Decision of the Complaints Committee 00652-15 Docherty v Get West London
Summary of complaint
1. William Docherty complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Get West London 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 “Man killed by train had been user of closure-threatened Solace mental health centre in Ealing”, published 13 January 2015.
2. The newspaper had published an article about the death of the complainant’s brother, Peter Docherty. The article had reported concerns that a decision to close a mental health centre had contributed to Mr Docherty’s taking his own life.
3. The complainant was concerned that the article had been inaccurate as the newspaper had failed to establish the facts before publishing the article. He said that there was no evidence that his brother had committed suicide. He was also concerned that the article had been intrusive and distressing for the family.
4. The newspaper said that it had believed the complainant’s brother had committed suicide because of the circumstances of the death, the nature of the injuries and the investigations of the journalist. The reporter had spoken to friends of Mr Docherty at the Solace Centre Ealing, local councillors and the local MP, who all said that he had committed suicide. Additionally, supporters of the Solace Centre held a public vigil for Peter, displaying banners which said “How many more suicides?”. In these circumstances, the newspaper did not accept that there had been a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. It said that it had reported comments from Mr Docherty’s friends, who had expressed concern that Mr Docherty had committed suicide as a result of his worries about the closure of the centre. It also said that there was a clear public interest in the publication of the article.
5. After being made aware of the complainant’s concerns, the online article was rewritten with the following clarification:
Update: January 16, 2015: This article has been amended to remove comments and phrasing to do with the death of Mr Docherty that was causing distress to his family. We are happy to point out and make clear that the facts of this case are not yet known and are still to be officially determined by a Coroner at inquest. Mr Docherty's family has requested that the media and the community refrains from speculating about the causes of his death and allow these to be established by the inquest. We of course apologise for any distress our reporting may have caused.
6. When the complainant had made clear that he was unhappy with this, the article was removed from the website in its entirety. As the original article had been overwritten and then deleted, neither the complainant nor the newspaper was able to provide a copy of the original text. The newspaper also said that it would publish a report of the inquest, and if information arises that conflicts with the article, it would publish a further correction.
Relevant Code Provisions
7. 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.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Clause 3 (Privacy)
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent. Note – Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
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.
Findings of the Committee
8. The Committee first wished to extend its condolences to the complainant and his family for their loss.
9. Neither the newspaper nor the complainant were able to provide a copy of the original article, as it had been overwritten and deleted from the publication’s website. While this presented practical difficulties, given the seriousness of the concerns raised, the Committee endeavoured to investigate the matter, and asked the newspaper to provide its recollection of what the article had said. The newspaper did not dispute that the article had said that the complainant’s brother had “committed suicide”; however, the absence of the article prevented the Committee from making any assessment regarding the presentation of the claim, and the impact that this had on the meaning of the article taken as a whole.
10. Prior to the publication of the article, the newspaper had spoken to friends of the deceased, the death had been described as a suicide by the local MP and banners at the vigil had referred to the death as suicide. In these circumstances, the newspaper’s decision not to contact the family prior to publication of the article did not represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article.
11. Following the publication of the article, the complainant had told the newspaper that there was no evidence of suicide, and that the circumstances of the death had not been yet established. The newspaper had amended the article and appended a clarification which made clear that the facts of the case had not been determined by a Coroner at an inquest. The newspaper said that it would report the findings of the inquest and publish a correction if necessary. Although the complainant had not been satisfied with the published clarification - as a result of which the newspaper had removed the article from its website - the offer to publish the clarification was sufficient to fulfil any obligations under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
12. The complainant was concerned that the article had reported as fact that his brother had committed suicide, rather than making clear that this represented conjecture. As the original article was no longer available, the Committee was unable to evaluate whether or not the article had failed to distinguish comment and conjecture from fact. It was unable to establish a breach of Clause 1 (iii). Ipso is currently considering what requirements it might make of publishers to ensure that it is able to consider properly complaint in such circumstances in the future.
13. The terms of Clause 5 relate to the conduct of journalists, and the sensitivity of articles, in cases involving grief or shock. The newspaper had not made intrusive approaches to the family. The article had been respectful in tone, and sought to highlight the public concern about the closure of the centre, and the potential ramifications it could have. While the Committee understood the distress caused by the article, the newspaper had not failed to handle the publication with appropriate sensitivity.
14. The newspaper had not published any private information about the complainant or a surviving family member. As such, there was no breach of Clause 3.
15. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 23/02/2015
Date decision issued: 29/05/2015Back to ruling listing