Decision of the Complaints Committee 01506-19 Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and the Al Qasimi family v thesun.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and the Al Qasimi family complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thesun.co.uk breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) in an article headlined “A FATHER’S GRIEF Emir of Sharjah stands over his son Prince Khalid Al Qasimi’s body at royal funeral after ‘sex and drugs orgy’ death in London” published on 3 July 2019, and in an article headlined “PRINCE DIES Who was fashion designer Khalid al Qasimi and what was his cause of death?”, also published on 3 July 2019.
2. The first article reported on the funeral of Sheikh Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, which had taken place that day. It said that he had died in a “’drug-fuelled orgy’” and quoted a source who had said that “like many young Arab men, Sheikh Khalid enjoyed the freedoms he had in London”, and a source who had said that staff at the prince’s fashion label had been “ordered to keep quiet” following his death. The piece stated that detectives were treating his death as “unexplained” and had made no arrests. It said that the family owned a property in Sussex where the prince’s brother had been found dead from a heroin overdose in 1999. This article was illustrated with images and videos of the funeral ceremony, including one which showed the prince’s covered body as his father, amongst other mourners, stood by with his head bowed; his father’s face was circled in red to identify him as the prince’s father.
3. The second article reported that the son of the ruler of Sharjah had died in London on 1 July 2019. It included biographical information, such as the fact he had moved to the UK at the age of nine, and had studied in London before launching his fashion label. The piece said that staff at his fashion label had discovered his body, but it had not yet “been revealed how he died”. It said that police were said to have found “a quantity of Class A drugs” at his address, and quoted a source who had said that “there had apparently been a party where some guests were taking drugs and having sex”, that it was “suspected that Sheikh Khalid may have died suddenly as a result of taking drugs”, and “an internal probe has been ordered and staff have been ordered to keep quiet”. The piece also included a section about the death of the prince’s brother of a heroin overdose in 1999 with a detailed description of the circumstances in which his body had been found.
4. The complainants said that the publication’s coverage of the death of Prince Khalid and the timing of its articles had been insensitive in breach of Clause 4. They said that the reporting was flippant and gratuitous; it represented a clear intrusion into their grief and a failure to act with sympathy when reporting on a tragic event. While an attempt had been made to contact the UAE Embassy, no attempt had been made to contact the family before the articles were published.
5. The complainants expressed concern that the articles had included excessive speculation on the cause of the prince’s death – including in the headlines. This was unnecessary and insensitive given that nothing had been confirmed by the police or the coroner. The publication had also presented this speculation in a sensationalist manner, which had demeaned the prince’s death. The complainants said that the first article, published the day of the prince’s funeral, had insensitively reported that Prince Khalid had died “in a drug-fuelled orgy”, “as a result of taking drugs” and that Class A drugs had been found at the scene. They were also concerned that it had reported information from a source that staff at the prince’s fashion label had been “ordered to keep quiet”.
6. The complainants expressed concern that the first article had included images and video taken during the funeral, which featured the prince’s body being carried and his grieving father. This material appeared immediately below the sensationalised headline referring to a “’sex and drugs orgy’ death”. In addition, the image of the Prince’s father had been circled, which the complainants said had emphasised his grieving expression. They said that this represented a total failure to handle publication sensitively.
7. The complainants were concerned that the second article had repeated the same information contained in the first article. In addition, it had made an insensitive reference to the death of the prince’s brother, who had died of a heroin overdose. This reference had compounded and deepened the hurt and distress suffered by the family.
8. The complainants said that their concerns were framed in the context of other coverage of the prince’s death, which had been published by other titles owned by the same publishing group as thesun.co.uk, News Group Newspapers Ltd (NGN).
9. The publication expressed its condolences to the complainants for their tragic loss, and it acknowledged that media coverage of a death can sometimes be unwelcome. It nevertheless denied that its coverage had been insensitive in breach of the Code.
10. The publication said that it was entitled to report the news of a death and there was a public interest in doing so – the family had not learned of the prince’s death through its reporting. It did not accept that mentioning drugs and sex in the context of a death had represented a failure to handle publication sensitively.
11. The publication said that one of its highly experienced journalists had been informed by a reliable, confidential source that a party had been held at the prince’s apartment the night before his death at which the guests and the host had been drinking, taking drugs and having sex, and that Class A drugs had been found. The publication noted that the accuracy of this information had not been questioned, and the reporter had heard subsequently from additional sources that it was correct. It argued that the fact that there had not yet been a finding by a coroner was irrelevant.
