Decision of the Complaints Committee 01983-14 Hartley v Lancaster Guardian
Summary of complaint
1. Anne Hartley complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Lancaster Guardian had breached Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Man dies from gunshot injury”, published on 20 November 2014.
2. The article was a report of the inquest into the death of Paul Tidswell, in which the coroner had concluded that he had taken his own life with a shotgun.
3. The complainant was Mr Tidswell’s aunt, and she was complaining on behalf of his parents. The complainant said that the family had been extremely upset by the publication of the article, which she considered had contained excessive detail about the nature of Mr Tidswell’s death. She particularly objected to the description of Mr Tidswell’s being “covered in blood” and to the inclusion of details regarding the position of the shotgun. Family members had left the court while the post-mortem results were discussed, and some family members had chosen not to attend the proceedings at all; the publication of this information meant that they were subjected to further distress.
4. The complainant said that the article was unbalanced because it omitted evidence heard in court about Mr Tidswell’s “more positive” state of mind in the weeks before his death and his interest in fixing things. The family had discussed selling the gun, a family heirloom, and the family believed that Mr Tidswell intended to “check” the gun and did not intend to take his own life. This should have been given more emphasis. Further, it was disrespectful that Mr Tidwell’s mother had been referred to by her first name, and that the article had been placed beneath a separate item about an award to some of the newspaper’s journalists.
5. The complainant also said the article contained inaccuracies concerning Mr Tidswell’s age, details of his health, the circumstances in which he had been found, and the state of the shotgun. While she did not frame her complaint under Clause 1 (Accuracy), and emphasised that she was not seeking a correction, she considered that this represented a failure to handle publication of the report sensitively. Some of the disputed claims originated with a statement by a family member, which had been read out in court; the family member had been extremely traumatised at the time he had given the statement, and the newspaper should have taken greater care to report it in a sensitive manner.
6. The newspaper said that it was very sorry to learn of the complainant’s concerns about the article, which it considered to be a non-sensational report of the court proceedings. It said that it had made an effort to ensure that the report was fair and accurate, and that no unnecessary distressing information was included to upset Mr Tidswell’s family members or friends further. The details regarding the manner of the death were from statements by a family member and police who had attended the scene, and the pathologist’s cause of death; graphic detail given by the pathologist while the family was out of the room was omitted. The report had included the information about the positioning of the shotgun as it was central to the coroner’s conclusion that it was a case of suicide, rather than accidental death. However, the article had also made clear that the family did not agree.
7. The claims disputed by the complainant on factual grounds originated with information heard in court, and reported in good faith. Mr Tidswell’s family had been visibly distressed during proceedings, and it would not have been appropriate to approach them at such a time to verify the information. Nonetheless, the newspaper was happy to clarify Mr Tidswell’s age if the complainant wished. The use of Mr Tidswell’s mother’s first name was standard reporting procedure, but the newspaper apologised for any distress caused by the placement of the article. On receipt of the complaint it had withheld the article from its website and sister publication.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. 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.
ii) When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.
Findings of the Committee
9. The Committee considered first the complainant’s concern that the information about the position of the shotgun constituted “excessive detail” in breach of Clause 5 (ii). This detail had been expressly cited by the coroner as key to her conclusion that it had been an intentional act, despite the family’s disagreement. The inclusion of this information served an important purpose in explaining why the coroner had come to this decision; indeed, the coroner had stated that because of the placement of the gun, she “[could] not see an alternative explanation”. It was not, therefore, excessive; the report did not breach Clause 5 (ii).
10. The complainant also believed that the report had been handled insensitively, in breach of Clause 5 (i). The Committee expressed some concern about the reference to Mr Tidswell’s being “covered in blood”, and acknowledged that this detail had caused further distress to the family. It had regard, however, for the fact that this information – which had originated with a statement by Mr Tidswell’s father, which had been read in court – had formed part of a generally factual and non-sensational description of the circumstances in which the body had been found. In this context, the Committee concluded that, on balance, there was no breach of Clause 5 (i) in relation to the use of this phrase.
11. The complainant had raised a further concern under Clause 5 (i) in relation to the inclusion of inaccuracies in the article, which she said showed a lack of sensitivity. The article had been based on information heard in open court, which the newspaper was entitled to report. While some of the details given in court were inaccurate, and this was a matter of regret, in this context their inclusion did not constitute a failure to deal sensitively with publication, in breach of Clause 5. The Committee also wished to make clear that the Code does not include a requirement for balance. While it acknowledged that the complainant would have preferred for the article to include positive statements about Mr Tidswell’s state of mind which had been given in court, the omission of such information did not raise a breach of the Code, particularly as the article had made clear the essential point, that the family did not believe that it was an intentional act, and included their suggestion that he might have been testing the gun.
12. The newspaper was entitled to refer to Mr Tidswell’s mother by her first name, which had been given in court, in line with its house style. While the complainant considered this to be disrespectful, it did not raise a breach of Clause 5; nor did the placement of the article beneath a story that was positive in tone. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s apology to the complainant for having caused the family distress on the latter point. The decision to withhold the article from the newspaper’s website and sister publication to avoid causing further distress to the complainant was also welcomed.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 26/11/2014
Date decision issued: 20/02/2015Back to ruling listing