Decision of the Complaints Committee 17481-17 Stunt v Mail Online
Summary of complaint
1. Geoffrey, Lorraine and Elizabeth Stunt complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:
- “BREAKING NEWS: Petra Ecclestone’s brother-in-law is found dead by his distraught father at parents’ £3million Surrey mansion”, published on 9 September 2016 / “‘My brother was not depressed and he did not commit suicide’: Petra Ecclestone’s husband James Stunt tells of heartache after his brother is found dead at their parents’ £3million Wentworth mansion”
- “Pictured: Bernie Ecclestone’s son-in-law James Stunt is seen for first time since police raided his firm”, published on 26 September 2016
- “‘She has suffered enough’: Bernie Ecclestone reveals estranged son-in-law James Stunt ‘PUNCHED him’ during a court hearing to evict ‘erratic’ billionaire from daughter Petra’s £100m mansion”, published on 29 June 2017 / “Well that didn’t take long! James Stunt’s Rolls Royce leave Petra Ecclestone’s £100m Belgravia mansion as one of his entourage clutches details of a £9,000 a week rental home nearby after court evicted him”
- “‘Love you to the moon’: Petra Stunt takes her mind off her divorce to billionaire James Stunt by throwing her sister Tamara Ecclestone a lavish fantasy-inspired surprise dinner to celebrate her 33rd birthday”, published on 29 June 2017
- “Good riddance: Bernie Ecclestone welcomes news his estranged son-in-law James Stunt has left his £100m marital home as cleaners move in but adds ‘he shouldn’t’ have had to be told to leave’”, published on 30 June 2017 / “Billionaire James Stunt FINALLY leaves his £100m marital home – in a convoy of Rolls Royce, Lamborghini and a Range Rover and clutching two china cats – as estranged wife Petra Ecclestone prepares to move back in”.
2. The complainants are the parents and widow of Lee Stunt, who died on 7 September 2016. His brother, James Stunt, is a businessman, who was married to Petra Ecclestone, and has been the subject of media attention.
3. The article published on 9 September 2016 reported that Mr Stunt had died. It said that his father had found him, and that the police had called the death “unexplained”. It said that friends of Mr Stunt, who was Chief Operating Officer for metals company Stunt & Co, had said that he had been “suffering from depression”, with one commenting that he had been “suffering for some time” and that his brother had recently bought him a luxury car. The article said that Mr Stunt’s wife had been too upset to comment.
4. The second item was an update of the first article. It repeated the information about the circumstances in which Mr Stunt had been found, and the comments made by his friends. It additionally reported that James Stunt had “vehemently denied” that Mr Stunt had been depressed or that he had bought his late brother a car.
5. The article published at the end of September 2016 reported on a police raid at the offices of Stunt & Co, which had taken place as part of an investigation into a “multi-million pound fraud”. It said that James Stunt had claimed that he had been the victim of a “substantial theft” from his “international gold bullion firm”, and that the raid had come at a “traumatic time” for the family as they “mourned the death” of Mr Stunt. It repeated that James Stunt had denied that his brother had taken his own life, and said that his widow was being “comforted by friends” at home.
6. The coverage published in June 2017 focused on Petra Ecclestone and James Stunt’s divorce. It reported that Bernie Ecclestone had said that his daughter had “suffered enough”, and that he had claimed that James Stunt had punched him in the back and had made a gun gesture towards him during a hearing of the Central Family Court. One of the June articles focused on a birthday party thrown by Petra Ecclestone for her sister. Each of them included a box headlined “Mystery of brother-in-law’s death at Stunt family home”, which repeated information about the circumstances in which Mr Stunt had been found dead, the comments made by his friends at the time, and James Stunt’s denial that his brother had taken his own life. Each of them also included a section headlined “The major players in the Stunt divorce case”, which gave background on the divorcing couple and their legal representatives, and made reference to Mr Stunt’s death.
7. The complainants said that Mail Online had intruded into their grief and shock following Mr Stunt’s death. The publication had dramatised this tragic event for no other reason than for the titillation of their readers, and they had treated the – as yet – unexplained nature of his death as a “mystery” to create unwarranted suspicion and speculation. The circumstances of his death were private and a matter for the family, and they had been left distraught by the insensitive nature of the reporting.
8. The complainants said that Mr Stunt was not a public figure and since his death on 7 September 2016, the publisher, including Mail Online, had published numerous articles that referred to his death, and which included speculation on the cause of death from unknown sources that went “way beyond any necessary level of reporting”. This was not in the public interest; it was purely motivated by the profile of Mr Stunt’s other family members; and it was insensitive. They noted that one Mail Online article had been published the day before his funeral. They were particularly concerned by the repeated publication of the box, which focused on Mr Stunt, in several Mail Online pieces. They wrote to the publisher complaining that the references were gratuitous and were exacerbating their distress, but no response was received.
