Ruling

04968-15 Doherty v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      6th November 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

·        Decision of the Complaints Committee 04968-15 Doherty v The Daily Telegraph

Summary of complaint 

1. Mike Doherty of the Traveller Movement complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an online article headlined “Retired couple carry out suicide pact after travellers move in next door”,  published on 8 April 2015. He also complained about the print version of the article, headlined “Gipsy camp stress ‘drove couple to suicide pact’”, published on 9 April 2015. 

2. The articles, a brief print piece and longer online version, reported the inquest into the deaths of John and Elizabeth Knott. Mr Knott had killed his wife before taking his own life. Both articles reported that, prior to his death, Mr Knott had been concerned about a planning application to establish a site for a traveller family on a field close to his home. 

3. The print article noted that the Coroner had returned a verdict of unlawful killing and suicide. It stated that Mr Knott and his wife had “carried out a suicide pact after travellers bought a plot of land next door” to their home, and that the inquest had heard that Mr Knott “could not cope with the stress of the new travellers’ camp and his wife’s failing health”. It included quotations from evidence heard at the inquest, including a comment from a friend of the couple, who had said that “[Mr Knott] was at the end of his tether, and felt he had lost his wife both physically and mentally”. 

4. The online article, which carried the sub-headline “Inquest hears retired construction executive John Knott could not cope with the stress of the new travellers’ camp and his wife’s failing health”, had reported the verdict as “unlawful death and suicide”. It included evidence heard at the inquest, and noted that a friend of the couple had stated that Mr Knott “was concerned” that a field next to his cottage was going to be built on, and that he was “at the end of his tether and felt he had lost his wife both physically and mentally”. It also reported that a police officer had told the inquest that the proposed site “was clearly a concern” to Mr Knott, and that the inquest had heard that Mr Knott kept a “three-inch thick file” detailing his fight against the planning application, and a file “a foot thick” on his wife’s health. 

5. The complainant expressed a general concern that the articles had exaggerated the extent to which Mr Knott’s concern about the planning application had led to the deaths. He said this was misleading; the coroner had made no reference to the planning application in his concluding remarks. He also said that to report that the deaths had taken place “after” the land had been bought by a travelling family inaccurately suggested causation, rather than chronology. He expressed further concern about the print headline, which he believed presented conjecture as fact. The complainant was concerned that inaccurate reporting of this story could contribute to prejudice against the traveller community. 

6. The complainant said that the articles contained a number of other inaccuracies. He said that no travellers had “moved in” to the proposed site, as reported in the online article, nor was it “next door” to Mr Knott’s property; a planning application had been made to allow a single family to live on a site at the far end of an adjacent field. He also said that the inquest had not established that Mr Knott and his wife had carried out a suicide pact. To report this as fact was inaccurate, and represented a failure to distinguish between conjecture and fact. 

7. The complainant said that evidence heard at the inquest had been reported in a misleading manner. He said that a friend of the couple, who had given evidence at the inquest, had not made the reference to Mr Knott being “at the end of his tether” in relation to the planning application, as the online article implied. The references to this planning application and to Mr Knott being “at the end of his tether” had not been made consecutively. The complainant said that it was misleading to place these two phrases together in the online article, as it suggested that the friend had said that Mr Knott was “at the end of his tether” due to his concerns about the planning application. He also said that it was misleading for the online article not to include the police officer’s comment that Mr Knott’s “concern for his wife’s health weighed more heavily on his mind [than the planning application]”. The complainant provided a transcript of the inquest proceedings in support of his complaint. 

8. The complainant also said that the online article had inaccurately reported the conclusions of the Coroner; there was no such thing as unlawful death; the verdict in relation to Mrs Knott’s death was unlawful killing. 

9. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It noted that headlines should be considered in the context of full articles, as they only provide a summary of the content, and said that the use of single quotation marks in the print headline was a journalistic convention, indicating that an allegation had been made. It said that the article had made clear that travellers had not “moved into” the site, but that Mr Knott was concerned about a “proposed” site. Furthermore, the proposed dwellings would have been Mr Knott’s closest neighbours on one side of his property. It said that the article had made clear the verdict of the inquest, and it was not misleading to make reference to a “suicide pact”, as the Coroner had heard evidence on this point. The newspaper did not accept that the discrepancy between “unlawful death” and “unlawful killing” represented a significant inaccuracy. 

