· Decision of the Complaints Committee 01921-14 Hodder v Dorset Echo
Summary of complaint
1. Tracey Hodder complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Dorset Echo had breached Clause 3 (Privacy) Clause 4 (Harassment) and Clause 5 (Intrusion into Grief or Shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Stag Party Tragedy”, published on 2 September 2014.
2. The article reported that the complainant’s fiancé, Paul Bush, had died whilst on a friend’s stag weekend in Budapest. It included a number of tribute messages that had been posted on Mr Bush’s open Facebook profile. In addition, it was accompanied by an image of Mr Bush that had been taken from his Facebook profile. A journalist from the newspaper spoke to the complainant during a visit to her house on 1 September, following Mr Bush’s death on 30 August.
3. The complainant said that she made clear to the journalist that she did not want a story to be published about her fiancé’s death, and that the journalist responded by saying that he had no choice but to write the article, and that the Home Office had instructed him to do so and provided him with her address. The complainant expressed concern that the journalist did not ask who he was speaking to, address her by her name, or offer his condolences. She said that he offered to provide her with the opportunity to read the article via email before it went to press, and that she could sit next to him as he typed it if she wished. A friend of the complainant spoke to the newspaper later that evening on her behalf. The newspaper read the story back, and made several of the suggested corrections.
4. The newspaper said that it was made aware of Mr Bush’s death by a post on Facebook by a mutual friend of both a journalist and the deceased. It then observed the comments paying tribute to Mr Bush on his open Facebook profile, and learnt that he had been engaged to the complainant. The newspaper said it contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and received oral confirmation that it was aware of the death of a British national in Budapest. The journalist who visited the complainant was provided with this information in an email from a colleague before visiting the complainant’s home. Later in the afternoon, the newspaper received written confirmation from the FCO that it was aware of the death of a British national in Budapest, and that it was in contact with the family.
5. The newspaper said that journalist who visited the complainant identified himself, offered his condolences and asked the complainant whether she or her family would like to pay a tribute to Mr Bush in the newspaper article. It said that in response to a question from the complainant about how he knew about Mr Bush’s death, the journalist mistakenly told her that the Home Office had confirmed it, after the newspaper had seen the information on Facebook. It said that when the complainant asked if the journalist could stop the story being published, he said that it was not his decision, but that the story would probably be published as it was in the public domain. The newspaper said that the journalist was certain that he had not told the complainant that the Home Office had instructed him to write the story.
Relevant Code Provisions
6. 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.
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 4 (Harassment)
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
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
7. The Committee recognises that deaths are generally a matter of public record that newspapers are generally entitled to report on. However, Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice requires newspapers to do so in manner which is sensitive to those who are in a vulnerable position in the aftermath of such an event. The Committee expressed its sympathy for the complainant, who had clearly been upset by the visit from the journalist, and the article under complaint.
8. In this case, where the complainant’s fiancé had recently died abroad, it was a matter of significant regret that the journalist had misled the complainant as to the government agency which had provided him with information about the death, and it was entirely understandable that this had caused the complainant further distress at what was already a difficult time. However, there was no suggestion that the journalist had intentionally misled the complainant, and he had not asked any insensitive or intrusive questions, but had asked the complainant if she would like to provide any comment. The Committee took the view that, whilst the journalist’s mistake was regrettable, there was no breach of Clause 5 on this point.
9. In relation to the claim that the journalist had said that he had been instructed to write the story by the Home Office, the Committee recognised the possibility that there had been a misunderstanding between the parties, and was unable to establish with sufficient certainty what had actually been said. As such, it did not have grounds for finding a breach of Clause 5 on this point.
10. Whilst the Committee recognised that the complainant did not want the article to be published, it noted that it was a straightforward report of the fact of the death, and did not speculate as to the cause, nor contain any other insensitive details. The Committee welcomed the newspaper’s decision to provide the complainant (via a representative) the opportunity to raise concerns of inaccuracy in the story in advance. Publication of the article had been handled sensitively, and there was no breach of Clause 5 on this point.
11. The Committee turned to the complaint under Clause 3 (Privacy). The article contained a photograph of Mr Bush and the messages paying tribute to him which had been published on an open Facebook profile, which could be viewed by members of the public. This material was in the public domain, and including them in the article did not represent a breach of Clause 3.
12. There were no grounds to establish that the newspaper had behaved in a manner which constituted harassment. There was no breach of Clause 4 (Harassment).
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 24/11/2014
Date decision issued: 16/04/2015Back to ruling listing