Decision of the Complaints Committee 05599-19 Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and the Al Qasimi family v Daily Mail
Summary of Complaint
1. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and the Al Qasimi family complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Did sheikh’s son die after drugs party at £8m flat?, published on 4 July 2019, and in an article headlined “The House of Grief”, published on 10 July 2019.
2. The first article reported that Sheikh Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi had been found dead at his London address “amid reports of a drug-fuelled party”. It explained that he was the son of Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, who ruled Sharjah in the UAE, and whose elder son had died of a heroin overdose in 1999. The article reported that the funeral had taken place in the UAE “yesterday” where three days of mourning were under way. It said that police had launched an investigation and that detectives were treating the death as “unexplained”, were waiting for the results of toxicology tests, and had refused to say whether drugs had been found at his property. The article included quotes which it said were from people who had worked with the prince at his fashion label; one person was reported to have said that he could “become very unpredictable and we always knew to stay away from him after one of his famous parties”, and another that “he always treated his female staff with respect”. The article was illustrated with an image of the funeral ceremony which showed the prince’s father, amongst other mourners, standing over his body while praying; the newspaper had circled his face in red in order to identify him to readers as the prince’s father. This article did not appear online.
3. The second article reported that Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi had lost two sons: it reported that Prince Khalid had died recently “amid claims that ‘a drug fuelled orgy’ had taken place in the hours before [he] died”, and that Prince Mohammed had “taken a fatal heroin overdose” in 1999. It said that the death of Prince Khalid had “shone a light both on his lifestyle and the past tragedies that have dogged a family seemingly born with every advantage in life”. It said that police were investigating his death amid reports that Class A substances had been found at his property. It said that it had also been alleged that he had a “reputation for partying hard, surrounding himself with beautiful women and prostitutes, as well as having a penchant for illegal drugs that boosted his sexual performance”. It said that the results of toxicology tests may take two months to come back. The article said that his father had lost his only other son 20 years ago and it gave a detailed description of the circumstances in which his body had been found, which had been heard at the inquest.
4. The second article was published in substantially the same terms online with the headline “House of grief: How a rich Emirati ruler sent two of his sons to Britain with every privilege only for them to end up dead 20 years apart amid rumours they had spiralled into a life of drug-fuelled excess”. It was published online on 9 July 2019.
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.
6. The complainants said that both articles had been published despite the fact that a notice had been circulated, prior to publication on 3 July, which had asked news outlets to comply with Clause 4 of the Code and to respect the family’s privacy. No attempt had been made to contact the family before the articles were published.
7. The complainants expressed concern that the articles had included excessive speculation on the cause of the prince’s death. 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. For example, it had referred to a “drug-orgy death”; “drug-fuelled orgy”; said that the prince had “spiralled into a life of drug-fuelled excess”; and that “he would spend the weekend partying at his Knightsbridge penthouse with high-class prostitutes, before coming into work as an ‘erratic monster’”.
8. The complainants were also concerned that in this context, the newspaper had referred to the death of the prince’s brother from a heroin overdose; had referred to his brother’s drinking, reporting that this would have made his father “furious”; and had detailed the circumstances in which his brother’s body had been found. These references had compounded and deepened their hurt and distress.
9. The complainants also said that the published image of the funeral ceremony, which had shown the covered body of the prince and his father grieving, was exceedingly insensitive. They noted in particular that the newspaper had circled the father’s face, which had emphasised his pained expression.
10. The complainants said that their concerns were framed in the context of other coverage of the prince’s death, which had been published by other titles owned by the same publishing group as the Daily Mail, Associated News Limited (ANL).
11. The newspaper expressed its deepest sympathies to the complainants for their loss, and said that it had not been its intention to contribute to their distress. It nevertheless denied that its coverage had been insensitive in breach of the Code.
12. The newspaper noted that Prince Khalid was a prominent individual and so it considered that it was expected that his death would attract press attention: he was the head of a fashion brand, and his royal status was such that his funeral had been broadcast on television. It said that the tone of its coverage had been respectful, no gratuitous information had been included, and the tragic events had not been made light of. In the context of an unexplained sudden death – even soon after the event – it was inevitable that any article would include speculative information on how the subject may have died. It considered that both articles had only included a brief reference to speculative details.
13. The newspaper said that the first article was a news piece which had merely provided details about Prince Khalid’s family and his professional background, as well as reporting on the status of the investigation into his death. It acknowledged that the article had referred to a “drug-fuelled party”, but noted that it had also made clear that reports of drug use were unconfirmed. It had said that the police were still “awaiting the results of toxicology tests” and had “refused to say whether drugs had been involved”. The headline was also sensitive: it had asked whether Prince Khalid had died after a “drugs party”.
14. The newspaper said that the second article had explored the experiences of both brothers. It considered that the piece had also been sensitively written and noted that it opened with four paragraphs about the 20,000 mourners who had attended Prince Khalid’s funeral; it said that only two paragraphs had mentioned the speculation from previous reports.
15. The newspaper said that a complaint could not be made about the ANL publishing group as each title within the group had its own editor and journalists.
Relevant Code Provisions
16. 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
17. The complainants had directed their complaint at Associated News Limited (ANL), the publisher of the Daily Mail, as well as the Metro and Mail Online, about which the complainants had also submitted complaints. 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
18. The Committee first wished to express its condolences to the complainants for their loss.
19. 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 funeral, the fact of someone’s death is not private, and there is a public interest in reporting on a death. The Committee noted that in this case, the deceased was a high-profile fashion designer and a member of a royal family. 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. It was not insensitive in breach of the Code for the newspaper to have published the first article the day after his funeral.
20. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainants would have appreciated being notified of the articles before they were published, the Code does not require that newspapers contact families in advance of publishing reports concerning a death in order to comply with Clause 4; rather, it states that any such inquiries, if made, should be handled sensitively.
21. The complainants had also expressed serious concern regarding the content of the articles and the presentation of the stories. 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 which had already been published by another national newspaper. Although the second article had referred to a “drug-fuelled orgy”, the level of detail published was limited; it was not excessive or gratuitous. 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.
22. The first article had included a brief reference to the death of Prince Khalid’s brother, and the second article had focused on both princes and the circumstances that had led to their early deaths. While the Committee acknowledged the complainants’ distress, the information published about the death of Prince Khalid’s brother was factual information that was already in the public domain, and the comments about his character from people who were reported to have known him provided additional context and their publication was not insensitive. Publishing this information did not breach the Code.
23. The complainants had objected to the publication of an image of Prince Khalid’s funeral, and in particular the fact that 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 this image to illustrate its coverage. Furthermore, it was not insensitive for the newspaper to have circled his father’s face in order to identify him from the other mourners in the photograph. This did not represent a failure to handle publication with sensitivity.
24. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 23/07/2019
Date complaint concluded: 11/02/2020