19078-17 Frazier & Phelps v Cambridge News

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 19078-17 Frazier & Phelps v Cambridge News

Summary of complaint

1. Helen Frazier complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on behalf of herself and Andrew Phelps that the Cambridge News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “Top award for hero who tackled knifeman on murderous rampage” published on 28 September 2017.

2. The article reported that Mr Phelps had been named as the recipient of “one of the country’s highest bravery awards,” as he had disarmed a man with a knife who had attacked two individuals. The article stated that Mr Phelps had “rushed to his neighbour’s home after a commotion” and referred to the scene as a “bloodbath”. The article also included a description of the extent of the victim’s wounds and stated that without the actions of the complainant, the second person who was attacked would also have lost her life. It stated that the assailant had escaped from the property, jumped into the river, and was arrested 20 minutes later. The article included statements from the secretary of the organisation that awarded the medal and the judge who had passed sentence on the attacker, both praising the complainant’s bravery. The article included a photograph of the victim and a pixilated photograph of the assailant surrounded by police.

3. The article also appeared online headlined, “Hero twice disarmed crazed St Ives killer and held him in bear hug,” published on 27 September. The online article was substantially the same as the print article, and also included a video showing the house where the attack took place with a police cordon surrounding the property.

4. The complainant was the mother of the man who had died. She said that the incident had taken place nine months ago and believed it was unnecessary for the details of her son’s death to be included in the article. She said it was distressing for her to see images of the attack and believed the amount of detail included in the article was gratuitous. In particular, she believed that the use of the word “bloodbath” was insensitive.

5. She also said that the article was inaccurate, as the recipient had not received his award yet. She believed that the article was misleading as her son had also stepped in to protect the other person, which she did not believe had been acknowledged in the article. She also said that where the incident had taken place inside a house, it was misleading for the headline to claim it had been a “murderous rampage.”

6. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that the article had been provided by a reputable news agency and it did not believe the details included in the report were gratuitous. It said that the article was intended to highlight the bravery Mr Phelps had shown in a dangerous situation.

7. The newspaper said that it had not intended to cause any further distress and had removed the word “bloodbath” from the online article as soon as it was contacted by the complainant. It said that the pixilated photograph included in the article showed only the assailant being arrested in the street and did not show the victim.

8. The newspaper said that the article had made clear that Mr Phelps had not yet been physically awarded the medal, but that it had been confirmed that he would receive the award. The newspaper said that the organisation did not release information regarding the award to reporters unless the nominee is willing to have the award publicised and provided a copy of a document issued by the Committee of the organisation, which confirmed yes to all publicity for this award.  The newspaper said that it had tried to contact the recipient through the police, and had wanted to also contact the victim’s mother prior to publication, however it did not have any contact details to reach her.

9. During the complaints process the newspaper offered to write the victim’s mother a letter of apology, to remove the photograph of the assailant being arrested from the online article, and to circulate a note to all staff to remind them of their obligation to report such matters sensitively. It also offered to contact the victim’s mother in advance in future if any other articles on this matter were going to be published.

Relevant Code provisions

10. 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.

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

11. The Committee extended its condolences to the complainant for the loss of her son. It acknowledged that reading the details of the incident had been distressing for the complainant and recognised that she believed the description of the incident was gratuitous. However, the fact that the incident had taken place was in the public domain and the newspaper was entitled to report on it. The article had included a summary of the incident to highlight the bravery of Mr Phelps, which had resulted in him receiving this award. The details included in the article were not gratuitous, and the Committee did not find that publication had been handled insensitively. There was no breach of Clause 4 on this point.

12. The photograph and video were included in the article to illustrate the incident described. Publishing a photograph of an assailant being apprehended by the police and a video of the location where the crime took place was not insensitive in breach of Clause 4.

13. The article had accurately reported the information released for publication by the organisation that issued the award. The article had not stated that the recipient had physically received the award, but that it had been announced that the organisation’s Committee had confirmed he had been selected as a recipient. The Committee noted that the recipient had not been formally informed that he was to receive the award, however where the organisation had confirmed him as the recipient, and said all publicity of this award had been approved, it was not inaccurate for the newspaper to report this. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

14.  The article had been an account of the actions taken by a member of the public that had received an award for his bravery. In these circumstances, omission of further details of the incident did not make the article an inaccurate account of what had happened and did not breach Clause 1. Also, where the assailant had attacked two people, one of whom had died, and was then arrested in the street after leaving the property, referring to the event as a “murderous rampage” in the headline was not misleading.  There was no breach of Clause 1.


15. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

16. N/A

Date complaint received: 09/10/2017   

Date decision issued: 12/02/2018


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