Decision of the Complaints Committee 04498-18 Handling v The Scottish Sun
Summary of complaint
1. Stewart Handling complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Scottish Sun 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 “GIRL, 13 ‘DRUG DEATH’ PROBE” published on 11 July 2018.
2. The article began on the front page of the publication, and continued on page 5. It said that a schoolgirl – the complainant’s daughter – had been “found dead at a pal’s house in a suspected drugs tragedy”. It said that police were investigating whether the girl had been given a substance by a friend, and said that “a source last night said: ‘Drug tests have begun’”. A page 5 subheadline read “cops order tests amid drug OD fears”. The article text on this page described the complainant’s tribute to his daughter, and said that “sources said it is feared she may have taken a substance”; it quoted the source saying that “'drugs tests will determine how she died’”. The article quoted a spokeswoman for Police Scotland who stated that “The death is not being treated as suspicious. Further forensic tests will be carried out in due course to establish the cause of death”. The article included a photograph of the complainant.
3. The article appeared in substantially the same format online, under the headline “HEARTBROKEN: Shattered dad of Irvine teen…found dead at pal’s house in suspected drugs tragedy reveals family’s heartbreak as police launch probe".
4. The complainant said that the article was misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) because it speculated on the cause of his daughter’s death prior to the completion of the toxicology tests. He also said that the article had intruded on his privacy, in breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) because it used quotations from him and pictures of him without permission. In addition, he said that the publication had breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock) because, by speculating on the cause of death, the article showed a lack of humanity and empathy towards his family. He was also concerned that a journalist from the publication had attended at his home uninvited and questioned him regarding the cause of his daughter’s death. Finally, the complainant was concerned that the article breached Clause 6 (Children) because it named his daughter, and included her image and age.
5. The publication offered its condolences to the complainant’s family, but denied that it had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said that it was not misleading to state that a “drugs probe” was ongoing: the Police had confirmed that “further forensic tests” had been undertaken, which was a shorthand for toxicology tests. The publication said that during his conversation with its reporter, the complainant had confirmed that one line of inquiry was that his daughter’s death had been drug-related (although he felt unable to speculate). It said that the complainant had, in this conversation, also confirmed the name of the drug under investigation, and had discussed the identity and arrest of the individual alleged to have provided this drug. The publication provided a recording and transcript of this conversation. Finally, the publication said that it had taken care to ensure that it did not state as fact that the complainant’s daughter’s death had been drug-related, but rather indicated that this was a line of inquiry being pursued.
6. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock). It said that bereaved families often wanted to be contacted by publications in order to make public statements; it said that its reporter had behaved in a sensitive manner during his conversation with the complainant, and he had seemed happy to carry on speaking to the reporter throughout the conversation. In addition, it said that all the quotations attributed to the complainant had been taken from an interview he had given to a different publication; none had been taken from his conversation with its reporter. The publication said that the photograph of the complainant had been taken from a publicly viewable social media page, and did not disclose anything private about him; consent was not therefore required for its publication.
7. The complainant said that the recording of his conversation with the reporter – which he was not aware had been made – showed that he had made clear that it was too early to speculate on the cause of his daughter’s death. He said that the publication should not have contacted him while he was in a state of shock, and that the reporter had led the conversation in a particular direction.
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.
iii) 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.
Findings of the Committee
9. The police had issued a statement indicating that “further forensic tests” were being undertaken in relation to the complainant’s daughter’s death. In his conversation with the publication’s reporter, the complainant had confirmed that these tests were toxicological, and that an individual had been arrested on suspicion of supplying drugs; the complainant had also suggested a named drug that was being investigated. The complainant had also undoubtedly made clear his view that it was too early to speculate on the cause of death. However, the publication had taken care to indicate that the complainant’s daughter’s death was “suspected” to be drugs-related. Presenting the claim in this way was consistent with the information the complainant had provided in his conversation with the publication, and reporting that this was a line of enquiry being pursued was not misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) on this point.
10. Bereaved families will often wish to speak to publications in order to pay tribute to their loved ones; under Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock), publications are required to handle such contacts with sensitivity. In this instance, the complainant had already spoken openly to another publication about his daughter and her death. During his conversation with the reporter, the complainant had not at any point indicated a desire to end the conversation, and had talked at some length about the circumstances of his daughter’s death. The reporter had behaved with appropriate sensitivity, and engaged in a cordial discussion with the complainant, as required by the Code. Reporting that the complainant’s daughter’s death was being investigated as drugs-related was not in and of itself insensitive, when the complainant did not appear to dispute that this was the case. There was no breach of Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) on these points.
11. The photograph of the complainant used by the publication had been taken from a publicly-accessible social media page, and did not reveal any private information about him. Similarly, the complainant’s daughter’s age, name and image had already been made public prior to the publication of the article. Publishing this information did not therefore represent a breach of Clause 2 (Privacy), and nor was it a breach of Clause 6 (Children). In addition, the quotations attributed to the complainant in the article had been given consensually to another publication; they were therefore already in the public domain, and consent was not required for their republication. There was no breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) on this point.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 13/07/2018
Date decision issued: 24/09/2018
Back to ruling listing