01999-16 Family of Paul Tam v

    • Date complaint received

      14th July 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01999-16 Family of Paul Tam v 

Summary of Complaint

1.    The family of Paul Tam complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “GRAPHIC CONTENT: British tourist dies after being stabbed in the head during sick mugging”, published on 26 March 2016.

2.    The article reported that Paul Tam, a British tourist, had died in a San Francisco hospital a month after being stabbed in the head during a street robbery. It said that Mr Tam had been “ambushed by an unidentified man and woman” who had attempted to take his bag. It said that Mr Tam’s niece, who had been with him at the time, had been unharmed. The article included a CCTV video of the incident, and three still images taken from it. The piece said that the police were still searching for both suspects and were treating the attack as a murder investigation.

3.    The complainant accepted that the newspaper had a right to report on Mr Tam’s murder; however, he said that the publication of the CCTV footage showing the “horrific details” of the attack – one day after his death – was insensitive. He said that other publications had chosen only to publish stills of the video, or had simply described the attack, with no loss of effect.

4.    The complainant said that the video, which had shown Mr Tam in fear and pain, had been used as “click bait” so that the publication could profit from his friend’s death. This was demonstrated in the “graphic content” headline, which attracted readers to the footage. He noted that the article had rated “third-most clicked-through” on the day of its publication.

5.    The publication said that it could only imagine how deeply upsetting Mr Tam’s death must have been for his family; however, it considered that the murder of a British citizen in the US was a matter about which the British public had the right to be informed. It said that it had a duty to report on such matters, however tragic.

6.    The newspaper said that the US authorities had released the video in order to help them identify Mr Tam’s attackers; it was unsure of the exact media agency through which it had obtained the material. It noted that virtually all UK media outlets had published it.

7.    The newspaper said that it had not embellished or sensationalised the video, and its content was not “gratuitously gory”. The video had not shown Mr Tam’s face during or after the attack, or the weapon; it had shown the attack at a distance and at night; the body movements and facial features of the victim and his attacker could not be seen; it lasted 42 seconds, and had not shown Mr Tam’s death. The newspaper noted that had it not published the video, it would have described the attack in the same detail in writing. It accepted that the video was “graphic” in that it had shown an act of random violence; it would not have published it if it had shown the victim suffering or receiving medical treatment.

8.    The newspaper said that the video had been marked “graphic content” to give readers advance warning of its content; it strongly denied that the label had been used to encourage readers to watch it. It considered that any account of Mr Tam’s death, published at any time, could have caused distress to his family and friends. 

Relevant Code provisions

9.    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

10. The Committee wished to express its sincere condolences to Mr Tam’s family and friends for their loss.

11. News organisations play an important role in reporting crimes, matters about which the public have a legitimate right to be informed. The Committee acknowledges that reports of serious crimes – even when handled responsibly and with proper sensitivity – will risk causing distress to victims, their family members and friends. However, Clause 4 does not prohibit the reporting of distressing events, such as violent crimes; it requires instead that, in such cases, and insofar as is possible, publication is handled sensitively.

12. In reaching its findings on sensitivity, the Committee had particular regard for the nature and contents of the video, the manner in which it was presented within the article, and the circumstances in which the video had been obtained.

13.  The footage showed a horrifying moment; however, it was shot from a distance, was grainy, and did not include sound. Neither Mr Tam’s face nor the weapon used were visible, and while it clearly depicted Mr Tam fleeing from his attacker before falling to the ground, the quality of the video was such that the specific moment of injury could not clearly be seen.

14. The footage was published as an illustration of the incident described in the article and was therefore directly relevant to the story. The article itself was presented as a straight news piece. The manner in which the video was published did not humiliate or demean Mr Tam, nor his death.

15. The video had been released by the San Francisco Police department 18 days after the incident had taken place, and Mr Tam’s family had been given notification of release, and of its contents, some days prior to publication. The footage had been released to a number of media outlets, in an attempt to find Mr Tam’s attackers, and had been widely published, including on police social media accounts.

16. The Committee understood that watching the video of Mr Tam’s attack must have been extremely distressing to those who knew him. However, in circumstances where the family were notified in advance by the police that the video would be circulated to media outlets for publication, and given the way in which it was presented in this case, the Committee did not consider that its inclusion in the article represented a failure to handle publication sensitively in breach of Clause 4. 


17. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required


Date complaint received: 29/03/2016

Date decision issued: 24/06/2016