Decision of the Complaints Committee 03158-19 Edwards v The
Summary of complaint
1. Peter Edwards complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail (Cumbria) breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Matthew was ‘kind and caring’” published on 22 March 2019.
2. The article reported on the death of the complainant’s brother, which had occurred 2 days before the publication of the article. It included a tribute from a former colleague, and reported that the police were not treating the death as suspicious. It said that the death was believed to be the seventh non-suspicious death in the town since Boxing Day, and included a quote from the local MP, which said that: “To hear that a seventh young person in Barrow has suspectedly taken their life in such a short space of time is so profoundly sad”. The MP then went on to encourage young men to talk about their mental health, and praised the publication for its “Time to Talk” campaign. It appeared on page 2 of the newspaper. It said that the family of the man and the coroner had been informed of the death.
3. The article also appeared online with the headline “Tributes paid to ‘caring’ Matty who was ‘life and soul of the party’” published on 21 March 2019. The article was substantially the same as the print version.
4. The complainant said that the article gave the misleading impression that his brother had taken his own life: not only had the quote from the MP referred to suicide, but the six other non-suspicious deaths in the town which the newspaper had linked to his brother’s death were all widely known to be suicides. He said that Cumbria police had told him that they had not given information to the publication about a cause of death, and so he was very concerned that the article appeared to have reported speculation about his brother’s death before any inquest had been held. He said that the death was currently unexplained, and that there was no suggestion that his brother had taken his own life. He was concerned that the article had been published without the family being contacted and that after it was first published online on the 21 March, it then appeared in print on the next day on the 22 March, despite a family friend complaining to the publication via Facebook Messenger at approximately 10pm on the 21 March. He said that the article and its implication that his brother had taken his own life had caused him and his family much distress and constituted a breach of Clause 2 and Clause 4.
5. The publication said that it was very sorry that the article had caused distress, and said that there was no intention to cause upset. It said that it often reported on deaths in the local community and there was a public interest in doing so. It said that at least four local sources, including a well-known local mental health charity campaigner, had told the publication that the man had taken his own life. It said that following these reports, it then contacted Cumbria Police, and spoke to its Senior Press Officer by phone and in writing, as was its usual practice where there had been a sudden death but an inquest had yet to be held. It also attempted to contact the family of the man, but was unable to obtain any contact details. The publication provided emails from the police confirming the identity of the man, and that the death was being treated as non-suspicious. The publication then asked the police: “This suicide victim is being named locally as Matthew Edwards and I wondered if we said that would we be wrong?” The police responded that they would have corrected the publication had they put any incorrect details of what had happened to them, which the publication said was the usual way for the police to confirm details to reporters. It said that following this approach, the publication then took the decision to include the quotation from the MP which said that the man had “suspectedly” taken his own life. However it noted that the article accurately reported that the death was non-suspicious and that an inquest had yet to be held. In these circumstances, it did not accept that the article gave the impression that it was an established fact that the complainant’s brother had taken his own life.
6. The publication said that it was initially contacted by the complainant’s friend late at night, and although it engaged with this person, they were unable to provide a basis to disprove the police’s account; the publication said that it needed to check the accuracy of the article with the police before making any changes to the article, which was then published in print the next day. The publication said that after speaking on the phone with the family the next morning on 22 March, it removed the MP’s comment from the online article, and all reference to the mental health campaign, one day after the online article was published. Furthermore, the publication also contacted the police, who said that there had been a confusion, and they had meant to confirm the identity of the man’s death and not the whether he had taken his own life. In response, the publication also added the following statement to the online article on 22 March, which was featured on the publication’s website for 5 hours in the splash position, and remains as a footnote to the article. The statement appeared in print on page 4 of the publication on the 23 March 2019, alongside a tribute from the man’s rugby club:
“The Mail would like to clarify that Mr Edwards’ death is being treated as unexplained by the police. There is no suggestion he has taken his own life. An inquest to establish the cause of death will be held at a later fate. The Mail would like to apologise to Mr Edwards’ family for any upset caused.”
7. The publication reiterated that there was no intention to cause upset, but said that the man’s death was a matter of public record – the publication often reported on sudden deaths and it was a subject of interest for the local community. It said that there was no breach of Clause 2 or Clause 4.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or
distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where
appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence
should be as required by the regulator.
Clause 2 (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. In considering an individual's
reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's
own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material
complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.
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
9. The Committee first wished to express its condolences to the complainant and his family for the circumstances which led to this complaint.
10. Deaths affect whole communities as well as the immediate family, and there is often widespread speculation and discussion of the circumstances of a death within a community before an inquest is held and official findings made by a coroner. In this instance, several people had contacted the publication to inform them that the death may have been a suicide. In response, the publication had contacted the police– through the appropriate press office – and attempted to contact the man’s family in order to verify these claims. These steps were the appropriate way to handle claims which had been made prior to an inquest being held, and there was no failure to handle publication sensitively. There was no breach of Clause 4. In addition, the fact of a person’s death is not private information, and so reporting this fact did not constitute a breach of Clause 2.
11. The Committee then considered whether there was any breach of Clause 1. Having regard to the steps outlined above, the Committee found that including the reference to the 7 other deaths, the reference to “likely suicide” in the quote from the MP and information about the newspaper’s mental health campaign did not constitute a failure to take care; there was no suggestion at the time of publication that suicide was not a possible cause of death. However, where the family subsequently contacted the newspaper to make clear that the death was not a suicide, and the police subsequently could not confirm that the death was being treated as such, there was a requirement under Clause 1(ii) to put the family’s position on record in order to avoid a breach of the Code. The clarification put the correct position on record and was printed promptly a day after the original article and with due prominence alongside a follow up tribute piece. The wording also appeared online on the 22 March for 5 hours at the top of the website’s homepage, and remains as a footnote to the article – this was sufficiently prompt and prominent. These steps were sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). There was no breach of Clause 1.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Date complaint received: 10/04/2019
Date decision issued: 08/07/2019