Ruling

02855-18 A Woman v The Visitor (Morecombe)

    • Date complaint received

      6th September 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock, 5 Reporting suicide

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02855-18 A Woman v The Visitor (Morecombe)

Summary of complaint

1. A woman and man complained on behalf of a woman to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Visitor (Morecombe) breached Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 5 (Reporting of suicide) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “Widow pays tribute to husband who gave her life full of love,” published in print and online on 3 April 2018.

2. The article was an interview with the complainant, where she paid tribute to her late husband, a local musician, who had recently died. She thanked the local community for their support following her husband’s death, and discussed his music career. The article also reported details of how the couple had met, and details of their family life together. It included a number of quotations from the complainant, discussing her husband’s history of mental health problems, as well as his mental and emotional state leading up to his death. It reported that, “He said he didn’t want to tell people he had depression, he said it felt like a burden”, and that the day before his death his wife recalled that, “he kept saying life would be better without him”. It also included details of the complainant finding her husband on the day of his death, her reaction to this, and that of her children.

3. The article was also published online. It was substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.

4. The complaint was made by the parents of the deceased, on behalf of his widow. The complainant said that the article was a breach of her privacy. She said that she had met the journalist at a fundraising event and agreed to do a tribute piece as her husband was well known locally. She said that the journalist had come to her house to interview her as agreed, and they spent several hours discussing her life with her husband. She said that while she had shared private information with the journalist, specifically details of her husband’s mental health, and the details of how he died, she had shared this information with the reporter in a non- journalistic capacity, and therefore did not expect it to be published. She also said that she had understood that she would get a full read back of the article before it went to print, but this did not happen. She said that had she received a copy of the article, she would have shown this to other members of the family, who would have objected to the publication of details that would allow readers to understand that her husband had died by suicide. She said that wider family members were not aware that her husband’s death had been suicide. She believed that the nature of her husband’s death was private, and should not have been put in the public domain.

5. She also raised concern that the article was an intrusion into her grief. She said that the article had included private and sensitive material about discussions she had had with her husband leading up to his death, as well as information of her reaction upon finding her husband. Reading this information had upset the complainant, and caused her further distress. She also said that not all members of the wider family circle had known the circumstances of his death. Family members, and members of the public, had been distressed to read these details in the newspaper, and specifically to learn that his death was suicide.

6. The newspaper apologised for any distress or upset the publication of the article had caused. It said that it was not its intention to sensationalise the death of the complainant’s husband in any way, and that it had published the article in good faith. It said that all the information included in the article had been given by the complainant to the reporter during the interview at her home. The newspaper said that the reporter had arrived at the complainant’s home as arranged, and after exchanging greetings with the complainant, she had asked if she was ready to start the interview. From this point onwards the journalist took notes of all the information the complainant had shared with her. At the end of the interview she had asked the complainant if there was anything she did not want to be included in the article, and the complainant had asked her not to include the word suicide, or the method used. The journalist agreed to that. She said the complainant had asked about the structure of the piece, and she had explained that the article would talk about how the pair met, her husband’s struggles with depression, how he was on the days leading up to his death and details of what happened on the day of his death. She said that the complainant had agreed to this being included.

7. The newspaper said that after the interview, the journalist had remained in contact with the complainant. It provided emails where it was arranged for a professional photographer to come to the complainant’s house to take pictures that accompanied the article, and said that the journalist also called the complainant prior to publication, to discuss what would be included in the article. It said that on this phone call the reporter had agreed the headline with the complainant, and read back the introduction, discussed the chronology of the article, and repeated back direct quotes to the complainant. When the complainant requested that specific terms were not included in the article, the journalist made changes to reflect her wishes. It also said that she had not raised any objections at this point, and the journalist had made her aware that the story would be going to print within the next few hours. It said it had no reason to believe that the complainant had concerns about the information being complained about being published and proceeded on this basis. In these circumstances, the newspaper was confident that it had made approaches with sympathy, and had handled publication sensitively.

