Ruling

00735-15 Armstrong v Metro

    • Date complaint received

      4th August 2015

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock, 5 Reporting suicide

·   Decision of the Complaints Committee 00735-15 Armstrong v Metro

Summary of complaint

1. Paul Armstrong complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on behalf of James Armstrong that the Metro had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Harassment), and Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Cancer victim Ellie, 14, was ‘nicest and happiest girl’”, published on 21 January 2015. 

2. The complainant’s niece, Ellie Armstrong, died on 18 January 2015. This article was based on copy by a news agency, and was published in a number of media outlets. It reported that Ellie Armstrong had died of cancer, and that Cameron Armstrong, her brother, had revealed on Twitter that he had been diagnosed with the disease. It was largely based on information from social media. This included information from Ellie’s Facebook page, and expressions of condolences from her classmates. It also reported on charity fundraising the complainant had undertaken while Ellie was ill. The complainant was complaining on behalf of James Armstrong, the father of Ellie and her brother Cameron. 

3. The complainant said that this article was researched and published in a manner which intruded into the grief of the Armstrong family. He was concerned that it was based on information taken from social media, and said that it contained inaccuracies as to the nature of Ellie’s treatment. He said that approaches by the reporter to members of his family constituted harassment.  

4. The complainant said that the reporter made three calls to a hair salon owned by the complainant’s wife, Angela Armstrong, on 20 January. Two of these calls were in the morning, prior to publication of a version of the article, and the third was at 2pm, after publication. James Armstrong contacted the reporter at around 1pm after a version of the article appeared online, and he had been made aware that she was pursuing the story. The complainant said that Mr Armstrong asked the reporter to stop pursuing the story, and asked her not to contact the family, who wanted privacy to grieve for their daughter. The complainant said that he was at this time making Ellie’s funeral arrangements. The reporter did not agree to stop pursuing the story, and Mr Armstrong ended the call abruptly.  The complainant said that the reporter then made the third call to the salon, and told the employee who answered that she had spoken to Mr Armstrong, and asked if she could clarify some information he had given her. The complainant said that this was deceitful; it gave the impression that Mr Armstrong had consented to the story. He said that the third call to the salon, after Mr Armstrong had asked the reporter not to contact the family, was harassment under the terms of Clause 4 (Harassment). 

5. Mr Armstrong also spoke to the news agency’s editor later in the afternoon. He asked him not to continue with the story and told him that it contained inaccuracies, and said that its publication would be distressing for the family. The editor said that the agency would be proceeding with the story, but that he would amend any inaccuracies. The complainant said that the decision to proceed with the story without the family’s consent was insensitive and intrusive where only two days had passed since  Ellie’s death, and while her brother was very ill in hospital. 

6. The article said that Ellie was “understood” to have received treatment abroad, and that “it is believed” that her treatment had been going on for “well over” a year. The complainant said that both these claims were inaccurate; Ellie’s treatment lasted for the 10 months before her death, and she had not received treatment for the cancer abroad. 

7. The complainant was concerned that the article contained information that Ellie had posted on social media. He said that she was a 14 year old who would not have realised that this information could be used in this way. In relation to reporting Cameron’s comments on social media, the complainant said that there was a difference between disclosing information on an account for friends and family to read, and the same information being included in a newspaper article to which you did not consent. 

8. The newspaper said that the article was based on a report from a news agency, and that the newspaper used it in good faith.  The newspaper said that it was not aware that the publication of the article would be unwelcome when it was published. The newspaper said that the article was a short and entirely sympathetic item about Ellie’s death, told from the viewpoint of her school friends. It accepted that the article was based on information from social media, but it said that a great many people use social media to communicate, and that it was reasonable for journalists to use material from publically available social media pages. 

