Decision of the Complaints Committee 14070-16 Smyth v Oxford Mail
Summary of complaint
1. Eugene Smyth, acting on behalf of his daughter Kathryn Puncher, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Oxford Mail breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 5 (Reporting Suicide) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Scientist stabbed himself to death after work error”, published on 24 November 2016.
2. The article reported that an inquest had concluded that Dr Matthew Puncher, the complainant’s late husband, had taken his own life. It said that Dr Puncher, a scientist responsible for measuring radiation in workers involved with the former USSR nuclear weapons programme, who had discovered the amount of polonium inside murdered Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, had been found dead in his home with “wounds from two kitchen knives”. The article reported the location of his wounds, and noted that a pathologist had stated that while he could not “entirely exclude” third party involvement, he was satisfied that the wounds were self-inflicted. It also quoted the detective investigating the death who had said that the injuries were “so extensive” that she had initially questioned how Dr Puncher could have remained conscious to inflict them, but that there was “no evidence of a disturbance or a struggle, and no evidence of anyone else’s blood”.
3. The article was published in the same form online.
4. The complainant’s father emphasised that the family accepted the publication’s right to report on the inquest: their objection was to the inclusion of details of Dr Puncher’s injuries, which they considered to be graphic and excessive, and therefore an intrusion into the family’s grief. He said that the family had sought to protect Dr Puncher’s children from the details of their father’s death, but the report had made this impossible. He said that the newspaper had not approached the family before proceeding with publication, and that the article represented a failure to act with any sympathy or discretion at a time of grief. He also contended that the details included could encourage simulative acts of suicide.
5. The newspaper was sorry that its coverage had been distressing for Dr Puncher’s family, but explained that the media is entitled to report proceedings from the Coroner’s Court. There was no requirement to contact families before publishing reports of inquests, but in this case a reporter had approached a member of the family at the inquest, to let them know that a story would be published.
6. The newspaper said that it carefully considered the level of detail it had reported regarding the method of suicide, and was not of the view that it had been excessive. The Home Office pathologist was quoted in his evidence as saying that third party involvement “could not be ruled out”. The nature of Dr Puncher’s wounds, and where they appeared on his body, were important factors for the coroner in deciding whether he could have inflicted them on himself, or whether someone else was involved. The details given in the article were necessary, given the need to accurately explain the unusual circumstances of Dr Puncher’s death, and the reasons for the coroner’s eventual conclusion that Dr Puncher had taken his own life.
Relevant Code provisions
7. 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 5 (Reporting suicide)
When reporting suicide, to prevent simulative acts care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used, while taking into account the media's right to report legal proceedings.
Findings of the Committee
8. The Committee first wished to express its condolences to the complainant and her family for their loss, and to acknowledge their wish to shield Dr Puncher’s children from unnecessary further pain following their father’s death.
9. Inquests are public hearings, and newspapers play an important role in informing readers about evidence heard during proceedings, which is expressly recognised within the Code. Nonetheless, the Committee made clear that the publication of gratuitous detail in reporting on the circumstances surrounding a death could constitute an intrusion into grief and therefore breach Clause 4, as a failure to deal with publication sensitively.
10. However, in this instance, while the Committee understood the complainant’s concern, it noted that the details, heard at the inquest, had been presented in a factual and non-sensational way. In addition, there was a justification for the inclusion of the details in the article, which explained why some evidence appeared to raise a question about whether a third party had been involved in Dr Puncher’s death. It concluded that publication had not been handled insensitively, and there was no breach of Clause 4.
11. The complainant’s father had also expressed concern that the newspaper had not attempted to contact his family prior to publication. The Committee noted that families in circumstances of bereavement vary in their wishes; some families object to being contacted for their comment in such tragic circumstances. In this instance, there was a dispute about whether such a contact had been made at the inquest. In any case, the Code does not impose a general requirement that such an approach be made, and there were no grounds to establish that an approach was necessary here. There was no breach of Clause 4 on this point.
12. Clause 5 places an important obligation on publications to balance the prevention of simulative acts of suicide with the public’s right to be informed. The question of whether particular details are excessive will depend on the circumstances of each case. The evidence heard at the inquest was complex and unusual. For reasons explained in paragraph 10, and particularly in circumstances where there had been a discussion of the possibility of third party involvement, the Committee did not consider that the detail reported was excessive. There was no breach of Clause 5.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 12/12/2016
Date decision issued: 27/04/2017