Decision of the Complaints Committee 01807-14 A woman v Chat
Summary of complaint
1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, via solicitors, that Chat 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 “Beheaded and set on fire”, published on 13 November 2014.
2. The article was the story of the complainant’s mother’s 1995 murder by her husband, as told by the complainant’s aunt. It included details of the murdered woman’s relationship, prior to her death, as well as telling the way in which she had been killed and how the body had been disposed of. The article noted that the reason why the story was being re-published at this stage was because the man convicted of killing the complainant’s mother had recently been released from prison.
3. The complainant said that she had been a young child at the time of her mother’s death, and her grandparents had protected her from the details. Further, those details had never entered the public domain as her father had pleaded guilty. She said that the woman who had told her story to the magazine was estranged from the family, and would not have been informed of her father’s release from prison. She identified what she believed to be a number of inaccuracies in the article: that her mother was 16 years of age at the time of her marriage, not 18, as reported; that her mother had become pregnant in 1994, not 1995, and they had not known the sex of the baby; that on the day her mother had gone missing, the family had received a telephone call at 11am, not 7am; that the coroner had not mentioned an axe or a hacksaw; that there had been no discussion of her father’s mistress moving into their home, prior to her mother’s death; and that the article had given the misleading impression that the complainant’s mother had been pregnant with her first child at the time of her death when in fact it was her third. The complainant was also concerned that the article had intruded into her privacy, and into her grief following the death of her mother. She said that the inclusion of a graphic noting that the “shock value” of the story was “10” was sensationalist and represented a failure to handle publication sensitively.
4. The magazine said that the complainant’s aunt was entitled to tell her story, in accordance with her right to freedom of expression; further, the magazine was entitled to publish it. It said that the release from prison of a violent offender was an issue of public concern. The magazine said that it had verified the details of the story from contemporaneous reports of the case, and provided a number of these for reference.
5. The magazine said that it regretted if it had inaccurately reported the age of the complainant’s mother at the time of her marriage and the time at which the telephone call had been made to the family, but it did not believe that these were significant errors in the context of the article. It said that it had deliberately omitted the fact that the complainant’s mother had been killed while pregnant with her third child, in order to protect the privacy of the complainant and her brother. In this respect, the magazine did not believe that the article could have breached Clause 3 of the Code.
6. The murder had taken place nearly 20 years prior to publication of the article, and so the magazine did not accept that its publication could engage the terms of Clause 5. It said that highlighting the “shock value” of the story was a wholly appropriate warning to readers. Nonetheless, in light of the evident distress caused to the complainant, the magazine offered to write her a private letter of apology.
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.
Clause 3 (Privacy)
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
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 understood that the complainant had been protected from the details of her mother’s death, and that it was distressing for her to be exposed to a full account of the murder. The Committee sympathised with the upset that publication had caused her.
9. However, the complainant’s aunt was entitled to tell of her experience, in line with her right to freedom of expression. Any potential inaccuracies with regard to the age of the complainant’s mother at the time she had married, the year in which her mother had become pregnant, the sex of the unborn child, and the time at which a telephone call had been received would not be significant in the context of the article as a whole. They would not lead to a significantly misleading impression of the events surrounding the murder; a correction was not required on these points.
10. The magazine had deliberately omitted the fact that the complainant’s mother had two young children at the time of her death, in an attempt to distance the other children from the story; this omission did not render the article significantly misleading. The contemporaneous coverage of the murder detailed the way in which the complainant’s mother’s body had been disposed of, and that the complainant’s father had been dating another woman. Another report had stated that the complainant’s mother had been murdered after she had refused to allow her husband’s mistress to move in with the family. The newspaper was entitled to rely on these contemporaneous reports and the Committee did not find that the article was inaccurate on these points.
11. The events reported in the article were already in the public domain, and there was no mention of the complainant in the text. As such, the article could not be considered an intrusion into her private life; there was no breach of Clause 3.
12. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant had found the article particularly distressing, 19 years had passed since her mother’s death. The core details of the story were already in the public domain, and the Committee did not find that this coverage was gratuitous in nature. Publication of the article, along with a rating of its “shock value” did not represent a failure to handle publication sensitively. There was no breach of Clause 5.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 05/11/2014
Date complaint concluded: 13/03/2015Back to ruling listing