9. The newspaper said that the agency reporter first called the business owned by Ellie’s aunt after seeing a donation on the complainant’s Just Giving page, in which he was raising money for a cancer charity for Ellie. The donation page noted that it was from the clients and staff of a hair salon, and that it had been made by “A Armstrong”.  The reporter spoke to someone who worked at the salon, who agreed to pass on her number to the family. She called back an hour later to ask if her number had been passed on, and to see if anyone at the salon was willing to talk to her about what had happened. She was told by the employee that the number had been passed on, but that she didn’t think anyone at the business would want to comment. A version of the article was then published online. She then received a call from Mr Armstrong, who told her that the story contained inaccuracies, but provided no further detail. Mr Armstrong ended the phone call before she had a chance to explain anything further. There was no request that she should leave the family alone.  Following this call, she called the salon for a third time, to enquire whether anyone at the salon would be willing to clarify what the inaccuracies were. She did not try to suggest that the family had consented to the story. The person the journalist spoke to said that she did not want to help, and asked that she did not call them again.  Later that evening, Mr Armstrong contacted the editor of the news agency. He told him that there were inaccuracies in the story, but did not specify what they were. 

10. The newspaper explained that the inaccuracies about Ellie’s treatment for cancer had come about because her brother had made it known that she had been flown to Germany for ongoing treatment. It said that where information could not be verified from more than one source, it had been prefaced with “it is believed…”.  It denied that the inaccuracies were significant, but offered to correct and apologise for the inaccuracies in the article on page 2 of the Scottish edition of the newspaper. It also offered to publish an apology explaining that Ellie’s family have said that the newspaper’s approaches were unwelcome, and apologising for any additional distress caused as a result. The newspaper said that its Scottish editor was prepared to write a private letter to Ellie’s parents. 

Relevant Code Provisions

11. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance. 

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Clause 3 (Privacy) 

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her 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. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information. 

Clause 4 (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 their 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 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) 

i) In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests. 

Findings of the Committee

12. The Committee expressed its condolences to the Armstrong family for their loss. It understood that this complaint related to events which took place at a very difficult time for the family. 

13. Personal tragedy may be the subject of legitimate media coverage, and the Committee noted that in this instance, the matter was already being discussed in the public domain by members of the community in which Ellie lived. While the Code requires that newspapers research and publish such articles in a manner which is sensitive to the personal grief of those close to the deceased, this does not create a requirement that the family must consent to publication or an absolute prohibition on journalists approaching the family for comment.  The Committee fully recognised that Ellie’s family did not at that time want the newspaper to report on her death, but this did not provide grounds for establishing a breach of Clause 5.  It was not inappropriate for the reporter to ask the hair salon to pass on her contact details to the immediate family, nor were the calls to the hair salon indiscreet, or unsympathetic. In addition, the information taken from social media was publicly available, and was not of a private or inappropriate nature. In these circumstances, the inclusion of this material was not intrusive or insensitive. These aspects of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 3 or Clause 5. 

14. During the reporter’s second telephone call to the salon, she was told by an employee that she did not think anyone at the salon would want to comment, but she was not asked not to call the salon again. The complainant said that following this contact, James Armstrong told the journalist that she should not contact his family. In assessing whether there was a breach of Clause 4 in relation to the journalist’s subsequent call to the salon, the Committee took into account the full circumstances. While an employee of the salon had previously said that they did not think anyone would want to comment, the Committee noted the journalist’s explanation that she had called the salon to seek clarification on the inaccuracies Mr Armstrong had made her aware of. There was no indication that the third call was a further attempt to contact Ellie’s parents or siblings. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that the third call to the salon did not amount to harassment under the terms of Clause 4. 

15. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the article did not accurately report the nature of Ellie’s treatment. However, it took the view that the exact duration of her treatment was not a significant detail in the context of the article. Likewise, reporting that Ellie was “understood to have received treatment abroad”, where in fact, this treatment was in relation to a separate condition, was not significantly misleading.  As such, the Committee did not establish a breach of Clause 1.  

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial Action Required

N/A 

Date complaint received: 16/02/2015

Date decision issued: 04/08/2015