9. The complainants also considered that it was insensitive of Mail Online to make references to Mr Stunt’s death, more than nine months after the event, in the context of articles about the divorce between James Stunt and Petra Ecclestone. The divorce proceedings were highly acrimonious and including references to Mr Stunt in this context was inexcusable. It was also highly insensitive of Mail Online to juxtapose their loss against references to Petra and Tamara Ecclestone’s sisterly love for one another.
10. The complainants said that their concerns were framed in the context of other coverage, published by other titles owned by the same publishing group as Mail Online, Associated News Limited (ANL). They said that, following contact from reporters, a legal notice was circulated by Mr Stunt’s widow’s solicitor to parts of the media, warning that repeated approaches were causing her distress and constituted a breach of the Editors’ Code. The notice also asked for further press reporting of the matter to be conducted sensitively. Despite the legal notice, Mail Online had continued to make repeated references to Mr Stunt’s death in numerous further articles.
11. The complainants requested a private and a public apology, and an agreement that there would be no further stories published about Mr Stunt.
12. The publication said that it was sorry for the complainants’ loss and that it was a matter of regret if it had caused them distress at a difficult time. It said that the death of Mr Stunt was a matter of public record, and it was a subject that the media were entitled to report upon. It also considered that as Mr Stunt was the brother and colleague of James Stunt, a high profile individual who it said had courted media attention, the appetite for reporting on his death had been “entirely understandable”. It said that the complainants had referred to updated articles as if they were separate pieces; they were not: Mail Online had published just five articles over an 11-month period, one of which was published in the days that followed Mr Stunt’s death.
13. Mail Online said that there was nothing in the Editors’ Code which prevented the referencing of a person’s death in the context of other news stories. Nor was there anything which stated that an event must only be referred to contemporaneously. It also did not consider that there was anything in the Code to prevent it from writing about any individual – famous or otherwise – provided that publication was handled sensitively. The choice of subject was a matter of editorial discretion.
14. Mail Online said that its articles had included the “barest details” of Mr Stunt’s death. It was not the first publication to cover the story or to include comments made by Mr Stunt’s friends about the cause of his death. It noted that one national newspaper had reported the speculation 40 minutes before its article had been published, and other publications had repeated this speculation. Publishing speculation on the cause of death was common in news reporting, reflecting the right and duty of the media to report contemporaneously on matters of public interest. It pointed to two other examples of the publication of such speculation relating to high profile deaths. It also noted that in its article, it had clearly stated that the cause of death had yet to be established.
15. Mail Online said that it was not insensitive for it to have updated the first article with the news that James Stunt had published a video in which he had denied that his brother had taken his own life. It considered that he had clearly published the video with the intention of garnering media attention, and it was entirely foreseeable that it would result in further publications. It did not consider that the updated article should be considered as a separate piece to the original item: if was to be considered as such, the first version should not be considered by IPSO as it had not been online since 12 September 2016.
16. In relation to the third article, Mail Online said that it was not insensitive for it to report on Mr Stunt’s death in the context of coverage of the police raid on Stunt & Co. It said that James Stunt was a public figure and the police raid on his company was newsworthy and a matter of public interest. The reference to the recent death of the firm’s Chief Operating Officer was both reasonable and sensitive. It noted that the firm’s website had highlighted the important role Mr Stunt had played in the company.
17. Mail Online denied that it was insensitive to report on Mr Stunt’s death in the context of coverage of the divorce proceedings between Petra Ecclestone and James Stunt. This was possibly the country’s largest divorce settlement, and so it was entirely justifiable for the coverage of it to include references to other aspects of the parties’ lives. The link between James and Mr Stunt was clear: they were brothers and colleagues. Similarly, it was not insensitive for it to have referred to his death in an article that also made references to the affectionate relationship between Tamara and Petra Ecclestone.
18. Mail Online said that it was commonplace in online journalism to repeat box articles, such as the piece on Mr Stunt’s death and the “Major players” section, where stories are related and continuing to develop. Given the context of the difficult year for James Stunt and his brother’s key role at Stunt & Co, the link was clear and not insensitive. These sections merely recapped the basic details of Mr Stunt’s death.
19. While it did not consider that it had breached the Code, in an effort to resolve the complaint, Mail Online offered to remove the box on Mr Stunt’s death from the articles.
20. Mail Online noted that the complainants had expressed concern about coverage by other publications in its group. However, a complaint could only be made against its individual publications, and not against ANL as a publisher. This was because Mail Online, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday were editorially independent, with distinct editors and journalists. It strongly denied that there had been a concerted campaign of reporting across the titles.
21. The complainants said that any editorial separation between the titles had made no difference to the effect that ANL’s coverage and conduct had had on them at a time of such grief. Each time any of the articles had been published in a different format, the effect of the item on them had doubled.
Relevant Code provisions
22. 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 points
23. The parties had raised a number of procedural questions throughout the complaint. The Committee made decisions on these points, before going on to consider the substance of the complaint.