8. Regardless, the newspaper said it had received a number of complaints from other family members and members of the public about the detail included in the article. It had apologised to these individuals when contacted, and published an apology for any upset caused in the next edition of the newspaper. It also removed the online article shortly after publication, and did not reproduce the article in its sister publication, as planned, out of respect for the family.

Relevant Code Provisions

9. Clause 2 (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. In considering an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of a 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. Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

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.  

Clause 5 (Reporting suicide) *

When reporting suicide, to prevent simulative acts care should be taken to avoid excessive details of the method used, while taking into account the media’s right to report legal proceedings.

Findings of the Committee

10. The Committee wished to express its condolences to the complainant and her family for their loss. It recognised that this was a very difficult time for the complainant, and that she had spoken to the journalist while she was grieving for her husband.

11. The Committee recognised that bereaved family members often wish to publicly pay tribute to their loved one. Individuals are entitled to speak to the journalist about their experiences, and to discuss this in their own words. Editors are responsible for ensuring that material published complies with the Code. The terms of Clause 2 requires that newspapers do not publish private information about individuals without their consent, while also taking into consideration a complainant’s own public disclosures of information. Individuals may choose what information to share with a newspaper, and it is not for editors to presume to make decisions on behalf of these individuals.

12. The complainant had voluntarily agreed to speak to the journalist, and had consented to a tribute piece being published. The complainant invited the journalist to her home, and had discussed, at length, all the information that was included in the article. It was clear that the purpose of the interview was with the view of publishing an article. The journalist had made clear to the complainant that all the information discussed may be published, and based on the fact that no objection was raised, published the article in good faith. While it was regrettable that there appears to have been a misunderstanding about the possibility for the complainant to review the whole article before publication, there was no basis to find that the journalist had acted improperly and had published information that had been shared with her in a non-journalistic capacity.

13. The complainant believed that the fact her husband had died by suicide was private information. However, the nature of someone’s death is publicly available; it is of significant public interest to report on deaths within a local community. While the complainant did not wish for people to know that her husband’s death had been suicide, this was not private. Nevertheless, the Committee recognised that the article did not just report how the complainant’s husband had died, but included details about their relationship, his mental health, and her reaction to his death, which was personal and private. The complainant had shared this information with the reporter during the course of the interview. She had been asked, on two occasions, if she consented for all the information shared to be published. She had not raised objections to any of the information that was published in the article being included. In these circumstances, publishing these details did not represent a breach of her privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2.

14. The Committee recognised that the article reported on a sensitive and deeply personal subject matter that was upsetting for the complainant to read. The Code requires that when reporting on such matters, a journalist must ensure that the enquiries they make are done with sympathy. In this instance, the complainant had invited the journalist to her home for an interview. The journalist had followed up with the complainant after the interview, and had made changes to the proposed article at the complainant’s request. There was no evidence that any of the journalist’s conduct represented a breach of Clause 4.

15. Clause 4 also requires that articles about subject matters that may intrude into the grief or shock of a directly affected individual, are handled sensitively. In this case, the reporter had discussed the chronology of the article with the complainant at the conclusion of the interview. She had made the complainant aware that the details of her husband’s mental health, as well as the final days of his life would be included in the article and explicitly asked the complainant, twice, what information she did not wish to be included. The journalist had made the changes to the article the complainant had requested, and was not aware of any other concerns she had about the level of detail included. While it was regrettable that there seemed to be a misunderstanding about whether the complainant would be able to review a full copy of the article prior to publication, the journalist had taken steps to ensure that publication was handled sensitively. Also, while other members of the family, and members of the public, objected to the detail included in the article, the complainant had a right to discuss these matters publicly. In these circumstances, there was no breach of Clause 4.

16. The complainant had said that the article breached Clause 5, as although the article did not explicitly state that her husband had died by suicide, it was implied in the article. However the purpose of Clause 5 is to prevent simulative acts, and requires publications to take care not to include excessive detail of the method used. As the article did not make reference to any method, Clause 5 was not engaged.

Conclusions

17. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

18. N/A

Date complaint received: 04/04/2018

Date decision issued: 17/08/2018