Decision of the Complaints Committee 17500-17 Stunt v The Mail on Sunday
Summary of complaint
1. Geoffrey, Lorraine and Elizabeth Stunt complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:
-“‘I will never get over losing him’: Family pay tribute as Petra’s brother-in-law is found dead in £3.5m mansion”, published online on 11 September 2016
- “Millionaire Stunt’s brother left just £220k”, published in print on 16 July 2017 / “Self-proclaimed billionaire James Stunt’s brother left only £220,000 following his unexplained death after his police-raided gold firm lost £840,000 in just 16 months”, published online on 15 July 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 the family of Mr Stunt, who had been found dead at his parents’ home, had said that he had not taken his own life. It said that police were treating the death as “unexplained”, and that a post-mortem examination would be carried out the following day. It said that in a video posted online, his brother James Stunt had dismissed claims that he had suffered from depression. The article also stated that James Stunt was married to Petra Ecclestone, and that the couple had allegedly been targeted in a petrol bomb attack at their London home. 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 second article reported that Mr Stunt had left “just £220,000 after his unexplained death last year”. It said that he had been found dead at his parents’ home amid speculation that he had taken an accidental overdose of prescription pills. It said that in contrast to his brother James, who had been described as a billionaire, court documents had shown that he had left an estate of £242,329. It said that he had been Chief Operating Officer of Stunt & Co, and despite turning over more than £43 million, the company had made a loss of £840,000 between November 2014 and March 2016.
5. The complainants said that the newspaper had intruded into their grief and shock following Mr Stunt’s death. It had dramatised this tragic event for no other reason than for the titillation of its readers, and it 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.
6. The complainants said that Mr Stunt was not a public figure and since his death on 7 September 2016, the newspaper 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 the first Mail on Sunday article had been published within days of his death. This had caused them considerable distress.
7. 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. Despite this, on 10 September 2016, a Mail on Sunday reporter had returned and was again turned away. A number of journalists remained outside the property having been told to leave; the complainants considered that these reporters “must have included” the Mail on Sunday journalist.
8. 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.
9. 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 wrote to the publisher, complaining that the references were gratuitous and were exacerbating their distress, but no response was received.
10. The complainants also considered that it was insensitive for 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 and including references to Mr Stunt in this context was inexcusable.
11. The complainants were also concerned that the Mail on Sunday had published an article that suggested that Mr Stunt had left his widow with a small amount of money. Mr Stunt’s estate was of no concern to the public and the only reason the Mail on Sunday had reported on it was to attack the Stunt family. This piece had also included criticism of Mr Stunt’s running of the Stunt & Co firm, and repeated the speculation on the cause of his death. This was insensitive and unjustified.
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 Mail on Sunday, Associated News Limited (ANL).
13. The complainants requested a private and a public apology from the newspaper, 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 its publications 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 two articles on the subject, both 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 10 September 2016, and a woman who the reporter had thought to be Mrs Stunt had opened the door. She had said, “we won’t be saying anything, thank you”, and the reporter had expressed his condolences and had left; he had not remained outside the property. The Mail on Sunday received the legal notice on 12 September 2016, and no further approaches were made.
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 that its first article had contained few details beyond the fact of the death and the comments made by the family and the police. It was not insensitive for it to have reported the comments made by Mr Stunt’s brother, James, in a video he had published online. Its article had merely included the family’s rebuttal to speculation in the media that Mr Stunt had suffered from depression; this speculation did not originate from the Mail on Sunday. Its article had made clear that it was the family’s belief that he had died as a result of prescription drugs. Furthermore, the posting of the video online had undoubtedly been designed to court media attention. The accompanying image of Mr Stunt had shown him in a positive light. This article was not insensitive in breach of Clause 4.
20. Similarly, the newspaper did not consider that the second article was insensitive. The information about Mr Stunt had been available in court documents. The article had only included the simplest of details about his death, and the widespread speculation as to the cause of death had been fuelled by the comments made by James Stunt in the video he had published online. The newspaper strongly denied the suggestion that it had sought to criticise Mr Stunt for the value of his estate or for his failure to make a will: it was clear that he had died with over double the average inheritance, and the passing of his estate to his wife was a matter of public record. Regardless, it was not unacceptable to publish criticism of the dead: the comments were based on fact and had not amounted to flippant or gratuitous comments; nor had they focused on information that was private.
21. 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. Each title could not possibly be aware of approaches undertaken by the other titles. By doing this, they would be alerting other titles to any stories that they were investigating; this would clearly be inappropriate for commercial reasons. It strongly denied that there had been a concerted campaign of reporting across the titles.
22. The complainants said that any editorial separation between the titles had made no difference to the effect that ANL’s 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
23. 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
24. 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.
25. The complainants had directed their complaint to Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL), the publisher of the Mail on Sunday, as well as the Daily Mail 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.
26. 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
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 newspaper had published two articles about Mr Stunt’s death over a ten-month period: one which reported that Mr Stunt had died; and one reporting on his estate.
29. The Committee acknowledged that reporting on deaths has the clear potential to be upsetting for the family and friends of the deceased; however, 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 reporting Mr Stunt’s death in the first article, the newspaper had included James Stunt’s response to claims that his brother had depression in the period leading up to his death. He had published this response in a video online, denying any suggestion that his brother had depression or that he may have taken his own life. It was not insensitive for the newspaper to have reported this.
31. The Committee noted the complainants’ concern that in the second article, it had been insensitive of the newspaper to have “criticised” the size of Mr Stunt’s estate, in suggesting that he had left behind a relatively small amount of money, and to have reported that the company where he had been Chief Operating Officer had made a loss in recent years. However, the article included factual information that was in the public domain. The information was not gratuitous and it had not been presented in a manner that was intended to mock the deceased, or to “attack” his family, as contended by the complainants. Publishing this information was not insensitive in breach of Clause 4.
32. The Committee then considered the complainants’ concern regarding the reporter’s approach to the family three 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. The mere fact of an approach, in the aftermath of a death, did not raise a breach of Clause 4.
33. There was no suggestion that the 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; he had introduced himself and, once told that she did not wish to comment, had expressed his condolences. The Mail on Sunday reporter had left the property when asked to do so. The Committee concluded that the Mail on Sunday’s approach to the family had not been insensitive in breach of Clause 4.
34. The Committee acknowledged the complainants’ position that despite telling a reporter from “The Mail” that Mr Stunt’s widow did not wish to comment, a second reporter from “The Mail” had visited her home. However, as previously stated, IPSO considers complaints against member publications, rather than against publishers. The Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday are separate publications with different editors making separate editorial decisions; they are also competitors. By requesting that the Daily Mail make no further contact, the complainants had not said the same to the Mail on Sunday, and the Daily Mail was not required to inform the Mail on Sunday about the family’s response to its approach. When the complainants made clear to the publisher, via a legal notice, that approaches from reporters were causing distress, the Mail on Sunday made no further approaches.
35. The complaint was not upheld.
Date complaint received: 11/08/2017
Date decision issued: 20/12/2017
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