Ruling

07252-15 – Farrow v Lancashire Evening Post

    • Date complaint received

      11th February 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      3 Harassment, 5 Reporting suicide

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07252-15 - Farrow v Lancashire Evening Post

Summary of complaint

1. Kate Farrow, acting on behalf of Carly Potts’ father Ian Farrow, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Lancashire Evening Post breached Clause 3 (Privacy) and Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Student committed suicide in hotel room”, published on 14 October 2015.

2. The article reported on the inquest of Carly Potts, the complainant’s stepdaughter. It said that the inquest had heard that Ms Potts had hanged herself in a hotel room “mirroring the death of her mother seven years earlier”. It said that in the hours preceding her death, Ms Potts had been three times over the drink-drive limit, and had taken three drugs, which it named. The article quoted from the coroner’s summing up, in which he had said that Ms Potts had “made the decision to bring about her death quickly”. The newspaper also reported that Ms Potts had worked as a dancer in order to fund her university studies and to pay off debts.

3. The online version of the article included additional information on the method of suicide. It identified the item from which Ms Potts had been found hanged, and two of the captions identified the item used as a ligature. The online piece was illustrated by a number of photographs of Ms Potts, and included a quotation attributed to her grandmother, who had described her granddaughter as a ”very caring, hard-working and big-hearted girl”.

4. The complainant said that the content of the online article and the accompanying images had caused considerable distress to Ms Potts’ family at a time of grief. She said that the article had included explicit details of her stepdaughter’s death, about which some members of the family had been unaware, and had focused inappropriately on her work in a gentleman’s club. She said her stepdaughter had not “fallen into debt”, as reported; rather, she had “struggled to make ends meet”. She had also not lived with her grandparents.

5. The complainant said that despite the coroner making clear that Ms Potts’ father and grandmother did not wish to comment on the matter, her grandmother had been pressured to comment by reporters outside court. She considered that comments made in those circumstances should not have been published.

6. She said the newspaper had also published personal photographs of Ms Potts taken from her Facebook page without permission. She said the images were “disproportionate” and inappropriate in number and nature. She said the images, combined with the article’s focus on Ms Pott’s work as a lap dancer, had created an insensitive “lads’ mag tone”. She expressed particular concern that an image of Ms Potts wearing a bikini on a motorbike had been published.

7. The newspaper said that the story and photographs, which had been taken from an open Facebook page, had been supplied by a press agency and were published in good faith. It said that it had a duty to report on the inquest to ensure that the public understood the circumstances surrounding an untimely death.

8. The newspaper said it had raised the complainant’s concerns regarding the conduct of reporters outside court with the agency that supplied the copy. It said it was sorry that the actions of others had added to the family’s distress. Had it been aware of these circumstances, it would not have published the comments made by Ms Potts’ grandmother, and it removed them from the online article.

9. Although the newspaper did not consider that the article’s tone had been insensitive, it said that the publication of the image of Ms Potts on a motorbike had been “inappropriate”. It removed it, and offered to remove any others if requested.

10. While it had great sympathy for members of the family who had been unaware of the method of Ms Potts’ suicide, this information had been central to the inquest; it would not have been possible to provide a fair and accurate report of the proceedings without it. It did not consider that the print or online version of the piece had included “excessive detail” regarding the method of suicide. It explained that it had not identified the item used as a ligature in the print article, or in the main copy of the online version, because this would have fallen “outside guidelines” for reporting suicide. This detail had appeared in two captions online as it had been automatically copied from information attached to the images by the agency; it had since been removed.

11. The newspaper did not consider that identifying the item from which Ms Potts had been found hanged constituted excessive detail in the online article. It said that it had not included information, such as how the ligature had been applied or secured, that would enable anyone to imitate the method. Nevertheless, it offered to remove this detail. The newspaper also considered that it was necessary for it to report Ms Potts’ use of alcohol and drugs in the hours preceding her death as it was material evidence of her state of mind at that time; this was also a point considered by the coroner when he recorded his verdict. In addition, the statement that she had been found in a “locked room” and had known how “swift death would be” had formed part of a direct quotation from the coroner’s summing up, and were important factors in how he had reached his verdict. Nonetheless, it offered to remove these details.

12. The newspaper did not accept the complainant’s contention that the article had focused on Ms Potts’ employment. Out of respect for the family, it had chosen to only refer to her as “a dancer”; it had not, in fact, referred to her as a “lap dancer” or referred to the nature of her place of work being a gentleman’s club. However, it considered that her work had been central to the court’s understanding of her final hours and had therefore been relevant to the story. The court had heard that Ms Potts had been working at a club on the night of her death, and had texted colleagues in the hours preceding her death. The court had also been asked to consider the impact that Ms Potts’ financial situation might have had on her decision to take her own life.

13. The newspaper noted that the complainant had also contacted other newspapers to raise concerns about their coverage of the inquest, and had resolved those complaints on the basis of apologies and charitable donations. It said it was not willing to make a charitable donation, but it offered to write a private letter of apology to Ms Potts’ family, and said it would consider any other steps the complainant might suggest to resolve the matter.

Relevant Code Provisions

14. 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 their consent. Note - Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

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.

ii) When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.