10. The newspaper did not accept that evidence had been inaccurately reported. The friend of the couple and the police officer had made the statements attributed to them. It was clear from the evidence given that both parties believed the planning application was a factor in the deaths, and other evidence heard at the inquest had referred to Mr Knott’s concern about the planning application. The Coroner had also made reference to it. The newspaper did not accept that its report suggested that this was the only factor. It noted that the purpose of an inquest is to establish the cause of death, and not to establish precisely why Mr Knott acted in the way that he did. 

Relevant Code Provisions

11. 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. 

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Findings of the Committee

12. The Committee noted that the purpose of the inquest had not been to establish the motivations for Mr Knott’s actions; nor would it be appropriate for the Committee to make a judgment on this. Rather, the Committee considered whether the articles were accurate reports of the inquest proceedings. 

13. The Committee had reviewed a transcript of the inquest proceedings, which included the evidence reported in the article. The complainant had expressed concern that the presentation of this evidence and the omission of other comments made by those quoted rendered the article misleading and distorted in relation to the evidence heard. In this instance, both versions of the article had made clear that the inquest had heard that Mr Knott was concerned about his wife’s health and about the planning application, and the newspaper was entitled to report evidence that related to the latter concern. The articles had made clear that both concerns were important to Mr Knott, with both noting that he could not cope with the stress of the camp “and his wife’s failing health”. The online article had referred to evidence that he had a file “three-inch thick file” on the planning application, in contrast to one “a foot thick” on his wife’s health. It was not misleading to report that Mr Knott had concerns about the planning application; this had been heard at the inquest. In circumstances where the text of both articles had made clear that it was not the sole concern, the publication was entitled to focus on one aspect of the evidence. 

14. While the text of both versions of the article had made clear the findings of the inquest, the print headline was not an accurate summary of any evidence heard during proceedings. The Committee noted the newspaper’s position that the use of single quotation marks was a journalistic convention, to denote the paraphrasing of an allegation, and accepted that the meaning of quotation marks can vary according to context, and is therefore open to interpretation. However, the headline was not supported by evidence heard at the inquest, in whole or by any individual; the inquest had not heard or found that Mr Knott’s concern about the camp had been the cause of his death (rather than a contributing factor). The headline was significantly inaccurate and breached Clause 1 (i). The Committee considered whether the newspaper had further breached Clause 1 (ii) by declining to offer to publish a correction or clarification on this point. It noted that it had accepted that the headline was open to interpretation, albeit it had not accepted the interpretation advanced by the newspaper. In these circumstances, the fact that the newspaper had not recognised the inaccuracy, and had not therefore offered a prompt correction, was not, in the Committee’s view, deserving of further censure as a breach of 1 (ii). However, the inaccuracy must now be corrected to avoid a breach. 

15. The Committee expressed some concern that, in the online article, two statements made separately by a witness had been reported consecutively, to suggest that she had said that Mr Knott was “at the end of his tether” as a result of the planning application. However, in circumstance where the quotations as published had made clear that the witness believed that Mr Knott was concerned about his wife’s health, as well as the application, and taken in the context of the article as a whole, the Committee did not consider that the presentation of the evidence represented a distortion of the evidence heard. 

16. The Committee was satisfied that the articles had made clear that no travellers had yet moved into the site, and that Mr Knott’s concerns related to a planning application. The proposed site was on land adjacent to Mr Knott’s property; it was not therefore misleading to refer to it as “next door”. 

17. In circumstances where the articles had made the verdict returned by the Coroner, it was not misleading to refer to evidence heard at the inquest in relation to the reasons for Mr Knott’s motivations, and whether he and his wife had carried out a “suicide pact”. 

18. While the Committee acknowledged that the term “after”, as used in the online headline, could be ambiguous, it was satisfied that the headline, when taken in conjunction with the sub-heading, and text of the full article, was not inaccurate. 

19. The Committee noted that the verdict of the Coroner was “unlawful killing” rather than “unlawful death”. However, it did not consider that this was a significant distinction in this context; the article had made clear that Mr Knott had taken Mrs Knott’s life unlawfully. 

Conclusions

20. The complaint was upheld in relation to the print article. 

Remedial Action Required

21. In order to remedy the breach of Clause 1 (i), the newspaper should publish a correction, which should make clear that the quotation in the print headline was not a summary of evidence heard at the inquest. In addition, the correction should acknowledge that it had been published following a ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The original article had appeared on page 11, and so the correction should be published on this page or further forward. 

Date complaint received: 11/08/2015

Date decision issued: 06/11/2015