Ruling

03856-15 Armstrong v Edinburgh Evening News

    • Date complaint received

      4th August 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

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

·  Decision of the Complaints Committee 03856-15 Armstrong v Edinburgh Evening News

Summary of complaint 

1. Paul Armstrong complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on behalf of James Armstrong that The Edinburgh Evening News 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 “Ellie Armstrong, 14, loses brain cancer fight”, published online on 20 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 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, Ellie’s father. 

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 the article, and the third was at 2pm, after publication. James Armstrong contacted the reporter at around 1pm after the article appeared online, and he had been made aware that she was pursuing the story. He 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. The complainant said that he did not want the newspaper to publish a correction. He said that a correction would not be a sufficient remedy to the complaint, and that he wanted to avoid further upset for family members. 

6. The article said that “it is believed” that Ellie’s treatment had been going on for “well over” a year. In addition, it stated that Ellie had died of “brain cancer”, and reported that “about 400 children are diagnosed with brain tumours in the UK annually”. The complainant said that these claims were inaccurate; Ellie’s treatment lasted for the 10 months before her death, and she had neck cancer, rather than a brain tumour. The article was accompanied by an advert for a brain cancer charity, which added to the family’s distress. 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. 

7. The newspaper said that it published the article in good faith, and that it was unaware of any request for the article not to be published. It said that as soon as it was made aware of the family’s concerns, it removed the article from its website. 

8. The newspaper did not dispute the complaint under Clause 1 (Accuracy), and offered to publish on its website a correction and apology for the inaccuracies, and an apology for the appearance of the advert. It said that the advert was programmed to appear alongside articles including the phrase “brain tumour”; it had not been deliberately added by the newspaper. In relation to the inaccuracy about Ellie’s illness, the newspaper said that a journalist from the agency had heard about the illness from a child at Ellie’s school, where it was “widely ‘known’” that Ellie suffered from a brain tumour. This journalist passed this information to the agency reporter who prepared the story, who then found several Twitter posts from someone at the school who had said at one point that Ellie had “died from a brain tumour”.  The wording of the correction offered was as follows: 

“Our report of 20 January 2015 entitled Ellie Armstrong, 14, Loses Brain Cancer Fight inaccurately stated that Ellie died of brain cancer when she had in fact never been diagnosed with such an illness. It also wrongly said that she had battled the illness for well over a year when in fact she had been ill for 10 months. We apologise for the errors and any distress that they have caused. We also apologise for any additional upset caused by an advert for a brain cancer charity which was automatically linked to the story when it appeared on our website”. 

9. The newspaper said that the agency’s reporter first called the business owned by Ellie’s aunt after seeing a donation on the complainant’s Just Giving page. 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 letter 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. The article was then published online.  She then received a call from Mr Armstrong, who told her that Ellie did not die of a brain tumour, and 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. The reporter could not recollect any request for her not to contact him or his family again.  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 denied having suggested that the family had consented to the story. The person the reporter spoke to said that she did not want to help, and asked that she did not call them again. 

Relevant Code Provisions

10. 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

11. 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. 

12. 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. 

13. 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. 

14. It was not in dispute that the article reported inaccurately on the nature of Ellie’s illness. In relation to the inaccuracy about the duration of Ellie’s treatment, the Committee took the view that this point was not significant in the context of the article as a whole. However, it was significantly inaccurate to report that Ellie had died from “brain cancer”, which was compounded by the inclusion of general information about brain tumour prevalence, and treatment. As such, a correction was required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The Committee noted the newspaper’s explanation of how this inaccuracy came about. Given the nature of the information, the Committee was not satisfied that the newspaper had taken sufficient care over the accuracy of this part of the article.  The complaint under Clause 1 (i) was upheld. 

Conclusions

15. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1. 

Remedial Action Required

16. The wording and prominence of the correction offered by the newspaper was appropriate remedial action for the breach of the Code. However, the Committee considered the wishes of the complainant, and decided that in the circumstances, the newspaper was not required to publish the correction it had offered. 

Date complaint received: 28/05/2015

Date decision issued: 04/08/2015