Decision of the Complaints Committee: 06005-18 Newlands v Evening Telegraph (Dundee)
Summary of Complaint
1. Kathleen Newlands complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Evening Telegraph (Dundee) breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), and Clause 8 (Hospitals) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Notorious shoplifter found dead”, published on 8 September 2018.
2. The article reported that a “one-legged man who became notorious for carrying out shoplifting sprees on his mobility scooter has been found dead in a hospital toilet”. It said that the man, who was named, had been found at a named hospital three days previously “alongside evidence of illicit drug misuse”. It said that the man had “had a leg amputated because of drug-related issues”, and that he had “a long list of convictions for crimes of dishonesty” which “had not been stopped by the loss of a leg about a year ago”.
3. The article appeared in the same format online under the headline “One-legged man who went on shoplifting sprees on his scooter found dead in hospital toilet”, published on 8 September 2018.
4. The complainant – the man’s aunt – said that the article breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock): the family had not been aware that the man had died in a hospital toilet, or that his death had been linked to drugs, prior the publication of the article. She was concerned that the article gave the impression that the man had entered the hospital to use drugs, when in fact he had been a patient there. She also said that the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) because the man had lost his leg due to an illness, rather than due to drug use. In addition, she said that the article breached Clause 8 (Hospitals) because it intruded on the man’s rights to patient confidentiality.
5. The publication denied any breach of Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock). It said that it had received the original copy from an agency, and it had published the story as a matter of public interest. It said that the agency became aware of the circumstances of the man’s death from confidential sources in the days following the death. It said that, as the story was published four days after the man’s death, it had no concern that the family would not have been informed by the police about the circumstances of his death. It denied that the article had revealed any private information about the man, or any health conditions he was being treated for; it therefore denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) or Clause 8 (Hospitals). The publication said that, in any event, as the man had died while committing a criminal act in a public building, and he had a history of engaging in drug-fuelled crime, there was a public interest in the reporting. This history, and the information relating to his use of the mobility scooter, had been discussed as part of the proceedings against him. The publication also denied that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy): the man’s solicitor, representing him in court months before his death, had said that “He accepts most of his health problems are self-inflicted. He is now in a wheelchair, having had a recent amputation. He has significant health difficulties associated with his drug misuse”.
Relevant Code Provisions
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.
Clause 2 (Privacy)
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
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.
Clause 8 (Hospitals)
i) Journalists must identify themselves and obtain permission from a responsible executive before entering non-public areas of hospitals or similar institutions to pursue enquiries.
ii) The restrictions on intruding into privacy are particularly relevant to enquiries about individuals in hospitals or similar institutions.
The Public Interest
3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.
Findings of the Committee
6. The Committee first wished to extend its condolences to the complainant and her family. It acknowledged that although the family had been aware of their relative’s death before the publication of the article, they had learned details of the circumstances from the coverage and had found this extremely upsetting.
7. The article was based on information provided to the publication by confidential sources and had been published four days after the man had died. It had not informed the family of the fact of the man’s death – but rather, its specific circumstances. The question for the Committee was whether the publication of this information about the circumstances of the man’s death, about which the family was not aware, was insensitive in breach of Clause 4.
8. The man’s involvement with drug addiction and the criminal proceedings against him were matters of public record, having been previously heard in court and reported on by the publication. In particular, the reference to his status as an amputee had been a prominent part of the previous reporting because he had used a mobility scooter in committing crime. The Committee noted that the death had occurred while the man was in the care of a public body, and it was not in dispute that the man had been found with drug paraphernalia. The inclusion of these details was not gratuitous: it drew attention to a matter of potential public concern. In these circumstances, while the Committee understood the family’s distress that they had learned of the details of the man’s death in this manner, it did not consider that the publication of these details breached Clause 4.
9. The man’s solicitor had said, in court, that he suffered from significant health difficulties associated with drug misuse. The publication interpreted this comment as a reference to the reason for the man's amputation, a claim which had been published previously without any complaint; there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of this point, and in light of the statement made in court by the man’s solicitor, the Committee did not consider that the article contained any misleading impression that required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy).
10. The details of the complainant’s prior court appearances, including the account of his amputation, were in the public domain, and did not represent private information. In addition, the complainant believed that, because the man’s death had occurred in hospital, it represented private medical information about him. However, deaths are not private matters, but matters of public record; revealing the fact of the complainant’s death did not therefore intrude on his family’s privacy. There was therefore no breach of Clause 2 (Privacy), and where there was no suggestion that any journalist had entered the hospital in pursuit of the story, there was no possible breach of Clause 8 (Hospitals).
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 11/06/2018
Date decision issued: 24/01/2019Back to ruling listing