Ruling

05318-19 Storey v Oxford Mail

    • Date complaint received

      26th March 2020

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05318-19 Storey v Oxford Mail

Summary of Complaint

1. Sue Storey complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Oxford Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Schoolboy, 13 found hanging” published on 13 March 2019.

2. The article, which began on page one and then continued on page two, reported on the opening of the inquest into the death of a 13 year old child. On the second page of the article, a quotation from the coroner was included which said that the child had a “previously well-known mental health history”. The article included a photograph of the child at a school sports event.

3. The section of the article which appeared on page two also appeared online in much the same form with the headline “Inquest opens into death of Didcot schoolboy Harry Storey”.

4. The complainant, the mother of the child who died, said that the article inaccurately reported that her child had a “previously well-known mental health history”. While not present at the inquest, she said her child had no mental health issues, and reporting this had caused her and her family much distress. During IPSO’s investigation, the complainant said that coroner had confirmed that he had in fact said that her son had “no known mental health history”, and provided a recording of the proceedings to show this. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 4. She said that the prominent headline and photograph of her child was inappropriate and unnecessary, and had not been published with her knowledge or consent. She also said that details of how her son had died had not been communicated to teachers or students at the school; by publishing these details in the article, it had caused her and her family much distress. The complainant disputed that they were made aware that the Oxford Mail specifically would be attending the inquest, although they acknowledged that the media could attend the open proceedings.

5. The publication apologised for the distress caused. It said that it was contacted directly by the complainant in relation to the same story appearing in a sister title. At this point, in the absence of the recording of the inquest, the publication maintained that the article was accurate because it was reflective of the notes taken by the journalist during proceedings, and had been corroborated in writing by a second journalist from another news outlet. However, it recognised the distress caused by the quote, and printed the correction and apology set out below in the next edition of this sister title on its front and second page. It also amended the online version of the Oxford Mail article to reflect the complainant’s position. Three days after it became aware of the complaint against this title, as opposed to one of its sister titles, it offered to reprint this wording in the Oxford Mail and offered to add a footnote to the online version of the article, noting the change which was made at the time of the direct approach. Furthermore, when it was provided with a recording of the inquest during IPSO’s investigation, it accepted that the reporter had misheard what the coroner had said. However it said that its offer of correction was sufficient under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

Front page correction:

“Harry inquest correction

On the front page of last week’s Herald (March 13), we reported on the inquest opening for Harry Storey. The report incorrectly stated that Harry had a “well-known mental health history”.”

Page 2 continuation:

“Inquest correction

On the front page of last week’s Herald, we reported the Harry Storey inquest opening. The report incorrectly stated that Harry had a “well-known mental health history”. The statement from the coroner was, in fact, that Harry had “no known mental health history”. We apologise for this mistake and distress caused to Harry’s family and friends. They would like us to point out that Harry was a cheerful young man and talented sportsman. Harry’s family are asking for donations, in lieu of flowers, to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at John Radcliffe Hospital, which cared for Harry. Donations can be made to [Named Funeral Service] on [Telephone number] or via [email address]. If you need someone to talk to, Samaritans helpline is open 24/7. Call 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.”

Online footnote noting the change which had been made:

“An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Harry had a ‘well-known mental health history’. The correct line was ‘no known’. We are happy to make this clear.”

6. The complainant did not accept this offer of correction. She said that it should apologise for the overall reporting of her son’s death, and should have appeared in full on the front page, rather than being continued on page two.

7. The publication did not accept that the article’s publication had been handled insensitively. It said that it was entitled to report on inquest proceedings and there was a significant public interest in this particular case. It said that it did not make any direct approaches to the family but instead had contacted the police and the school to inform them that the article would be published, and to ask whether the parents would like to speak. It also said that following the article, it had ensured that there was additional training for staff in relation to the reporting of suicide, and cases involving children. It said that it had contacted the school in relation to the photograph of the child, which it had taken at a previous sports event. The school did not respond to say that it, or the family, did not want the photograph to be published. It said that the only time it had named Harry was when the inquest opened and his details were publicly available.

Relevant Code Provisions

8. 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.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

9. 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

10. The Committee first wished to express its condolences to the complainant and her family for the tragic loss of her son.

11. Although the article had accurately reported the contemporaneous notes taken at the inquest, these notes had inaccurately recorded what was said by the coroner; this was a breach of Clause 1(i). In the context of an inquest report, inaccurately reporting the circumstances of a person’s death and the possible contributing medical causes constituted a significant inaccuracy and required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

12. The Committee appreciated that the complainant originally raised concerns to the Editor about a sister title. Three days after the publication became aware that the complainant had also complained to IPSO about this article, it offered to publish a correction. This was sufficiently prompt. The wording of this correction clearly set out the inaccuracy, the correct position, and apologised to the family for the mistake and the distress caused. Although not a requirement of Clause 1(ii), the Committee welcomed the extra steps the publication had taken in response to the sensitive nature of the inaccuracy: printing a tribute from the family to the child; pointing readers to the family’s requests for funeral arrangements; and including contact details for the Samaritans. The publication had offered to print a correction which began on the front page and continued on page two. Where the inaccuracy had appeared on page two, this was sufficiently prominent, and, acknowledging the sensitive and distressing nature of the complaint, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to highlight the correction by trailing it on the front page. As such, there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

13. In relation to the online version of the article, this was amended on receipt of the complainant direct approach regarding its sister title. The Committee recognised that the publication was under the impression that this had resolved the complaint; when it became aware that this was not the case, it offered three days later to note the change made in a footnote correction in order to comply with Clause 1. This offer made clear the change that had been made the article, and was offered 3 days after IPSO began its investigation. These steps were sufficient to satisfy Clause 1(ii), and there was no breach.

14. Deaths affect whole communities as well as the immediate family, and there is often widespread interest in the circumstances of a death, particularly in the sudden death of a child. Although the Committee recognised that the complainant had found the publication of the article to be distressing, the terms of Clause 4 specify that its provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings. In this case, the article was an inquest report, and did not mock or ridicule the complainant’s son, or go beyond what was heard at proceedings. The publication had also had permission to use this photograph from their reporting of a previous event and they had informed both the school and police liaison that it would be used in order for them to tell the family so they would not be surprised when it was published. The photograph of the child simply showed him at a school sports events, and at the time of publication, his name and information about his death was in the public domain via the inquest proceedings. As such, reporting this information did not constitute a breach of Clause 4.

Conclusions

15. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial Action Required

16. The corrections were offered sufficiently promptly, in a prominent position, and made clear the correct position. These should now be published to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). Date complaint received: 14/07/2019

 

Date complaint received by IPSO: 14/07/2019

Date complaint concluded: 28/02/2020