Decision of the Complaints Committee 04743-18 Sykes v Huddersfield Examiner
Summary of Complaint
1. Natalie Sykes complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Huddersfield Daily Examiner breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “MARRIAGE SPLIT DAD FOUND HANGED”, published on 20 July 2018.
2. On its front page, the newspaper reported on the inquest of Martyn Sykes, who took his own life on 1 January 2018. The sub-headline read: “Electrician had struggled to cope with separation and daughter’s cancer fight” and was published alongside a photograph of Mr Sykes.
3. The article contained references to the contents of a statement which had been read out at the inquest, authored by the complainant, Mr Sykes’ widow. The article reported that “in a statement [the complainant] said Martyn didn’t have any mental health problems but had suffered from knee pain”; it reported that in the statement, the complainant had said: “Martyn had gone through a difficult period in which their daughter had been diagnosed with blood cancer and Martyn’s father was suffering with cancer”. The article included remarks made by the assistant coroner who had referred to a note found at the scene; the coroner had remarked that the note had expressed “sorrow” and had “suggested that Martyn felt that he ‘cannot cope any more’”.
4. The article also reported a statement made by a family member: “Martyn was a larger than life character, a family man and a big Huddersfield Town fan. He had everything to live for”.
5. This article appeared online with the headline: “’Social and chatty’ man found dead after struggling to cope with daughter’s cancer diagnosis” and the sub-headline “Martyn Sykes took his own life after marital and other difficulties”. Save for this, the article appeared in substantially the same form as the print article.
6. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 4 (intrusion into grief and shock). She said that there was no justification for publishing the details of the inquest, especially as Mr Sykes was not a public figure. The complainant said that the publication of the article added significantly to the family’s grief and distress, and that readers who had no connection to the story were able to pass judgement or comment on his death. The complainant also said that the prominence afforded to the coverage, on the newspaper’s front page, was particularly upsetting and insensitive.
7. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) because it had suggested that there was a causal link between her daughter’s cancer and Mr Sykes’ death: this was inaccurate, and a distortion of the statement which she had given in evidence at the inquest. In support of this, the complainant provided a recording of the inquest proceedings and noted that in her statement, she had said: "during our daughter's difficulties Martyn never spoke about suicide, or attempting anything like it."
8. The publication offered their condolences to the complainant and her family for their loss, and expressed regret that the article had caused the family distress. However, it did not accept that its reporting of the inquest was insensitive, and said that it took special care to report these cases accurately. The publication said that there was an inherent public interest in reporting on inquest proceedings held in open court: it said that it had a right to report on such cases, irrespective of whether the individual concerned was a public figure.
9. The publication did not accept that the article had distorted the evidence heard at the inquest and said that care had been taken by the journalist; thorough notes of the proceedings had been taken, and the details contained within the notes did not contradict the recording of the inquest provided by the complainant.
10. The publication said that the inquest had heard that there were several major events in Mr Sykes’ life; one of which was his daughter’s diagnosis of blood cancer. The publication noted that the complainant had referred to her daughter’s blood cancer as one of two “major incidents” in Mr Sykes’ life. It also referred to the recording provided by the complainant, which recorded that when summing up the evidence heard, the coroner had noted that the complainants daughter “had been poorly and had difficulties in her life which [Mr Sykes] had taken on board”. The publication said that it was clear from the coroner's comments that he had considered several factors within Mr Skyes’ life as having possibly contributed to his decision to take his own life, including his daughter's cancer and difficulties. The publication said that there was no requirement under the Code for newspapers to report every detail of what is heard in an inquest, and said that it was entitled to be selective about the information included or highlighted within the article.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. 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.
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
12. The Committee first wished to express its sincere condolences to the complainant and her family for their loss.
13. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant and her family had been distressed by the publication of the article, particularly the prominence afforded to it on the newspaper’s front page. The Committee wished to explain that inquests are public proceedings and journalists have a right to report on the evidence which is heard; similarly, the prominence afforded to coverage is a discretion provided to an editor. The Editors’ Code of Practice does not prevent the use of any photos of people who have died. However, the Code also makes clear that journalists should approach such stories with sensitivity, and give appropriate consideration to the feelings of the recently bereaved.
14. In this case, the article was an account of the evidence heard during inquest proceedings and the Committee noted that the article had contained expressions of sympathy and heart-felt recollections of the life of Mr Sykes from members of his family. The article did not contain any gratuitous detail of the circumstances surrounding Mr Sykes’ death. In those circumstances, the Committee did not establish that publication had handled publication insensitively. While acknowledging the family’s distress, there was no breach of Clause 4.
15. Care had been taken: a journalist had attended the inquest proceedings and had taken detailed contemporaneous notes of the evidence. The Committee had the benefit of listening to the audio recording of the proceedings, and was able to establish that these notes did not contradict this recording. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the article had implied that her daughter’s illness had been a contributing factor in Mr Sykes’ decision to take his own life. However, the article did not state that Mr Sykes’s daughter’s illness was found by the Coroner to be the reason why he had taken his own life; the article had reported, accurately, that a number of events in Mr Sykes’ life had been referred to during the course of evidence. These included the complainant’s daughter’s diagnosis for blood cancer, which had been referred to by the complainant as one of two “major events” which had occurred during her late husband’s life. In those circumstances, the Committee did not establish that the article had made a causative link between her daughter’s illness and Mr Sykes’ death. The selection of this event in the headline and the subheadline did not represent a significant distortion of the evidence heard at the inquest. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 1.
16. The complaint was not upheld
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 29/07/2018
Date decision issued: 26/10/2018
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