Ruling

02078-16 Family of Paul Tam v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      14th July 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02078-16 Family of Paul Tam v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint

1.    The family of Paul Tam complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The horrifying moment a British tourist was fatally stabbed in the head trying to flee a bag snatcher on a busy San Francisco street”, 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 CCTV footage showed a man wielding a knife as he chased Mr Tam, attacking him twice before taking his bag. It said that Mr Tam’s niece, who had been with him at the time, had been unharmed. The article included the CCTV video, and three still images taken from it. The piece described both the attacker and his “female accomplice”, and said that the matter was “now being investigated as a homicide”.

3.    The complainant said that the CCTV footage had been published the day after Mr Tam’s death, when family and friends were still in shock, and that its publication had made the grieving process “very difficult” for them. He said that police had informed Mr Tam’s brother that the video would be released, and he was given general information about its contents. He had asked for the identity of his daughter, Mr Tam’s niece, to be protected, but he had not been given the opportunity to object to the video’s release and believed he had “little choice” but to agree.

4.    The complainant said that the video was “exceptionally graphic” and noted that it had appeared with a capitalised warning that it contained “graphic content”. While he noted that its publication in the US might have assisted the criminal justice process there, it served no purpose to publish the video in the UK. He said that while it was black-and-white CCTV footage, Mr Tam’s fear and pain were clearly visible and that the image would be “forever embedded” in his mind.

5.    The complainant said that the video had been used as “click bait” so that the publication could profit from Mr Tam’s death. This was demonstrated by the “graphic content” headline, which encouraged readers to watch the footage. He noted that advertising had been carried on the page. He said if there had been a genuine desire to appeal for witnesses then the article would have made that clear, and it would have given contact details for the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD).  

6.    The publication said that it was sorry that the video had caused distress at such a difficult time; this had not been its intention. While it understood that the footage was – by its very nature – upsetting, it did not consider that its publication raised a breach of the Code.

7.    The publication said that the police had released the video to the media in order to appeal for information from the public. The publication said it has a significant US readership and had published the video because there was a clear public interest in exposing the crime and assisting the police with their investigation. It noted that numerous other US-and UK-based websites had also published the video.

8.    The police had explained that Mr Tam’s brother was consulted before the video was released. He had known its contents, and he had not raised any objections at that time. The only issue that had been raised concerned Mr Tam’s niece: the family had requested for the portion of the film in which she featured to be omitted; the police had edited the film accordingly. The police had made clear that the video would not have been released had the family objected to it.

9.    The publication said that the footage was not gratuitous or gory: it was grainy, black-and-white CCTV footage, and it had not shown the incident close up. The police had also noted that “you really don’t see the vicious attack – you see the victim being chased around and then you see the victim falling to the ground”. While the police had wanted to show the “viciousness and savagery” of the attack, they had made clear that they would not have released a video that was “too graphic”.

10. The publication said that it had been fully aware of its obligation to handle the story with sensitivity. It had decided that advertising should not precede the video, and a warning was placed on the film itself so that readers would be aware that the content might be upsetting. It said that it is commercially funded and its news pages therefore carry advertising; it was not fair to suggest that the presence of advertising on this story had rendered it “click bait”. 

Relevant Code provisions

11. 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 

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

13.  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.

14.  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.

15.  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 was visible, and while it clearly depicted Mr Tam fleeing from his attacker before falling to the floor, the quality of the video was such that the specific moment of injury could not clearly be seen.

16. 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. The Committee welcomed the publication’s decision not to precede the video with advertising.

17. 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.

18. The Committee understood that watching the video of Mr Tam’s attack must have been extremely distressing to those that 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. 

Conclusion

19. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 26/03/2016 

Date decision issued: 24/06/2016