12. The publication said that it had attempted to contact the complainants before publication: a reporter had contacted the United Arab Emirates Embassy in London and had repeatedly given them an opportunity to comment. No response was received. In addition, the reporter had contacted the police, and he was issued with a statement confirming that they had been called by the ambulance service to the death of a man.
13. The publication said that its articles had concerned the fact of the death; the fact of the funeral; and an explanation of who Prince Khalid was. The articles had not gone into detail about the alleged circumstances of Prince Khalid’s death. They had simply reported claims that he had died at a sex and drugs party; no further information had been given about, for example, the details of his sex life, his sexual preferences or the types of drugs that had been found in the flat. It also considered that it was entirely legitimate to note in the articles that the prince’s brother had died of a drugs overdose in 1999.
14. The publication did not consider that the inclusion of the photographs and video of the funeral ceremony was insensitive as the material had been authorised and distributed to the media for the purposes of publication. It noted that it had come from the Sharjah Media Office and had been issued by the Emirates News Agency. In addition, it had been posted on the Instagram page of the Media Office of the ruler of Sharjah. The publication said that it had been appropriate for it to circle the face of the prince’s father in one of the images so as to identify him from the others in the photograph. It did not consider that this represented a breach of Clause 4.
Relevant Code Provisions
15. Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)
In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.
Findings of the Committee on Procedural Points
16. The complainants had directed their complaint at News Group Newspapers Ltd (NGN), the publisher of thesun.co.uk, as well as The Sun, about which the complainants had also submitted a complaint. The Committee noted that IPSO considers complaints against individual publications, rather than against publishing groups. This is because IPSO operates on the principle of editorial responsibility: publications make separate and distinct editorial decisions and therefore one publication with its own editor cannot be held responsible for what is published by another publication in the same group.
Findings of the Committee
17. The Committee first wished to express its condolences to the complainants for their loss.
18. The complainants had found the reporting process insensitive, in particular the timing of the coverage and the fact that the publication had not made direct contact with the family in advance. While the Committee understood that the complainants had found the coverage distressing to read, the fact of someone’s death is not private, and there is a public interest in reporting on a death. Journalists have a right to report the fact of a person’s death, even if surviving family members would prefer for there to be no reporting. The Committee noted that in this case, the deceased was a high-profile fashion designer and a member of a royal family. It was not insensitive in breach of the Code for the publication to have published the articles the day of Prince Khalid’s funeral.
19. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainants would have appreciated being notified before the articles were published, the Code does not require that publications contact families in advance of publishing reports of a death in order to be sensitive; rather, it states that any such inquiries, if made, should be handled sensitively. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the fact that the publication had attempted to contact the family through the United Arab Emirates Embassy in London.
20. The complainants had also expressed serious concern regarding the content of the articles and the presentation of the stories. In particular, they had objected to the reporting of “unconfirmed speculation” on the circumstances in which the prince had died, which they considered to be excessive and demeaning. However, the publication had reported information provided by confidential sources about the circumstances in which the prince had died. While it had reported – including in a headline – that “sex”, “drugs” and an “orgy” had allegedly been involved, it had taken steps to limit the level of detail published, avoiding excessive and gratuitous detail. The Code does not require that publications sanitise the circumstances of a death, and it was not insensitive in breach of the Code for the publication to have reported this information.
21. The first article had included a brief reference to the death of Prince Khalid’s brother, and the second article had included more detailed information on the circumstances in which he had reportedly died. While the Committee acknowledged that this had been distressing for the complainants to read, this was factual information that was already in the public domain and was relevant in the context of the death of Prince Khalid. Publishing this information did not breach the Code.
22. The first article had featured video and images of Prince Khalid’s funeral. The complainants objected to their publication, and in particular the publication of photographs in which his father, one of the complainants, was circled. Funerals, whatever their nature, are highly sensitive occasions, and the Committee acknowledged the family’s distress. It was relevant, however, that the material under complaint had previously been placed in the public domain with the family’s consent, and that it showed a televised state funeral of a prominent member of the Sharjah royal family, rather than a private occasion. It was not insensitive for the newspaper to have republished the broadcast footage and taken still images from it to illustrate its coverage. Furthermore, it was not insensitive for the newspaper to have circled the prince’s father’s face in order to identify him from the others in the photograph. This did not represent a failure to handle publication with sensitivity.
23. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 23/07/2019
Date complaint concluded: 11/02/2020