Decision of the Complaints Committee 07867-17 Kelly v devonlive.com
Summary of complaint
1. Rebecca Kelly complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that devonlive.com breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 12 (Discrimination), of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Criminal who skipped the country and fled to Spain dies of drug overdose, aged 35”, published online on 15 May 2017.
2. The article reported on the inquest into the complainant’s brother’s death and stated that he had died of a “drug overdose”. It included evidence heard at the inquest that his cause of death was “acute toxicity poisoning”; that cocaine and heroin were found in his body; that “drug abuse may have enlarged his heart”; and that “drug paraphernalia” was found in his room at the time of his death. The article also reported that the complainant’s brother had died five months after he was released from prison for “stabbing a man”, and that he fled the UK whilst on license after committing the offence.
3. The complainant said that the article was an inaccurate
report of the inquest proceedings. She provided a copy of the toxicology report
and said that the coroner did not state that her brother had taken heroin or that
he had died of a drug overdose. The complainant said that it was stated during
the inquest that her brother had suffered from Left Ventricular Hypertrophy
(LVH) which can be caused by chronic drug abuse, but there was no evidence to
suggest that he had chronically abused drugs. She said that the coroner’s
findings were that low levels of cocaine and morphine were found in his blood –
levels not typically associated with fatalities – and that it was not possible
to conclude which drugs her brother had taken. The complainant also noted that
only prescribed medication was found with her brother at his time of death.
4. The complainant said that the publication of the inquest report focused inappropriately on her brother’s criminal convictions, in breach of Clause 4 and Clause 12. The complainant said that details of his convictions were not mentioned at the inquest and were not relevant to the article. She said that the only reference made to her brother’s history at the inquest was when a family member stated that he could not have been abusing drugs, as he had only been released from prison around five months ago.
5. The newspaper apologised that the article had upset the complainant and her family and offered to remove the online article, however it did not accept a breach of the Code. It noted the evidence included in the toxicology report that free morphine had been found in the complainant’s brother’s blood, and provided a recording of the inquest hearing in which the coroner stated that he had taken either heroin or morphine prior to his death. The newspaper said that the coroner had concluded that it was a drug-related death, the cause being LVH and acute toxicity poisoning, and that on the balance of probabilities there did not seem to be a better reason as to why his heart was so enlarged. The newspaper noted that the coroner’s office gave the cause of the complainant’s brother’s death in its daily listing as a “drug overdose”. The newspaper provided the notes taken by the reporter in attendance at the inquest and a transcript of these notes.
6. The newspaper said that details of the complainant’s brother’s convictions were in the public domain and that the publication of this information did not breach Clause 4, particularly as the family would have been aware of his convictions. It said that its reporter had confirmed with police sources that the complainant’s brother was the same man who had received national publicity when he was caught defying the terms of his probation abroad and as such, his death was of public interest. Furthermore, the newspaper said that it was heard at the inquest that the complainant’s brother had been out of prison for five months, therefore it was relevant to include this information and an explanation of why he was in prison, in the article. It said that in any event, the information regarding his conviction was not inaccurate such as to breach Clause 1, and that the publication of this information did not breach Clause 12.
Relevant Code provisions
7. 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.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
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 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Findings of the Committee
8. The Committee wished to extend its condolences for the family’s loss.
9. The reporter attended the inquest and took detailed notes which were provided by the newspaper, and was able to provide a recording of the hearing. This demonstrated that care had been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information reported. The toxicology report stated that the complainant’s brother’s cause of death was a combination of LVH and acute toxicity poisoning. The complainant’s brother had previously suffered from LVH; the coroner concluded that on the balance of probabilities, it was most likely that there was drug use at the time of his death which may have contributed to the enlargement of his heart. Particularly in circumstances where the details of the coroner’s findings were made clear, the Committee did not consider that characterising the cause of death as a “drug overdose” was significantly misleading. The toxicology report also stated that free morphine was present in the complainant’s brother’s body, indicating that he had taken either morphine or heroin prior to his death. In such circumstances, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly inaccurate to report that heroin was found in his body. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
10. The terms of Clause 4 acknowledge the press’ right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests, and requires that in cases of personal grief or shock, publication is handled sensitively. The fact that the complainant’s brother had recently been released from prison was referred to at the inquest and the newspaper was entitled to note the nature of his conviction. Whilst the Committee acknowledged that the complainant found it distressing to read, the Committee did not consider that the inclusion of this information was insensitive, particularly in circumstances where his convictions were widely reported in the past. There was no breach of Clause 4.
11. The article did not make a prejudicial or pejorative reference to the complainant’s brother in regards to any of the characteristics protected under Clause 12; there was no breach of Clause 12.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 15/05/2017
Date decision issued: 31/08/2017
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