27726-20 The Family of Sue Woods v liverpoolecho.co.uk

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of correction

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 27726-20 The Family of Sue Woods v liverpoolecho.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. The Family of Sue Woods complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that liverpoolecho.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) in an article and four social media posts headlined, respectively:

  • “Murder victim was 'lovely family mum' often seen walking by neighbours” published 16 August 2020.
  • “Very sad news. Tributes have today been paid after the woman was named locally by neighbours” published 16 August 2020.
  • “BREAKING: Police have arrested a 47-year old man on suspicion of murder” published 16 August 2020.
  • “People rushed out to help as horrific scenes unfolded on residential street” published 16 August 2020.
  • “Police say the incident is being treated as a ‘tragic street injury’ and no further action will be taken” published 16 August 2020.

The family also complained about the conduct of three employees at the publication.

2. The article reported that a “[m]urder victim”, Sue Woods, had “died after suffering a fatal injury in the street about 200 metres from her home”. It reported that the injury was understood to be one “to her neck area”. It went on to report that “[a] man, 47, who is known to her, was arrested at the scene on suspicion of murder”. The article went on to describe the reflections of neighbours, one of whom had said that “”…recently, I remember thinking she definitely seemed like she had something on her mind, and she didn't let on, like she usually would…It's so, so sad””. A link preview of the online article contained in the first social media posts under complaint also showed the words “murder victim”.

3. The complainants said the article and the first social media post that linked to it breached Clause 1 by using the words “murder victim”. They said that the arrest of the accused on suspicion of murder was a formality and did not justify describing the woman as a “murder victim”; the man was later released without charge and the death deemed a tragic accident. The complainants said that the article breached Clause 2 by including a comment from a neighbour that read: “”…recently, I remember thinking she definitely seemed like she had something on her mind, and she didn't let on, like she usually would”, as this had led to speculation about domestic abuse. The complainants also said the article breached Clause 2 as it named the deceased the day after she died, before some family members were told of the death or its full circumstances. The family also said the publication breached Clause 3 and 4 by attempting to obtain information from family members. The family provided two social media message exchanges between the publication and two different family members. The family also provided an email exchange between a reporter and a separate family member. In all three instances, family members contacted the newspaper to express concerns about the coverage. The publication responded by asking more information to clarify the nature of the family’s concerns and to propose how it might accommodate the wishes of the family in its coverage.

4. The publication did not accept it had breached the Code. It said that it had originally relied on a Merseyside Police press release about the incident that referred to a man having been arrested on suspicion of murder. The following day the police issued a new statement to state that the man had been released, that no further action would be taken against him, that no further suspects were sought and that the incident was now being treated as a tragic accident. The publication then promptly updated the article to remove the reference to there being a “murder victim” and published the following correction beneath the headline:

Update: A man initially arrested by police after a woman was fatally injured on a residential street has been released without charge, with police saying the incident will be treated as a "tragic street injury" and that no further action will be taken against him.

5. On receipt of the second police press release the social media posts were deleted, however in its first response during IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered to tweet a link to the amended article. The publication also offered to send the family a private letter of apology.

6. The complainants did not accept these offers.

Relevant Code Provisions

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.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 2 (Privacy)

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, health, and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Clause 3 (Harassment)

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent. 

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

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

7. The Committee first wished to express its condolences to the complainants for their loss.

8. At the time the article and first social media post were published, it was known that a woman had died an unexplained death and the police were treating it as a murder inquiry. The police press release had said that a 47-year-old man known to the victim had been arrested on suspicion of murder. In this context, the Committee considered that it was reasonable to describe the woman as a “murder victim”. Further, the article as a whole, to which the social media post linked, made clear that the man had only been “arrested…on suspicion of murder”. It would have been clear that it was for the CPS to prosecute should there be sufficient evidence of a murder having taken place and for a court of law to conclusively determine whether the woman was in fact a murder victim. The newspaper took due care to not publish inaccurate or misleading information with regard to the description of the woman as a “murder victim”. There was no breach of Clause 1(i).

9. After the publication of the article, new information came to light and it was clear that the incident was no longer being treated as a murder. The Committee acknowledged that the description of the woman as a “murder victim” was then rendered significantly inaccurate as to the circumstances of the woman’s death. With respect of the online article, the significant inaccuracy was corrected promptly, as soon as the new information came to light, and with due prominence. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii) in respect of the online article.

10. The first social media post under complaint also contained the significantly inaccurate description of the woman as a “murder victim”. Where text appears in a social media post, and that text constitutes a significant inaccuracy, any correction must be issued on that same medium, in this case Twitter, to meet the due prominence requirement of Clause 1(ii). The newspaper had only offered to post a link to the amended article and had not offered to actually publish a correction on Twitter. Therefore, in respect of the Tweet, there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).

11. The Committee acknowledged that the family had been upset by the inclusion of the neighbour’s comment that the deceased women “seemed like she had something on her mind, and she didn't let on”. However, neighbour was entitled to express their view, and the quote did not intrude into the private lives of the complainants. There was no breach of Clause 2.

12. The Committee acknowledged the distress caused to the family by the tragic death of their loved one and its coverage in the press. It noted the complainants’ concern that some family members had found out about the death by reading the articles. However, the fact of someone’s death and its cause is a matter of public record. In this instance, the circumstances of the death were discussed in a police press release and the newspaper was entitled to report on this. Reporting that a woman “died after suffering a fatal injury in the street” which was understood to be an “injury to the neck area” did not constitute a breach of Clause 2.

13. Journalists are not prohibited under the terms of Clauses 3 and 4 from speaking to individuals who are distressed following a tragic event, nor from asking them for information. Rather, the Code provides that enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion; and should not be made in a way that constitutes intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit. In this case, the Committee did not consider that there had been any failure to respect the family’s wish not to be contacted; and it could not be said that there was harassment or intimidation. There was no breach of Clause 3.  

14. There was also no evidence to consider that newspaper employees had failed to exercise sympathy and discretion in responding to the family members’ concerns. These employees had expressed condolences, explained the newspaper’s position and asked further questions simply where this was relevant to understanding the family’s concerns, the correct factual position or how the newspaper might accommodate the family’s wishes in its reporting. There was no breach of Clause 4.

Conclusion

15. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1(ii).

Remedial Action Required

16. Having partially upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

17. The newspaper had taken due care over the accuracy of the article and social media post. It had very promptly amended the online article, deleted the social media posts and made further attempts to resolve the complaint. It had simply failed to correct the single social media post that contained the words “murder victim”. In light of these considerations, the Committee concluded that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a tweeted correction to put the correct position on record.

18. The tweeted correction should make clear the why the original Tweet was significantly misleading and set out the correct position. This should be published on the same Twitter account as the original Tweet and remain on the publication’s Twitter feed indefinitely. The wording should state that the Tweet has been published following an upheld decision by the Independent Press Standards Organisation and should be agreed by IPSO in advance.

 

Date complaint received: 28/08/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 03/06/2021

 

Independent Complaints Reviewer

19. The publication complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.

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