Decision of the Complaints Committee 17499-17 Stunt v Daily Mail
Summary of complaint
1. Geoffrey, Lorraine and Elizabeth Stunt complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:
-“Bernie Ecclestone’s son-in-law James Stunt ‘shocked’ by a police raid on his gold bullion firm”, published online on 12 September 2016
- “The Tawdry £5bn divorce”, published in print on 29 June 2017 / “Petra Ecclestone and husband in £5billion divorce: ‘Violent and abusive’ James Stunt swears at heiress’s father Bernie and makes a gun gesture during bitter courtroom battle that ends with him kicked OUT of the family’s £100m home”, published online on 28 June 2017
- “How much nastier will the £5.5bn divorce get?”, published in print on 1 July 2017 / “‘Bernie couldn’t find any billions… or even millions’: As James Stunt- the man everyone seems to hate – leaves £100m home, we reveal how he created ‘billionaire’ image despite loss-making firms”, published online on 30 June 2017
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 first article reported that police investigating a “multi-million pound fraud” had raided the offices of James Stunt. It said that James Stunt had claimed to be the victim of a substantial theft from his international gold bullion firm, Stunt & Co. It said that the raid had come at an “extremely traumatic” time for the family as they mourned the death of James Stunt’s brother. It said that Lee Stunt had been the Chief Operating Officer of Stunt & Co; that he had been found dead at his parents’ mansion; and that James Stunt had “furiously denied” claims that he had taken his own life. The complaint was made more than four months after the publication of this article in print, so IPSO could only consider the complaint in relation to the online version of the piece.
4. The remaining articles focused on the divorce of Petra Ecclestone and James Stunt, which it said could be the “biggest settlement in celebrity history”. The newspaper described the proceedings of a Central Family Court hearing, during which details of their marriage had been disclosed. Each of the articles made reference to Mr Stunt’s death; one article said that police had told the newspaper that the file on Mr Stunt had been passed to the coroner, indicating that the inquest would be heard soon.
5. The online version of one of the articles included a box headlined “Mystery of brother-in-law’s death at Stunt family home in Surrey”, which reported information about the circumstances in which Mr Stunt had been found dead, comments made by his friends that Mr Stunt had been suffering from depression, and James Stunt’s denial that his brother had taken his own life.
6. The complainants said that the Daily Mail 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.
7. The complainants said that Mr Stunt was not a public figure and since his death, the newspaper had published numerous articles that referred to it, 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 some of the pieces had been published within days of his death. This had caused them considerable distress.
8. The complainants said that approaches made by reporters from “The Mail” had also been insensitive. On 9 September 2016, two days after Mr Stunt’s death, a reporter working for the Daily Mail had visited Elizabeth Stunt’s property in order to obtain a comment about her husband’s death, but no comment was given. Having been asked to leave, the reporter remained in his car until he was told to leave again; this was not sensitive or sympathetic, and the pressure had been distressing.
9. On 11 September, a legal notice was circulated by Elizabeth Stunt’s solicitor to parts of the media, warning that repeated approaches to Mrs Stunt at her property 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.
10. The complainants said that despite the legal notice, the newspaper had continued to make repeated references to Mr Stunt’s death in numerous further articles. They were particularly concerned by the publication of a box, which focused on Mr Stunt, in a piece published online by the Daily Mail. They wrote to the publisher complaining that the references were gratuitous and were exacerbating their distress, but no response was received.
11. The complainants also considered that it was insensitive of the newspaper 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; including references to Mr Stunt in this context was inexcusable.
12. 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 the Daily Mail, Associated News Limited (ANL).
13. The complainants requested a private and a public apology, and an agreement that there would be no further stories published about Mr Stunt.
14. The newspaper 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.
15. The newspaper 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 noted, however, that it had only published three articles on the subject, all of which had also appeared online.
16. The newspaper said that the approach made by its reporter should not be considered as it took place ten months before the complaint was raised with IPSO. Notwithstanding this position, the Code did not prevent journalists from making approaches to the family of the deceased, and approaches made in the aftermath of a death were not inherently intrusive; indeed some bereaved people welcomed the opportunity to speak about their loved ones. In this instance, the newspaper had also wanted to validate the accuracy of reports previously published.
17. The newspaper said that its journalist had visited Elizabeth Stunt’s home on 9 September 2016. He had knocked on the door and had been escorted from the property by a man. The reporter had returned to his car and he had driven 100 yards away from the property, so that he could make a note of his approach. He had remained in a public lane, where he could not be seen from the house, until the man approached him again, and told him to leave. No further approaches were made by the Daily Mail.
