Decision of the Complaints Committee 05531-19 Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and the Al Qasimi family v The Sun
Summary of Complaint
1. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and the Al Qasimi family complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) in an article headlined “PRINCE DIES IN SEX AND DRUGS ORGY” published on 3 July 2019, and in an article headlined “ORGY PRINCE’S FUNERAL”, published on 4 July 2019.
2. The first article reported that Sheikh Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, an Arab prince, had been found dead in his home “amid claims of a drug-fuelled orgy”. It said that police “were said to have found a quantity of Class A drugs”. It quoted a source who had said there had “apparently been a party where some guests were taking drugs and having sex”; that it was “suspected that Sheikh Khalid may have died suddenly as a result of taking drugs”; and that “as well as the police inquiry, an urgent internal probe has been ordered and staff have been ordered to keep quiet”. The article reported that detectives were treating the prince’s death as “unexplained” and had made no arrests. The article also reported that the prince’s family owned a property in Sussex where his brother had been found dead from a heroin overdose in 1999.
3. The first article was published in substantially the same form online on 2 July 2019, with the headline “’Orgy death’ Emir of Sharjah’s son Prince Khalid Al Qasimi died aged 39 at ‘sex and drugs orgy’”.
4. The second article reported that the prince had been “laid to rest” following his death “amid claims of a drug-fuelled orgy”. It said that tens of thousands of mourners had attended his funeral in the UAE. The piece noted that the previous day, the newspaper had “revealed claims he attended a sex and drugs party” the evening before his death. The article was illustrated with an image of the funeral ceremony which showed his father, amongst other mourners, praying as he stood over his son’s body; his father’s face had been circled in red to identify him. The second article was not published online.
5. The complainants said that the newspaper’s coverage of the death of Prince Khalid and the timing of its articles had been insensitive in breach of Clause 4. They said that the reporting was flippant and gratuitous; it represented a clear intrusion into their grief and a failure to act with sympathy when reporting on a tragic event. While an attempt had been made to contact the UAE Embassy before the articles were published, no attempt had been made to contact the family directly.
6. The complainants expressed concern that the articles had included excessive speculation on the cause of the prince’s death – including in the headlines. This was unnecessary and insensitive given that nothing had been confirmed by the police or the coroner. They said that the newspaper had also presented this speculation in a sensationalist manner, which had demeaned the prince’s death. The complainants said that the first article had been published online the day after Prince Khalid’s death, and the print version was published despite the fact that a notice had been circulated on 3 July, which had alerted the newspaper to the family’s concerns regarding the publication of speculation on the cause of the prince’s death. The first article had stated that the prince had died “amid claims of a drug-fuelled orgy”; that the prince “may have died suddenly as a result of taking drugs”; and that police were said to have found “a quantity of Class A drugs”. They also considered that the reference to the death of his brother from a heroin overdose was insensitive; this had deepened the family’s hurt and distress.
7. The complainants said that the online version of the first article had been updated with images and video taken during the funeral, which featured the prince’s body being carried and the face of his grieving father. This material juxtaposed with the “sensationalist” headline and the speculation on the circumstances of the death was insensitive.
8. The complainants said that the second article had been published the day after the prince’s funeral. They expressed concern that it had repeated earlier references to the prince’s death as one resulting from a “drug-fuelled orgy”, caused by “suspected drug overdose” in the circumstances of a “sex and drugs party”. This article had also been illustrated with an exceedingly insensitive photo taken during Prince Khalid’s funeral, which showed his covered body and his grieving father with his face circled, which the complainants said had emphasised to readers his hurt expression.
9. The complainants said that their concerns were framed in the context of other coverage of the prince’s death, which had been published by another title owned by the same publishing group as The Sun, News Group Newspapers Ltd (NGN).
10. The newspaper expressed its condolences to the complainants for their tragic loss, and it acknowledged that media coverage of a death can sometimes be unwelcome. It nevertheless denied that its coverage had been insensitive in breach of the Code.
11. The newspaper said that it was entitled to report the news of a death and there was a public interest in doing so – the family had not learned of the prince’s death through its reporting. It did not accept that mentioning drugs and sex in the context of a death had represented a failure to handle publication sensitively.
12. The newspaper said that one of its highly experienced journalists had been informed by a reliable, confidential source that a party had been held at the prince’s apartment the night before his death at which the guests and the host had been drinking, taking drugs and having sex, and that Class A drugs had been found. The newspaper noted that the accuracy of this information had not been questioned, and it said that the reporter had heard subsequently from additional sources that it was correct. It argued that the fact that there had not yet been a finding by a coroner was irrelevant.
