Ruling

03011-16 A woman v Macclesfield Express

    • Date complaint received

      10th November 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      3 Harassment, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03011-16 A woman v Macclesfield Express 

Summary of complaint 

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Macclesfield Express breached Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 4 (Intrusion in to Grief or Shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. 

2.  The newspaper published an article which reported the inquest of the complainant’s partner. It reported the circumstances of his death, the evidence given by the complainant, the coroner’s comments and his verdict of suicide. 

3.  The online version of the article was substantially the same as the print version of the article.

4.   The complainant said that the article inaccurately suggested that she had given an interview to the newspaper, which had caused her distress. She said that the article did not fully report the evidence the inquest heard about her partner’s life, mental health, and his attempts to get treatment. The complainant also said that the article contained a number of inaccuracies in relation to the evidence heard by the inquest. These included: an inaccurate reference to her by the title “Mrs” (she said her correct title was “Ms”); presenting two of her hobbies as her occupation, when her occupation was clearly referred to in the proceedings; inaccurately reporting the evidence the inquest heard about the life of her partner, and misquoting her evidence during the proceedings. The complainant said that the inclusion of her and her partner’s address intruded into her grief. 

5.  The day after the inquest, but before publication of the article, the complainant said she received a call from the journalist who had attended the proceedings. She said she waited for him to stop speaking before saying “no comment”, and ending the call. She said the journalist then called back immediately, and she let the call go to voicemail. The complainant provided a transcript of the voicemail, in which the journalist is recorded as saying “I think we got cut off, erm although it’s, I do suspect you probably hung up the phone which is understandable”. The journalist went on to state that his report of the inquest would be sensitive, and that if the complainant did want to pay tribute to her partner, she should call him. The complainant said that journalist harassed her by calling her back, and that this demonstrated a lack of sympathy and discretion. 

6.  In its response to this complaint, the newspaper expressed its sympathy to the complainant. The newspaper said that the journalist was conscious of the sensitivity of the information heard at the inquest, and called the complainant to reassure her that he would take care to publish a report that was sensitive to her grief, and that he would not publish certain details. The newspaper said that the journalist asked the complainant whether she wanted to pay a tribute, and if it was OK to use a picture of her partner they had on file. The newspaper said that the complainant listened in silence and then put the phone down; it said that the journalist did not remember the complainant saying “no comment”, which was why he left a voicemail message which referred to the possibility they had been cut off. 

7.  The newspaper provided shorthand notes taken by the journalist during the inquest, and said that these supported the accuracy of the article. However, the newspaper accepted that the article mistakenly referred to the complainant by the wrong title. It offered to amend the online version of the article, and said it would be happy to add a footnote making clear that she was engaged, not married. 

Relevant Code Provisions 

8.    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 

9.    The Committee expressed its sympathy to the complainant for the loss of her partner. It understood that this complaint related to events which took place at a very difficult time. 

10. The terms of Clause 4 explicitly protect the right for the press to report legal proceedings, such as inquests, in accordance with the principle of open justice.  Nevertheless, it requires that in cases of personal grief or shock, publication is handled sensitively. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that the article omitted certain important details from the inquest. However, it recognised that given their brevity, newspaper articles are unable to provide a complete account of inquest proceedings, such that they may often omit information important to those personally involved in a case, or suggest that the circumstances of someone’s death were simpler than was in fact the case. However, having regard for the nature of the information the complainant said was omitted, the Committee did not establish that the article was a sufficiently incomplete or gratuitously simplified account of the proceedings, such as to demonstrate an insensitivity to her personal grief. The address of the deceased was recorded in the reporter’s short-hand notes from the proceedings, and the Committee did not consider that the inclusion of this information in the article was insensitive. These aspects of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 4. 

11. The article did not explicitly introduce the complainant’s comments as evidence heard at the inquest, but the article as a whole was clearly presented as a report of the inquest proceedings. In that context, reporting the complainant’s evidence to the inquest did not suggest that she had given an interview to the newspaper. While a reporter had attended the inquest proceedings, and taken detailed short-hand notes, it was a matter of regret that the article had referred to the complainant by the wrong title. The Committee acknowledged that this had clearly caused the complainant distress, and welcomed the newspaper’s decision to amend the online article on this point. However, in addition to the other specific inaccuracies alleged by the complainant, the Committee considered that in the context of the article, this inaccuracy was not of the significance such as to demonstrate that the newspaper had handled publication of the article insensitively. 

12. The journalist had called the complainant the day after the inquest to explain his intention to report on the proceedings, to ask if she wanted to pay a tribute to her partner, and to ask permission to use a picture of her partner they had on file. Whether the complainant had said “no comment” before ending the call was in dispute, but the Committee noted that in the voicemail message the journalist left after trying to call back, he recorded that their call had ended abruptly, and his suspicion that the complainant may have hung-up. The content of the voicemail message was not intimidating; the journalist had not asked any further questions, but simply made the same points he had made in his original call, and provided the complainant with his telephone number.  While the Committee recognised the complainant’s position that this voicemail message was unwelcome, it did not establish that the second call followed a request to desist, and it considered that in all the circumstances, the journalist’s behaviour was not a course of conduct such as to constitute harassment under the terms of Clause 3. The transcript of the voicemail message appeared to show that the journalists’ approach to the complainant was made with sympathy and discretion. This aspect of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 4.  

Conclusions 

13. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial action required 

N/A

Date complaint received: 17/05/2016

Date decision issued: 25/10/2016