Findings of the Committee

15. The purpose of Clause 5 (ii) is to prevent the publication of material that might lead others to imitate a method of suicide. The online article had included a number of details relating to the method of suicide, which were not included in the print article. In particular, the publication of details concerning the items Ms Potts had used illustrated that they were easily accessible and could have led to simulative acts. These details were clearly excessive, and their publication was irresponsible. This represented a breach of Clause 5 (ii) in the online article.

16. The Committee acknowledged that some of the information about the method of suicide had been accidentally published because the photographer’s caption had been automatically included with the image file. The Committee noted that this issue had arisen previously in relation to other publications, and it took the opportunity to draw to editors’ attention the potential dangers of these errors, and the importance of checking all elements of online material before – and after – it is published.

17. Both the print and online versions of the article had stated that Ms Potts had consumed alcohol and had taken three specific drugs in the hours preceding her death. However, there was no suggestion in the article that the substances had been consumed as part of the method of suicide. As such, the inclusion of these details did not represent a breach of Clause 5. Similarly, the references to the speed of death did not amount to excessive detail in breach of Clause 5. The complaint under Clause 5 (ii) was not upheld in relation to the print article.

18. Newspapers are entitled to report on inquests, which are public hearings. They play an important role in informing readers about the evidence presented during the proceedings, and the coroner’s conclusions regarding the facts surrounding a person’s death. However, inquests can be very upsetting for the families of the deceased. The proceedings necessarily involve revisiting the events leading up to a person’s death in detail, and may reveal information of which family members had previously been unaware, or which family members would otherwise consider to be extremely private. In this setting, it is particularly important that journalists make their enquiries with sensitivity and discretion, as required by Clause 5 (i) of the Code.

19. Reporters in attendance at the inquest into Ms Potts’ death had been informed by the coroner that members of the Potts family did not wish to comment on the case to newspapers. The newspaper’s agents were made aware through these means that the family would not welcome an approach for comment about Ms Potts, and were obliged to take this into account in deciding how to proceed with the sensitivity required by the Code. In the absence of any specific justification for persisting with inquiries despite the family’s desire not to be approached, the reporters’ approach to Ms Potts’ grandmother in these circumstances   represented a failure to make enquiries with sensitivity and discretion, and an intrusion into the family’s grief in breach of Clause 5 (i).

20. The newspaper had been entitled to report details of Ms Potts’ employment, which had been heard at the inquest and were directly relevant to the events leading up to her death. The newspaper had not presented her work in a gratuitous or disrespectful manner. In addition, the images that were included in the online article had been taken from Ms Potts’ open Facebook profile; they were not explicit or embarrassing, but simply showed her posing for photographs at home and on holiday. The presentation of the images had not sought to mock or ridicule Ms Potts; and their publication, along with the factual information concerning her employment, did not constitute insensitive handling of the story in breach of Clause 5. Furthermore, in the context of a report on the inquest into Ms Potts’ death, the publication of images of Ms Potts did not engage the terms of Clause 3.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was upheld under Clause 5.

Remedial Action Required

22. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

23. The newspaper’s agents had failed to make enquiries with sensitivity at a time of grief in breach of Clause 5 (i); and, in the online article, the newspaper had published excessive detail regarding the method of suicide in breach of Clause 5 (ii).

24. In order to remedy the breaches of the Code, the newspaper should publish the following adjudication on its website, with a link to the full adjudication appearing on the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived online in the usual way. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance. It should make clear that the complaint has been upheld by IPSO and make reference to the subject matter.

25. The same adjudication should also be published in print, omitting paragraphs 3, 6 and 8, which relate to the breach of Code in the online article. It should appear on page 5, where the original article appeared, or further forward.

1) Kate Farrow, acting on behalf of Carly Potts’ father Ian Farrow, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Lancashire Evening Post breached Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Student committed suicide in hotel room”, published on 14 October 2015.

2) The article reported on the inquest of Carly Potts, the complainant’s stepdaughter. It said that the inquest had heard that Ms Potts had hanged herself.

3) The complainant said that the online version of the article had caused considerable distress to Ms Potts’ family at a time of grief. It had included explicit details of her stepdaughter’s death, about which some family members had been unaware.

4) The complainant said that despite the coroner making clear that Ms Potts’ father and grandmother did not wish to comment on the matter, her grandmother had been pressured to comment by reporters outside the coroner’s court.

5) The newspaper said that the story had been supplied by a press agency and was published in good faith. It had raised the complainant’s concerns regarding the conduct of reporters outside court with the agency. Had it been aware of the circumstances, it would not have published the comments.

6) It said it would not have been possible to provide an accurate report of the inquest without referring to the method of suicide. It did not consider that the article had included “excessive detail” that would enable the method to be imitated. It explained that details of one of the items used by Ms Potts had been included in the captions as it had been copied through from information attached to the pictures by the agency.

7) The Committee was very concerned that despite the family’s clear position, Ms Potts’ grandmother had felt pressured to comment by reporters outside the coroner’s court. The newspaper’s agents had not made enquiries with sensitivity and discretion at a time of grief. This represented an intrusion into the family’s grief in breach of Clause 5 (i).

8) The purpose of Clause 5 (ii) is to prevent the publication of material that might lead others to imitate a method of suicide. In this instance, the identification of the items Ms Potts had used to take her life had been excessive, and could have led to simulative acts. The publication of these details was irresponsible, and represented a breach of Clause 5 (ii).

9) The complaint was upheld, and the Committee required the publication of this adjudication.

Date complaint received: 01/11/2015
Date decision issued: 11/02/2016