoritative source, the publication of the article – an account of concerns raised by the police about a potential public health concern – had not been handled insensitively. The publication was not required under the terms of the Code to obtain the family’s consent in order to publish this material, and there was no breach of Clause 5.
15. Turning to address the complaint under Clause 1, the Committee noted that the newspaper was entitled to rely on the information given to it by the police about an incident in which they had apparently been involved. After learning of the case at a public meeting, the newspaper had – appropriately – taken steps to ensure that the police’s position was reported accurately. The decision not to take additional steps, such as by contacting the family for comment, did not constitute a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i).
16. It was accepted, however, that police had provided incorrect information regarding the timing and location of Mr Morse’s death. These were significant inaccuracies, which required correction under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code. In the view of the Committee, the wording and prominence of the correction proposed was sufficient to comply with the requirements of Clause 1 (ii), and it welcomed the newspaper’s inclusion of an apology, in the circumstances. In order to avoid a breach of the Code, this correction should now be published.
17. The outstanding complaint under Clause 1 related to Mr Morse’s cause of death and whether the newspaper had misled readers by connecting it to “legal highs”. The death certificate had referred to a bacterial infection and multi organ failure, and had not attributed this to legal highs. However, the Committee noted that he had declined to comment further on the cause of the infection; the reason for Mr Morse’s initial admission to hospital was unclear.
18. At the time of its consideration of the complaint, Mr Morse’s inquest had not yet been held. The Committee was therefore not in a position to establish the precise circumstances of Mr Morse’s death, which would be necessary in order to determine whether the article was significantly inaccurate in this regard. However, it was notable that the article had indicated in reporting the position of the police that there was an element of conjecture regarding the cause of death; the role of “legal highs” in the death was described as a “belief” of the police. In all the circumstances, the Committee did not establish a breach of Clause 1 on this point. Nonetheless, it made clear that it would expect the newspaper to report appropriately on the inquest, particularly should it be revealed that this initial indication was incorrect.
19. The Committee noted that the article had reported that Mr Morse’s full name and that he lived in Grange Park. However, where those details related only to the deceased party, it did not establish any breach of Clause 3.
20. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date of complaint: 11/09/2014Date decision issued: 25/11/2014 Back to ruling listing