Ruling

04784-18 Gregory v Plymouth Herald

    • Date complaint received

      13th December 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 04784-18 Gregory v Plymouth Herald

Summary of Complaint 

1.    Samantha Gregory complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Plymouth Herald breached Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), and Clause 1 (Accuracy) in an article headlined “The murder of a teenage girl in Plymouth's clubland”, published on 22 July 2018. 

2.    The article reported on a historic murder case involving a teenage girl killed in July 1996. It described the circumstances in which the woman went missing and included details of the cause of her death. The article went on to describe the investigation that was subsequently launched, and to give an account of the evidence heard at the resultant trial. Under the sub-headline “shocking details revealed in court”, it described the testimony of the woman’s manager, which included claims about the woman’s personal life and medical history. It included comments by the woman’s mother and father following the sentencing in December 1997, as well four photographs of the woman. 

3.    The complainant, who was the sister of the woman who had been murdered, said that the publication of the article had breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 2 (Privacy). She said that the publication of a detailed and graphic account of the murder and trial, twenty-two years after the crime had occurred, and without any apparent justification, was insensitive and had been deeply disturbing and upsetting for her family. She was also concerned that the article had published some aspects of the case online for the first time, making it accessible to younger family members, and that it had been published without any warning being made to the family. She also considered that the inclusion of the woman’s manager’s claims breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), because they had not been established as factual in court, and because they suggested that there might be justification for the woman’s murder. 

4.    The publication denied any breach of the Code. It said that the article had been produced to mark twenty-two years since the murder investigation, and to commemorate the woman who had been murdered. The publication said that all the information in the article had been heard in open court at the time, and that the article had been a sensitive account of this information, which was taken from cuttings from the publication’s print articles from the time of the trial. The publication provided these cuttings, which included the information reported in the article. It said that there were a number of contemporaneous online reports available which included some of the information referred to. 

5.    The publication also said that its reporter had attempted to contact the complainant’s family prior to publication, using historic contact information, but was unable to reach them or otherwise locate them via social media. In all these circumstances, the publication denied any breach of Clause 2 or Clause 4. The publication also said that the quotations from the woman’s manager had been accurately attributed to her, and this was an accurate report of what she had said in court; it therefore denied any breach of Clause 1 on this point. The publication nevertheless offered the complainant’s family a private letter of apology for the distress caused, and to discuss other possible ways of commemorating the woman.  

Relevant Code Provisions 

6. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator. 

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 the 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)

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 

7. The Committee understood that the re-publication of the information in the article, many years after the woman’s death, and without warning, had caused great distress to the complainant and her family and expressed its condolences to them for their loss. 

8. Despite the years that had passed since the complainant’s sister’s murder, the Committee considered that given the traumatic nature of the events and the effect on the complainant and her family, this was a “case involving grief or shock”. Clause 4 was therefore engaged by the complaint. 

9. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that there appeared to be no specific justification for revisiting the murder or the legal proceedings after such a long period and understood that this had caused the family distress, particularly as they had not been aware in advance that it would be published. There is no requirement under the Code to provide a justification for the simple re-publication of the fact of a crime; this is because to impose such a restriction would unduly restrict the right of publications to report on public legal proceedings. Simply publishing the facts of the crime did not raise a breach of Clause 4. Nonetheless, the Committee gave serious consideration to how the material was presented, and whether this was done in a way that was insensitive in breach of Clause 4. 

10. The terms of Clause 4 make clear that a balance has to be struck between the right to report on legal proceedings and the obligation to handle publication sensitively so as to avoid intrusion into grief or shock. It was not in dispute that the information contained in the article had been heard in open court in 1997, and all this information, and more, had been published at the time of the trial. The question for the Committee was whether the republication of this material after such a long period in itself constituted handling publication insensitively. Although the article had included details of material heard in court, including in relation to the manner in which the complainant’s sister had died and personal details relating to her circumstances, it was a factual report of what had been heard in court at the trial.  Given the nature of the crime and the court proceedings, these details were, by their very nature, deeply distressing, but the publication had not added any additional commentary or observations which made the presentation of this information insensitive. While the Committee understood the complainant and her family’s concern and upset, it concluded that their republication, in this factual manner, was not insensitive such as to raise a breach of Clause 4. There was no breach of the Code. 

11. It was not in dispute that the information contained in the article had been heard in open court in 1997. While the publication of this information was plainly deeply distressing to the complainant, it had been made public previously, and as a matter of public record, and re-publishing it did not therefore represent an intrusion into the complainant and her family’s private lives. There was no breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) on this point. It was also not in dispute that the woman’s manager had made the claims referred to in the article, and these were attributed clearly to her. The Committee understood that the repetition of these claims was clearly upsetting for the family, but they had been reported accurately, and there was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) on this point. 

Conclusions 

12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required 

13. N/A


Date complaint received: 21/08/2018

Date decision issued: 29/11/2018