13. The newspaper said that it had attempted to contact the complainants before publication: a reporter had contacted the United Arab Emirates Embassy in London and had repeatedly given them an opportunity to comment. No response was received. In addition, the reporter had contacted the police, and they had issued a statement confirming that they had been called by the ambulance service to the death of a man.
14. The newspaper said that its articles had concerned the fact of the death; the fact of the funeral; and an explanation of who Prince Khalid was. The articles had not gone into detail about the alleged circumstances of Prince Khalid’s death. They had simply reported claims that he had died amid a sex and drugs party; no further information had been given about, for example, the details of his sex life, his sexual preferences or the types of drugs that had been found in the flat. It also considered that it was entirely legitimate to note in the articles that the prince’s brother had died of a drugs overdose in 1999.
15. The newspaper did not consider that the publication of the photographs and video of the funeral ceremony was insensitive as the material had been authorised and distributed to the media for the purposes of publication. It noted that it had come from the Sharjah Media Office and had been issued by the Emirates News Agency. In addition, it had been posted on the Instagram page of the Media Office of the ruler of Sharjah. The newspaper said that it had been appropriate for it to circle the face of the prince’s father in one of the images so as to identify him from the others in the photograph. It did not consider that this represented a breach of Clause 4.
16. At the end of IPSO’s investigation, in order to support its position that its source had supplied accurate information, the newspaper provided an article it had published which reported that the inquest into Prince Khalid’s death had heard that he had died “after bingeing on cocaine and sex drug GHB with another man”.
Relevant Code Provisions
17. 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 on Procedural Point
18. The complainants had directed their complaint at News Group Newspapers Ltd (NGN), the publisher of The Sun, as well as thesun.co.uk, about which the complainants had also submitted a complaint. The Committee noted that IPSO considers complaints against individual publications, rather than against publishing groups. This is because IPSO operates on the principle of editorial responsibility: publications make separate and distinct editorial decisions and therefore one publication with its own editor cannot be held responsible for what is published by another publication in the same group.
Findings of the Committee
19. The Committee first wished to express its condolences to the complainants for their loss.
20. The complainants had found the reporting process insensitive, in particular the timing of the coverage and the fact that the newspaper had not made direct contact with the family in advance of publication. While the Committee understood that the complainants had found the newspaper’s coverage distressing to read, and their concern that the first article was published the day after Prince Khalid’s death, the fact of someone’s death is not private, and there is a public interest in reporting on a death. Journalists have a right to report the fact of a person’s death, even if surviving family members would prefer for there to be no reporting. The Committee noted that in this case, the deceased was a high-profile fashion designer and a member of a royal family. It was not insensitive in breach of the Code for the newspaper to have reported the death of Prince Khalid the day after it happened, or to publish the second article the day after his funeral.
21. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainants would have appreciated being notified of the first article before it was published, the Code does not require that newspapers contact families in advance of publishing reports of a death in order to comply with Clause 4; rather, it states that any such inquiries, if made, should be handled sensitively. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the fact that the newspaper had attempted to contact the family through the United Arab Emirates Embassy in London.
22. The complainants had also expressed serious concern regarding the content of the articles and the presentation of the accounts. In particular, they had objected to the reporting of “unconfirmed speculation” on the circumstances in which the prince had died, which they considered to be excessive and demeaning. However, the newspaper had reported information provided by confidential sources about the circumstances in which the prince had died. While the newspaper had reported – including in its headlines – that “sex”, “drugs” and an “orgy” had allegedly been involved, it had taken steps to limit the level of detail published, avoiding excessive and gratuitous detail. The Code does not require that newspapers sanitise information about the circumstances of a death and it was not insensitive in breach of the Code for the newspaper to have reported this information.
23. The first article had included a brief reference to the death of Prince Khalid’s brother. This was factual information that was already in the public domain and was relevant in the context of the death of Prince Khalid. Publishing this information did not breach the Code.
24. The second article had featured video and images of Prince Khalid’s funeral. The complainants objected to their publication, and in particular the publication of photographs in which his father, one of the complainants, was circled. Funerals, whatever their nature, are highly sensitive occasions, and the Committee acknowledged the family’s distress. It was relevant, however, that the material under complaint had previously been placed in the public domain with the family’s consent, and that it showed a televised state funeral of a prominent member of the Sharjah royal family, rather than a private occasion. It was not insensitive for the newspaper to have republished the broadcast footage and taken still images from it to illustrate its coverage. Furthermore, it was not insensitive for the newspaper to have cropped a photo of the prince’s father in order to show his face more clearly, or to circle his face in order to identify him from the others in the photograph. This did not represent a failure to handle publication with sensitivity.
25. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 23/07/2019
Date complaint concluded: 11/02/2020Back to ruling listing