Decision of the Complaints Committee 05600-19 The Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and the Al Qasimi family v Metro
Summary of Complaint
1. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and the Al Qasimi family complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Metro breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) in an article headlined “Sheikh bids farewell to son ‘dead at drug-fuelled party’”, published on 4 July 2019.
2. The article reported that the funeral of Sheikh Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, the son of a UAE ruler, had taken place the day before. It said that he had “reportedly” died during a “drug-fuelled party in his Knightsbridge apartment, at which some guests were having sex”, and that according to another newspaper “police had found a quantity of Class A drugs at his flat”. The article said that three days of national mourning were taking place across the UAE, and that a friend and former business partner had said that the prince had been “incredibly hard working and talented – a wonderful person”. The article noted that the prince’s brother had died of a heroin overdose in 1999. It 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 the father’s face in red to identify him as Sheikh Al Qasimi.
3. The article was published in substantially the same format online.
4. The complainants said that the article and the timing of it – the day after Prince Khalid’s funeral – 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.
5. The complainants said that the article had been published despite the fact that a legal notice had been circulated on 3 July, which had asked news outlets to comply with Clause 4 of the Code and to respect their privacy. They said that no attempt had been made to contact the family before the article was published.
6. The complainants expressed concern that the article had included excessive speculation on the cause of the prince’s death, which had demeaned it to create shock and suspicion and had led to hurtful comments. The reporting was unnecessary and insensitive given that nothing had been confirmed by the police or the coroner. The complainants noted that the article had reported claims that the prince had died at a “drug-fuelled party” during which “some guests were taking drugs and having sex”; that a “quantity of class A drugs" had been found at the scene; and that Prince Khalid "may have died suddenly as a result of taking drugs". They also considered that the article had alluded to the prince’s alleged flamboyant lifestyle; they were concerned that it had published a quote that he "had been enjoying freedoms that London offers but that his story 'had ended tragically'" and that "staff have been told to keep quiet".
7. In addition, the complainants considered that the published references to Prince Khalid's brother dying of heroin overdose in 1999 were insensitive, and had compounded and deepened their hurt and distress.
8. The complainants 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 his father’s face, which they said had emphasised his pained 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 other titles owned by the same publishing group as the Metro, Associated News Limited (ANL).
10. The newspaper expressed its condolences to the complainants for their loss, and said that it regretted any distress inadvertently caused by its coverage. While it acknowledged that it would have been difficult for the complainants to have read about Prince Khalid’s death in the newspaper, it considered that it had taken care to ensure that its coverage was sensitive in line with the obligations set out in the Code.
11. The newspaper said that it was an important function of the press to inform the public about what is known – or what people are saying – about an unexplained and unexpected death. Its article was a straightforward news report: it had simply reported that the prince had died and explained what a source had told a national newspaper about the alleged circumstances. The article had not made light of his death or ridiculed the manner of it, it had not included any gratuitous detail, and it had not ridiculed Prince Khalid in any way. It noted that the article had included a sympathetic tribute to the prince from his former business partner.
12. The newspaper also did not consider that the reference to the death of Prince Khalid’s brother had been insensitive: the article had merely said that he had died in 1999. Similarly, it considered that republishing a photograph of Prince Khalid’s funeral – which had been attended by many people – was not insensitive. It noted that the photograph remained online on the Sharjah Press Office’s Instagram account.
13. The newspaper said that a complaint could not be made against the Associated News Limited publishing group, as its publications operated completely separately and independently from one another.
Relevant Code Provisions
14. 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
15. The complainants had directed their complaint at Associated News Limited (ANL), the publisher of the Metro, as well as the Daily Mail 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
16. The Committee first wished to express its condolences to the complainants for their loss.
17. The complainants had found the reporting process insensitive, in particular the timing of the article 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 article distressing to read, and their concern that it 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. 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 published the article the day after his funeral.
18. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainants would have appreciated being notified of the article before it was published, the Code does not require that newspapers contact families in advance of publishing reports concerning a death in order to comply with the Clause 4; rather, it states that any such inquiries, if made, should be handled sensitively.
19. The complainants had also expressed serious concern regarding the content and presentation of the article. 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 which had already been reported by another publication. While the newspaper had reported that the prince had “reportedly” died at a “drug-fuelled party”, the level of detail included 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.
20. The 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.
21. The complainants had objected to the publication of an image of Prince Khalid’s funeral in which his father’s face had been circled. Funerals, whatever their nature, are highly sensitive occasions, and the Committee acknowledged the family’s distress. It was relevant, however, that the published image had 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 publication to have republished the image to illustrate its coverage. This did not represent a failure to handle publication with sensitivity.
22. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received 23/07/2019
Date complaint concluded 11/02/2020