24. The complainants had directed their complaint to Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL), the publisher of Mail Online, as well as the Mail on Sunday and Daily Mail, about which the complainants had also submitted complaints. The Committee noted that IPSO operates on a principle of editorial responsibility, and considers complaints against individual publications, rather than against publishing groups. One publication with its own individual editor cannot be held responsible for what is published by another title, owned by a shared parent publisher, which has its own editor making distinct and separate editorial decisions. Nonetheless, in reaching a decision, the Committee did take into account the complainants’ concerns about the context in which the material was published.
25. The Committee considered the parties' extensive submissions on the precise number of articles published by Mail Online, and declined to make a finding on this point. The question for the Committee was whether any of the coverage, taken on its own or as a whole, was insensitive. The precise number of articles was irrelevant to this question.
26. The Committee noted that the first article under complaint had been replaced with the second article on 12 September 2016. IPSO accepts complaints about articles that remain online, which have been submitted to the publication or IPSO within 12 months from the date of publication. As this version of the article was not online at the time the complaint was made, it fell outside IPSO’s remit and the Committee did not consider the complaint in relation to it.
Findings of the Committee
27. The Committee expressed its sincere condolences to the complainants for their loss, and it acknowledged that they had been distressed by the coverage of Mr Stunt’s death.
28. The articles published by Mail Online fell into three categories, at two time periods: the September 2016 articles reported that Mr Stunt had died, and that James Stunt’s company had been raided by the police; and the articles published in June 2017 focused on the divorce proceedings between James Stunt and Petra Ecclestone.
29. The Committee acknowledged the complainants’ position that Mr Stunt was a private person, and so the amount of coverage overall had been insensitive. While reporting on deaths has the clear potential to be upsetting for the family and friends of the deceased, reporting the fact that someone has died is not in itself insensitive in breach of Clause 4. Deaths are matters of public record; they affect communities, as well as the individuals directly involved, and they are therefore a legitimate subject for reporting. Reporting that Mr Stunt had died and explaining the circumstances of his death did not represent a breach of Clause 4.
30. In this instance, Mr Stunt’s brother was a member of a family with a very high public profile; his brother had spoken publicly about his death in a video he had published online; and Mr Stunt had also held a senior position at his brother’s company. Referring to Mr Stunt’s death in the context of other stories about his brother, and in stories about the company at which he had worked, was not in itself insensitive, so as to raise a breach of Clause 4. The volume of coverage overall did not represent a breach of Clause 4.
31. In the initial reporting of Mr Stunt’s death, Mail Online had published a comment from friends of Mr Stunt who had said that he had suffered from depression in the period leading up to his death. The Committee did not consider that this had amounted to the publication of gratuitous speculation on the cause of Mr Stunt’s death: Mr Stunt had died at a young age, and the cause of death had not yet been established; it was not insensitive for Mail Online to have published the friends’ observation of his state of mind at the time of his death. Moreover, the articles that fell within IPSO’s remit had presented this comment in the context of James Stunt’s response to it, which he had published online, denying any suggestion that his brother had depression or that he may have taken his own life. As a close family member had commented on this information publicly, following earlier press reports, it was not insensitive for Mail Online to have reported it.
32. The publication had also made reference to Mr Stunt’s death in coverage of a police raid on James Stunt’s gold bullion company. The Committee did not consider that this reference had been gratuitous or insensitive: Mr Stunt had a connection to the story as he had been Chief Operating Officer at the company. Furthermore, James Stunt had spoken publicly about Mr Stunt's death, when he had published a video responding to reports that his brother may have taken his own life.
33. The Committee did not consider that it was insensitive or gratuitous for Mail Online to have referred to Mr Stunt’s death in the context of coverage of James Stunt’s divorce from Petra Ecclestone. Mr Stunt had a connection to the story because he was James Stunt’s brother and he had held a senior position in his company. Reference to his death, the cause of which had yet to be established, had also served to provide wider context for James Stunt’s state of mind during the divorce proceedings. In addition, as previously stated, James Stunt had himself spoken publicly about his brother’s death.
34. The Committee noted the complainants’ concern regarding a recurring box, which had focused solely on Mr Stunt’s death and had referred to it as a “mystery”. This item had provided brief factual information about the circumstances in which Mr Stunt’s body had been found; it had stated that the cause of death had yet to be established; and it had included the comment made by the friend of Mr Stunt regarding his state of mind, as well as James Stunt’s denial that his brother had been suffering from depression when he died. The box provided wider context to the events taking place in the family at the time of the other events being reported; the information was not gratuitous. It was not insensitive in breach of Clause 4.
35. The Committee did not consider that the articles published by Mail Online, either individually or as a whole, had been insensitive in breach of Clause 4.
36. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 11/08/2017
Date decision issued: 20/12/2017
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