20829-17 Rossi v The Argus (Brighton)

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20829-17 Rossi v The Argus (Brighton)

Summary of complaint

1. Debbi Rossi complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Argus (Brighton) breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Biker catapulted after hitting tipper lorry”, published on 22 September 2018.

2. The article reported on an inquest into the complainant’s son’s death. It reported that the inquest had heard that while riding his motorbike, he had “veered on to the other side of the road and into a tipper lorry heading in the other direction”.

3. The article explained the circumstances leading up to the collision. It reported testimony from witnesses who had seen the complainant’s son braking hard and “suddenly fishtailing” behind a transit van which was travelling in front of him. The article also contained the testimony of the driver of the tipper lorry: “I could see past the transit van and could see the motorbike behind it. He started to brake and then started to brake very hard. He had quite clearly lost control. At the last second he veered across in front of me”.

4. The piece noted that a toxicology report had found that Mr Rossi had taken the prescription painkiller Tramadol, but that it “was not present in excess”. It also included a statement about Mr Rossi, which was attributed to the complainant’s partner. In it, he said that Mr Rossi had “absolutely adored” his two stepchildren, who were named in the article.

5. The article appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “Biker died after being catapulted into the air in lorry crash”.

6. The complainant said that the article had presented a misleading account of the evidence heard at her son’s inquest because it omitted evidence which explained why her son had been required to brake so suddenly. The written findings of the coroner had stated: “the deceased was riding his motorcycle west on the A27 at Folkington. A van in front of him braked sharply behind a pedal cycle. The deceased lost control and crashed head on into an east bound lorry”. The complainant said that the omission of this evidence from the article created the misleading impression that her son had driven his motorcycle in an inappropriate manner and had been at fault in the collision. She said this impression had been supported by the report that her son had Tramadol in his system at the time of the collision.

7. The complainant said that the newspaper had also misreported the names of her son’s stepchildren, and had incorrectly attributed the statement she had given, to her partner.

8. The complainant said that when she had approached the newspaper shortly after the article had been published, her concerns had not been received by the newspaper in a sensitive or sympathetic manner.

9. The newspaper said that it deeply sympathised with the complainant in her time of grief; however, it did not accept that the article had breached the Code. It said that it had accurately reported witness testimony and noted that the coroner’s oral verdict had concluded only that the complainant’s son had died as a result of a road traffic collision; no further information had been provided.

10. The newspaper said that it had been unaware of the written findings which had been published after the inquest; it did not accept that the omission of this information rendered the story inaccurate or misleading.

11. The newspaper said that the inquest had heard that it was most likely that the van driver’s braking had caused the complainant’s son to brake. However, the inquest had not found that this had inevitably led to Mr Rossi’s death, and it would have been wrong for it to have suggested this in its report. To include information about the van driver’s braking, without the inclusion of other critical details – such as discussion of what other factors might have caused Mr Rossi to lose control of the vehicle – would have rendered the article misleading. The reporter had decided to avoid the complexity of that evidence, upon which the court had not come to any clear conclusion, and had instead confined the story to the known facts of the proximate cause of death: that the rider had lost control of the motorbike and had veered into the path of a lorry. This was in line with the coroner’s own judgment. It also noted that while the coroner’s later written record had included a line about the van driver’s braking, it had not made it a cause of death or apportioned blame to the van driver for Mr Rossi losing control.

12. While the newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code, it offered to publish the following wording in print and online based on the coroner’s later written record: 

Paolo Rossi

On 22 September, we reported on the inquest into the death of a motorcyclist, Mr Paolo Rossi, in a traffic accident on the A27 at Polegate last March. We have been asked to update our story with the coroner’s formal written finding. It says Mr Rossi was riding his motorcycle west on the A27 Folkington. A van in front of him braked sharply behind a pedal cycle. The deceased lost control and crashed head on into an eastbound lorry. He died at the scene.

13. The newspaper acknowledged that the article had mis-attributed a statement made by the complainant, to her partner, and that the reporter had misspelled the names of her son’s stepchildren in their notes. It said that it had amended these errors in the online article as soon as they had been brought to the newspapers attention. It did not accept that these errors were significant, such as to require further action.

14. With regard to the complainant’s concern that her complaint had not been handled with sensitivity, the newspaper said there had been a degree of miscommunication, but it maintained that the reporter had been polite while he defended his decision to omit details of the speculative evidence put forward at the inquest.

15. The complainant did not accept the newspaper’s offered correction as a resolution to her complaint. She requested an alternative wording which included an apology. She also said that she had no wish to apportion blame to anyone: the collision was most certainly not the van driver’s fault. She simply wanted the suggestion that her son had lost control of the bike for no reason to be removed from the article.

16. The complainant also provided the audio recording of the inquest to the Committee.

Relevant Code provisions

17. 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.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

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

18. The Committee wished to express its sincere condolences to the complainant for her loss.

19. The inquest had heard evidence that a van ahead of Mr Rossi had braked, and Mr Rossi had then “lost control” of his vehicle; this was also recorded in the written Record of Inquest, issued after the hearing. However, for the reasons set out below, the Committee did not consider that the omission of this information from the article had given a misleading impression of the findings of the inquest.

20. The article had been based on the coroner’s oral judgment and the witness testimony, which had been heard at the inquest. The article set out what had been heard at the inquest, and the Committee did not consider that it suggested culpability on the part of anyone involved in the collision. The article had accurately reported that witnesses had seen Mr Rossi’s vehicle being “driven well”, before there was “fishtailing”, and an “erratic movement… moments before the crash”. It had further accurately reported the coroner’s judgment given at the hearing that Mr Rossi had died as a result of a “road traffic collision”. Failing to report the circumstances leading up to the complainant’s son’s loss of control over his vehicle, particularly where the cause for this loss of control had not been determined at the inquest, did not give the misleading impression that the collision had been his fault. This point did not represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i). The Committee nevertheless welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification recording the contents of the coroner’s written statement.

21. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had chosen to include a reference to Tramadol being in her son’s system at the time of the collision. The selection of material for publication is a matter of editorial discretion. The Committee did not consider that the inclusion of this information had given the impression that the prescription drug had played a part in the collision. The article made clear that it was “not present in excess”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

22. The newspaper had misreported the names of Mr Rossi’s stepchildren, and had attributed the complainant’s own statement to her partner. While the Committee understood the concern this had caused the complainant and acknowledged the sensitivity of the subject matter, these did not represent significant inaccuracies which required correction under the terms of Clause 1. The article had accurately reported a tribute given by a close family member; where there was no dispute as to the accuracy of the wording of this testimony, the Committee did not establish that to attribute these words to the complainant rendered the article significantly inaccurate or misleading. While these unfortunate inaccuracies did not represent a breach of Clause 1(i), given the sensitivity of the complaint, the Committee welcomed the amendment of this information in the online version of the article.

23. Clause 4 states that in cases involving grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion, and publication handled sensitively. In this instance, while the Committee acknowledged that the complainant had found the way in which the newspaper had defended its position inappropriate given the sensitive nature of the situation, this was a concern which did not engage the terms of Clause 4, as it did not relate to an approach or enquiry made by the newspaper or the manner in which it had handled publication. Further, in circumstances where the article was an inquest report, the Committee did not establish that the information contained in the article had been published insensitively. There was no breach of the Code.

Conclusion

24. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

25. N/A

Date complaint received:18/12/2017

Date decision issued: 16/05/2018 

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