Resolution Statement 04389-18 Gunnell v The Times

Decision: Resolved - directly with publication

Resolution Statement 04389-18 Gunnell v The Times

Summary of complaint 

1.    Professor David Gunnell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined: “Bristol deaths just bad luck, says academic”, published on 22 June 2018. 

2.    The article formed part of wider coverage relating to concerns about student mental health and pastoral care at the University of Bristol, following a recent spate of suicides amongst its students. The article was based on an interview which the complainant had given to the newspaper concerning these deaths. The complainant is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Bristol and was identified in the article as a “leading authority on suicide research”. 

3.    The article reported that “a spate of student suicides has been caused by a ‘cluster effect’ rather than failings in pastoral care, an academic at Bristol University has said”. The article reported that complainant had told the newspaper: “each death was an isolated and tragic incident and that any relationship between them should be treated sensitively. Clearly, right now, we’re in the midst of a series of deaths. Does a cluster of suicides indicate something about the broader levels of mental health in this community in which they are living? I don’t think there’s evidence of that.” The article reported that when “asked whether he was saying it was the result of bad luck”, the complainant had said: “I think that’s fair enough. We’re dealing with a tragic cluster situation rather than systemic failure.” 

4.    The complainant said that the headline was a distortion of the comments which he had made to the journalist at interview. He said that the headline had erroneously attributed the words “just bad luck” to him; in fact, these words had been spoken by the journalist.  

5.    While the complainant accepted that, with the exception of the words above, the body of the article had reported his comments accurately, he said that the article had contained a further distortion, because it inaccurately implied that he did not consider that there had been failings in the care of students at the University. He expressed particular concern that the reporting of this distortion had caused further distress to bereaved parents. 

6.    The newspaper did not accept that the headline was an inaccurate, misleading or distorted summary of the complainant’s exchange with the reporter. The newspaper noted that the accuracy of the following exchange, as set out in the article, was not in dispute: 

Asked whether the high level of suicides was a result of bad luck rather than systemic failure, [the complainant] said: “I think that’s fair enough. In all universities mental health requires assessing” 

7.    The complainant initially complained to the newspaper directly, and in response to his concerns, the newspaper said that it amended the headline to "Bristol University suicides were not a failure in care, says academic". 

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.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Mediated outcome 

9.    The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter. 

10. During IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper offered to publish the following wording in its corrections and clarifications column, on the letters page. This wording would also be added to the article online as a footnote, with a reference at the top of the article stating:

The headline, "Bristol deaths just bad luck, says academic" (News, June 22), did not fully reflect the views expressed to our reporter by Professor David Gunnell and were not his words. As the associated report made clear, Professor Gunnell said that the rise in numbers of suicides at Bristol University was a tragic cluster rather than a signal of systemic failure. He did not, however, suggest that mental health services and support for students do not need to change, or that lessons do not need to be learnt. 

11. The complainant said that this would resolve the matter to his satisfaction. 

12. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.

Date complaint received:  11/07/2018

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 22/08/2018

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