Decision of the Complaints Committee 03446-16 McHale v The Sun
Summary of complaint
1. John McHale
complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun
breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into
grief or shock) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the
Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “‘What scum’: Dad’s anger
after commuters refused to help son and even ran over his body on motorway
after bridge fall”, published online on 6 June 2016.
2. The article, described as an “exclusive” report, said that the complainant’s son had taken his own life, having fallen from a bridge over the motorway “after discovering his girlfriend had met someone else”. It said that his body was repeatedly struck by vehicles, when motorists failed to stop. The article reported that the complainant was “disgusted” by the motorists, and included a number of comments attributed to him. It also included a number of photographs of the complainant and his son, along with a link to a page set up by the family on a crowdfunding website, to raise money to buy a bench in his memory.
3. The complainant said that the article was not an “exclusive” report. He had not given the publication permission to publish the article; instead, the photographs and comments attributed to him had been taken from his Facebook page without his permission. He said that, in any case, the article had misrepresented some of the comments he had made: he had not posted “a single word” when hearing of his son’s death. Instead, he had posted a number of expletives followed by the word attributed to him.
4. He also said that there was no evidence to prove that his son was dead before he was struck by the first vehicle, or that he had been alone and had jumped from the bridge. Further, it was inaccurate for the article to suggest that the police had notified him of his son’s death. While the police had found a body, it was only through a message on Facebook that he had discovered it was his son. It was inaccurate to report that his son had died on 8 January – while this was recorded officially as his date of death, he had in fact died on 7 January. In addition, the complainant was concerned that it was not entirely accurate to say his son’s girlfriend had “met someone else”; this did not reflect exactly what had happened.
5. The complainant also said that the link to the family’s crowdfunding web page included was broken, and did not lead to the correct page. He said that it had taken the newspaper four days to fix the link after he had notified it of the issue on a number of occasions.
6. The complainant was concerned that the images had been included in the article in breach of Clause 2 and Clause 10. They had been posted on his Facebook account, and he had not given the newspaper permission to use these. He was also concerned that he had been contacted by a journalist, and that the manner in which the approach had been handled was insensitive in breach of Clause 4.
7. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that while it was sorry that the link to the family’s crowdfunding page had been broken, the mistake would not have prevented those who genuinely wished to donate from doing so: it had genuinely wanted to help with the family’s fundraising efforts, and the article included enough details for such readers to have found the page by themselves. It would also have been possible for them to contact the publication directly for help if necessary. It said that, in any case, the link had been fixed very shortly after the matter had been drawn to its attention, and only four days after the article had been published. It said that it had also accurately reported the circumstances of the complainant’s son’s death, based on the findings of the inquest.
8. In addition, it said that the complainant had posted all of the comments and pictures on his open Facebook page. He had shared what had happened publicly, and the comments and images were already in the public domain. Republishing them in the article did not represent a breach of the Code. It said that a journalist from the publication had contacted the complainant on one occasion, and had done so in sensitive, and polite terms. It said that this contact was not insensitive in breach of the Code. It also took the view that it had dealt sensitively at all times with the complainant in response to the complaints he had raised with the publication directly.
Relevant Code provisions
9. 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.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies must be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
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. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
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.
Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)
i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.
ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.
Findings of the Committee
10. The Committee first wished to express its deepest sympathy to the complainant and his family for their loss. It understood the complainant’s concern about importance of accurately reporting specific details relating to the circumstances of his son’s death. However, it was not in dispute that the death had been recorded as a suicide, that the complainant’s son fell on to the motorway and then died, and that there was a breakdown in the relationship between him and his ex-girlfriend. In these circumstances, and in the context of an article that focussed on the complainant’s reaction, the Committee took the view that the article did not give a significantly misleading impression of the circumstances surrounding his son’s death. There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of these points. Neither was there a breach of Clause 1 in relation to reporting the date of his son’s death, given that the alleged discrepancy was one day, and in circumstances where it was accepted that the date of the death was officially recorded as 8 January, the date reported by the newspaper.
11. Further, and while the Committee understood the complainant’s position that he had not been interviewed prior to publication, it was not significantly misleading to bill the article as an “exclusive”. This was not central to the coverage, and in the context of an article that accurately reported the official findings of the circumstances surrounding the complainant’s son’s death, this did not represent a significant inaccuracy, and did not suggest that he had cooperated with the newspaper in producing the article. Neither did the reference to the complainant having posted a “single word” on Facebook, or that he had found out about the death from the police. The article made clear that he had posted a short message on social media to express his distress once he had found out about his son’s death, and the exact contents of the rest of the message, or the exact way in which the complainant had found out about the death were not significant details in the context of the article as a whole. There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of these points.
12. The Committee understood the complainant’s concern that the link to the family’s crowdfunding web page was broken. The link had however been included at the foot of the article, after setting out that the complainant and his family had wished to raise money to buy a bench in his memory. While the mistake was regrettable, it did not constitute a significant inaccuracy in the context of the article as a whole, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. The Committee welcomed the steps taken by the newspaper to ensure that the link was fixed, once the matter had been drawn to its attention.
13. The Committee understood the complainant’s concern about the journalist’s contact prior to publication, and noted his position that the manner in which the direct complaint to the publication had been handled was insensitive. The publication had however been able to show that its contact had been polite and sympathetic, and that it had acknowledged that the complainant was going through a very difficult time. The Committee took the view that the journalist’s approach – and the direct contact between the publication and the complainant – had been handled sensitively and appropriately. There was no breach of Clause 4.
14. The comments and photographs included in the article had been taken from the complainant’s Facebook page, which he did not dispute was open and could be viewed publicly at the time of publication. He had publicly disclosed this information, and had been prepared to publish publicly viewable posts on social media about the death, including pictures of his family. In such circumstances, the Committee did not consider that republishing the posts and photographs in the article represented an unjustified intrusion into the complainant’s private life, and there was no breach of Clause 2.
15. While the photographs had been taken from the complainant’s social media page, the publication had not engaged in misrepresentation or subterfuge; his digital information had not been accessed without consent for the purposes of Clause 10. There was no breach of the Code in respect of this point.
16. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 06/06/2016
Date decision issued: 14/10/2016