18. The newspaper 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.
19. The newspaper said, given Mr Stunt’s role as Chief Operating Officer at Stunt & Co, it had been entirely reasonable for it to refer to his death in an article covering the police raid at the firm’s offices. It noted that the firm’s website had highlighted the important role Mr Stunt had played in the company. Furthermore, it was not insensitive for it to publish comments made by his brother James Stunt in a video he had posted online with the clear intention of garnering media attention. The video, and therefore its article, had carried the family’s rebuttal to speculation in the media that Mr Stunt had suffered from depression; this speculation had not originated from the Daily Mail. Its article had also made clear the family’s belief that he had died as a result of prescription drugs.
20. The newspaper also 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. Furthermore, it did not consider that the publication of the piece online had been intrusive or handled insensitively: the additional box focusing on Mr Stunt’s death had included the barest detail and a formal picture of him.
21. The newspaper accepted that it had included extensive detail about Mr Stunt’s death in one of its articles, but it did not consider that this represented insensitive handling of the matter. The links between James Stunt, Stunt & Co and Mr Stunt were extensive. In order to understand the intricacies of the investigations into Stunt & Co and the background to James Stunt’s behaviour, it was essential that that the article made reference to Mr Stunt’s death. It also considered that the article included up-to-date information about the inquest, which would be a public hearing to which the press would be invited. It was entirely reasonable for its journalist to have made enquiries about this.
22. The newspaper said that 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 its titles.
23. While it did not consider that it had breached the Code, in an effort to resolve the complaint, the publication offered to remove the box on Mr Stunt’s death from the online article.
24. The complainants said that any editorial separation between the titles had made no difference to the effect that the coverage 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 the item had on them had doubled. Furthermore, it made no difference whether the two reporters who had visited Elizabeth Stunt’s home had been from the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday; as far as she was concerned two reporters from “The Mail” had visited her home on two consecutive days, shortly after her husband’s tragic death.
Relevant Code provisions
25. 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
26. There were a number of procedural issues raised by both parties as part of the complaint. The Committee considered these issues, before going on to consider the substance of the complaint.
27. The complainants had directed their complaint to Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL), the publisher of the Daily Mail, as well as the Mail on Sunday and Mail Online, 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.
28. It was not in dispute that the conduct of the reporter was part of the newsgathering process for an article which remained online at the time the complaint was made. IPSO was able to fairly investigate whether this article breached the Code. The conduct that led to the publication of this article formed part of the considerations, and so fell within IPSO’s remit.
Findings of the Committee
29. 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.
30. The Committee noted the complainants’ position that Mr Stunt was a private person, and so the amount of coverage given to his death by the Daily Mail had been insensitive and had caused them considerable distress. However, the press are entitled to report on deaths, which are matters of public record, as long as enquiries and publication are handled with appropriate sensitivity. In this instance, the deceased’s brother was a member of a family with a very high public profile. Mr Stunt had also held a senior position at a firm owned by his brother. Referring to Mr Stunt’s death in the context of other stories about his brother, and in stories about the firm at which he had worked, was not in itself insensitive, in breach of Clause 4.
31. The Committee noted the complainants’ concern that the newspaper had published a comment from unnamed friends of Mr Stunt, alleging that he had been depressed in the period leading up to his death. However, the newspaper had published this comment in the context of James Stunt’s response to it, made in response to press reports, apparently including those from Mail Online, which he had made in a video 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 publically commented on the friends’ observation, it was not insensitive for the newspaper to have reported on it. The newspaper had not gratuitously speculated on the cause of his death.
32. The Committee also considered the complainants’ concern regarding a box, which had been added to one of the articles when it was published online. This box also appeared in articles published by a sister title, and the Committee considered these separately. The Committee noted that the box 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 friends 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 and it had not been presented in a manner that was intended to mock or embarrass the deceased. It was not insensitive in breach of Clause 4.
33. The Committee did not consider that the articles, either individually or as a whole, had been insensitive in breach of Clause 4.
34. The Committee then considered the complainants’ concern regarding the reporter’s approach to the family two days after Mr Stunt’s death. While the complainants had not wished to make a comment, some bereaved families welcome the opportunity to speak to the press about a loved one who has died. Approaching the family at this time did not in itself represent a breach of Clause 4.
35. There was no suggestion that the Daily Mail reporter had acted inappropriately when he had spoken to the individual who had answered the door. The complainants had not disputed the newspaper’s position that the reporter had been polite; that he had introduced himself; and that he had expressed his condolences. He had then left the property when asked to do so, and had returned to his car. The complainants had also not disputed the newspaper’s position that he had then driven to a distance where he could not be seen from the property. The Committee did not consider that it was insensitive of the reporter to have remained in his car at this distance from the house, apparently so that he could make a note of his approach. The Committee concluded that the newspaper’s enquiries had been handled with appropriate sensitivity; they were not intrusive 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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