Decision of the Complaints Committee 05601-19 Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and the Al Qasimi family v Mail Online
Summary of Complaint
1. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and the Al Qasimi family complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) in an article headlined “The ruler of Sharjah stands over the body of his son as funeral is held in UAE for the fashion chain-owner, 39, following ‘drug orgy death at London penthouse’, published on 3 July 2019, and in an article headlined “UAE Emir’s son found dead in Knightsbridge penthouse ‘threw drug-fuelled orgies attended by high-class prostitutes, took meth so sex lasted longer and turned into a ‘monster’ after a heavy weekend of partying”, also published on 3 July 2019.
2. The first article said that Sheikh Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi, the son of the ruler of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, had died in London. It explained that the funeral had taken place “amid unconfirmed reports of a ‘drug-fuelled orgy’” and reports that he had died during a “drug-fuelled party at which some guests were having sex”. The article also noted that another newspaper had been told by “sources” that police had found Class A drugs at his property, but that police had yet to confirm or deny this, and that the results of toxicology tests would not be known for two months. It also referred to Prince Khalid’s brother who had died of a heroin overdose in 1999, and described the circumstances in which his body had been found. The article was illustrated with photographs of Prince Khalid, and a video and images of the funeral, including images of his father standing over his body during prayers.
3. The second article also reported on the funeral of Prince Khalid, and repeated much of the information contained in the first article. It said that it had been claimed by staff at his fashion house that the prince had been a “well-known meth user who often hosted days-long sex parties”. This article also included photographs of the prince, as well as video and images of his father and his body at the funeral.
4. The complainants said that the publication’s coverage of the death of Prince Khalid and the timing of its articles – on the day of his 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. No attempt had been made to contact them in advance of publishing the reports.
5. The complainants said that there had been no official determination as to the cause of Prince Khalid’s death or the circumstances. Regardless of this, the publication had published speculation – including in its headlines – that the death had been due to a “drug-fuelled orgy”; it had reported the alleged presence of Class A drugs at his property; it had published speculation that he had died during a “drug-fuelled party at which some of the guests were having sex”; and it had reported comments from staff at the prince’s fashion label about his alleged behaviour and alleged use of methamphetamine.
6. The complainants also expressed concern that the publication had referred to the death of Prince Khalid’s brother from a heroin overdose, and had included excessively detailed and sensitive information concerning the circumstances in which his body had been found. This had compounded and deepened the hurt and distress of the family.
7. In addition, the complainants said that publishing images and video of the funeral ceremony, which had shown the covered body of the prince and his father in a state of grief, in the context of these articles, was exceedingly insensitive. They noted that in one image, the publication had zoomed in on the face of the prince’s grieving father.
8. 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 Mail Online, Associated News Limited (ANL).
9. The publication expressed its condolences to the complainants for their loss; any distress that had been caused was not intended and regrettable. It did not accept, however, that its coverage had been insensitive in breach of Clause 4. While it understood that the coverage had doubtless been hard for the family to read, the prince had not been mocked, the reporting was not flippant, and the references made in the headlines were straightforward, candid summaries of information given to various publications by a number of sources.
10. The publication said that both its articles had been published on the day of the funeral, and after a national newspaper had already reported the alleged circumstances leading up to the death. It said that neither of its articles had reported as fact the cause of Prince Khalid’s death: both had made clear that although toxicology tests had been carried out, the results were not expected for two months; both had said that the date for the inquest had not been set; and both had clearly reported that the reference to a “drug-fuelled orgy” was based on an unconfirmed report, published in another newspaper, in which a source had claimed that police had discovered Class A drugs at the scene.
11. The publication did not consider that the information it had published was gratuitous. The pictures and the video of the funeral, including the image of Prince Khalid’s body and his father, had already been published on the official Instagram account of a member of the Al Qasimi family. In addition, the references to Prince Khalid’s brother were brief, and, given that they had both lived in Britain away from their families and had apparently died in similar tragic circumstances, it was relevant to include details of his brother’s death in the articles.
12. Given that the events had taken place in London, the publication had taken the view that the family would not be able to comment substantively on the allegations, and the decision was made not to make an approach on the day of the funeral. Both articles had, however, included an official statement, which had been released by the prince’s fashion label, as well as the full text of a statement issued by the UAE’s Ministry of Presidential Affairs.
13. The publication noted that the complaint had referred to articles published by various newspapers in the Associated News Ltd group. It said that its response was limited to the complaint which related to the Mail Online articles as the other publications cited were editorially separate, with discrete journalists, editors and managing editorial staff.
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 Mail Online, as well as the Daily Mail and the Metro, 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 coverage and the fact that the publication had not made direct contact with the family in advance. While the Committee understood that the complainants had found the coverage distressing to read, and their concern that the articles were published on the day of 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 publication to have reported the alleged circumstances of Prince Khalid’s death on the day of the funeral.
18. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainants would have appreciated being notified before the articles were published, the Code does not require that publications contact families in advance of publishing reports of a death in order to comply with the Clause 4; rather, it states that any such inquiries, if made, should be handled sensitively. In this case, the publication had published statements issued by the UAE’s Ministry of Presidential Affairs and by the prince’s fashion house.
19. 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. While the publication had republished claims made by another newspaper that “sex”, “drugs” and an “orgy” had allegedly been involved, and reported additional claims which were said to have been made by confidential sources who had worked for the prince, the Code does not require that publications sanitise the circumstances of a death. It was not insensitive in breach of the Code for the publication to have reported this information.
20. The articles had included brief references 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 video and images of Prince Khalid’s funeral in the context of these two reports. 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 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 broadcast footage and taken still images from it 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