Ruling

06008-15 Oldman v mirror.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      3rd March 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment, 5 Reporting suicide

Decision of the Complaints Committee 06008-15 Oldman v mirror.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. Thomas Oldman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mirror.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) Clause 3 (Privacy) and Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Nurse hanged herself in hospital ward after ‘added stress of husband’s child sex convictions’”, published on 30 September 2015.

2. The article reported on the on-going inquest into the death of the complainant’s wife, Charlotte Oldman. It said that Mrs OIdman had “struggled to cope with [the complainant’s] child sex convictions”, and that the inquest had heard that her “state of mind significantly deteriorated after [the complainant] was jailed for four-and-a-half years”. It reported that experts had told the inquest that they believed Mrs Oldman heard voices in her head because she had not come to terms with her husband’s convictions. It reported that medical evidence had stated that Mrs Oldman “had a long history of hallucinations and ‘distressing’ psychotic symptoms”, and that the inquest had heard a psychiatric report which stated that Mrs Oldman had “an emotionally unstable personality with suicidal supports and there was the added stress of her husband’s conviction”.  It reported that the complainant had told the inquest that he believed an email rejecting Mrs Oldman from a job had triggered the events leading to her death.

3. The complainant said that the article was a misleading and distorted account of the inquest proceedings. He said that the nature of his convictions were not referred to at any time during the inquest, and that the inquest had not heard evidence that there was a causal link between his convictions for child sex offences, and the actions Mrs Oldman took which resulted in her death. The complainant noted that the coroner’s conclusions on the inquest did not make reference to the nature of his convictions, or suggest that they were a contributing factor to Charlotte Oldman’s death. He said that by reporting his view on what had caused the events leading to her death, the article gave the impression that this was only his view, when it had in fact been shared by other witnesses throughout the inquest. The complainant denied that experts had told the inquest Mrs Oldman heard voices in her head because she had not come to terms with his convictions. The article reported that the complainant had told the inquest that Mrs Oldman “could be impulsive and took overdoses of any tablets she had available. She would put burning hot water on herself”, and that “she was told she was playing a game of Russian roulette with her life by hospital staff.” The complainant denied making these remarks at any point during the inquest proceedings; he said that he had recognised that overdosing was part of Mrs Oldman’s pattern of self-harm, but did not refer to her burning herself with hot water.

4. The article reported that Mrs Oldman had been staying at the Clare Ward of the Abraham Cowley Unit (ACU) in St Peter’s Hospital. The complainant said that while the ACU was adjacent to St Peter’s Hospital, it is in fact in run by a different NHS Trust. A caption to one of the photographs accompanying the article claimed that “a patient at St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey discovered the body”. The complainant said that he had told the inquest that he had heard a scream from a patient who had seen that Mrs Oldman had been discovered, but that it was in fact a member of staff who had discovered Mrs Oldman’s body. The complainant said that the reference to Mrs Oldman suffering from psychotic illness was inaccurate; he said that while she was being treated with anti-psychotic medication for occasional psychotic episodes, her diagnosis was for emotionally unstable personality disorder, and depression, and that the evidence from a psychiatrist specifically stated that she did not suffer from psychosis.

5. The complainant said that by including the details of his conviction in the article, the publication had failed to respect his privacy and that it had failed to handle publication sensitively at a time of personal grief.

6. The publication provided the shorthand notes from its reporter, who had attended the inquest proceedings. It said that during the inquest, two doctors both referred to the effect of the complainant’s convictions on Mrs Oldman’s mental health. One of the doctors’ statements read “there was the added stress of her husband’s conviction. She was angry with him and found it difficult to communicate with him. This is/was an ever-present stress when her mental health escalated in 2011”.  The other doctor had told the inquest that Mrs Oldman “had not come to terms with her husband’s charges. The hearing of the voices seemed to tie in with the release of her husband leaving prison”.  The publication said that the article did not refer to the inquest having concluded, and ended with the sentence “the inquest continues”. It said it was clear that the article was reporting ongoing inquest proceedings, as opposed to a summary of the coroner's conclusions. Nevertheless, the publication noted that the complainant’s convictions were passed down in March 2011, and that, in her conclusions, the coroner had said that Mrs Oldman’s mental health problems were a “more constant if not more consuming feature from 2011 onwards due to the advent of difficult personal circumstances and this stayed with her almost constantly until her death in April 2014”. The coroner went on to state that Mrs Oldman’s self-harming was “an illustration of how her mental illness manifested and sadly lead to death”. The publication maintained that the complainant had made the reported comments, which it said was supported by the reporter’s notes.

7. The publication said that the inquest had heard that Mrs Oldman had been treated with anti-psychotic medicine for psychotic episodes. It said that in these circumstances, it was not significantly inaccurate to refer to her as having had a “psychotic illness”. The publication said that the ACU was on the same site as St Peter’s hospital, and that the article was not significantly inaccurate on this point. The publication said that the photograph caption claiming that a patient had discovered Mrs Oldman’s body was based on the complainant’s statement to the inquest that he had heard a scream, which he had later discovered was from another patient who had discovered the body.

8. The publication said that the complainant’s convictions were a matter of public record, that they had previously been reported by the press, and that they had been referred to during the inquest proceedings. It noted that Clause 5 should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, and denied that it had breached Clause 3 (Privacy) or Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock).

9. The publication maintained that there was no breach of the Code, but offered to add the following clarification to the article:

We would like to make clear that the Coroner's conclusions into Mrs Oldman's death did not state that there was a causal link between her husband's criminal convictions and her death.

10. It also amended the headline of the online article to remove reference to the complainant’s conviction.

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.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without consent.

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 article reported that the inquest had heard evidence from a psychiatric report  that, in addition to Mrs Oldman’s having pre-existing mental health problems, her husband’s conviction had been an “added stress”, and “an ever-present stress when her mental health escalated in 2011”, the year her husband’s conviction had been handed down. The phrase in the headline regarding the “added stress of husband’s child sex convictions” was a direct reference to the findings of the psychiatric report.

12. The complainant did not dispute that the evidence on the effect of his convictions on Mrs Oldman’s mental health, including this report, had been quoted accurately. The article had also referred to other evidence that Mrs Oldman had longstanding mental health problems that pre-existed the convictions, including the complainant’s account that she had “suffered with depression, anxiety and anorexia” since her teenage years, and had noted the complainant’s position that within this context, her death was triggered by a notification that she had been rejected for a job.

13. In this context, the Committee did not consider that the publication had published a distorted account of the evidence heard during the ongoing proceedings; a clear link had been made between the complainant’s convictions and Mrs Oldman’s mental health. The Committee also noted the coroner’s subsequent finding (after the publication of the article) that Mrs Oldman’s mental health problems had been “mild in her younger days”,  but that they had become a “more consuming feature from 2011 due to the advent of difficult personal circumstances”, a clear reference to the convictions. The coroner had gone on to find expressly that that Mrs Oldman’s mental illness “led to her death”. This finding supported the general accuracy of the newspaper’s report of the evidence heard at the inquest. It was not misleading to include information about the nature of the complainant’s crimes, which were a matter of public record. This aspect of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy).

14. The comments reported in the article which the complainant denied making during the inquest proceedings were recorded in the reporter’s shorthand notes. These notes demonstrated that care had been taken over the accuracy of the article, and there was no breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point. It was accepted that the inquest had heard evidence, including from the complainant, that Mrs Oldman had a long history of mental health problems, which included patterns of self-harm. Whether the complainant had used the phrase “Russian Roulette”, or whether he had told the inquest that she had burnt herself with hot water, were not significant details in the context of the article. For this reason, the Committee did not establish that the article was significantly misleading on these points, such as to require a correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

15. The ACU was on the same site as St Peter’s hospital, and notwithstanding the fact that they were operated by separate NHS trusts, it was not significantly misleading to refer to the ACU as being in St Peter’s Hospital. The complainant had told the inquest that a patient had screamed when Mrs Oldman had been discovered, and in these circumstances, it was not significantly misleading to report that a patient had discovered the body. The reference to psychotic illness was not significantly misleading where the inquest had heard that Mrs Oldman had psychotic episodes, and that she had taken anti-psychotic medication. Furthermore, the article made clear that Mrs Oldman had been diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder.

16. The publication had not failed to respect the complainant’s privacy by including details of his convictions, which were a matter of public record. There was no breach of Clause 3 (Privacy).

17. The complainant’s convictions had been referred to during the inquest proceedings, and the nature of these convictions was a matter of public record. To report the nature of these convictions did not represent a failure to handle publication sensitively in a case of personal grief. There was no breach of Clause 5 (Intrusion in to personal grief or shock).

Conclusions

18. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 02/10/2015
Date decision issued: 03/03/2016