Ruling

07959-18 UWE Bristol v Bristol Post

    • Date complaint received

      6th June 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07959-18 UWE Bristol v Bristol Post

Summary of complaint

1. The University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Bristol Post breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:

  • “UWE denies withholding records of suicides from concerned students”, published on 23 November 2018;
  • “Nightline: UWE ends night-time helpline for struggling students”, published on 28 November 2018;
  • “What I wish you knew, Alex: Mum’s heartbreaking letter to son who took his own life published on 29 November 2018.

2. The articles under complaint formed part of wider coverage into concerns over the rate of deaths by suicide amongst the student population of the University of the West of England.

3. The first article claimed that the University was withholding information on records of suicides amongst its students. The article cast doubt on the accuracy of the University’s response to a Freedom of Information request (FoI) submitted by its own students. It reported that when asked to provide “the number of confirmed suicides of UWE students in the last five academic years”, the University had responded: “The University does not hold this information”. The article claimed that in contrast, the newspaper had seen papers which had shown that the University “did have this information held in a central database, and that it was used for a report commissioned by Public Health England (PHE) into student death by suicide” at UWE Bristol.

4. The first article reported that the University’s response to the FoI had also shown that Student Support and Wellbeing Service had “stayed almost the same for the last four years despite a huge increase in the number of students approaching the University for help”.

5. The first article reported a statement from a concerned student: “People need one-to-one sessions. Speaking to a (ro)bot can help some people but the majority will want to speak to someone and go through it.” It claimed that the student had been told by the University that it “would not release the data on suicide”. The article said that a spokeswoman for the University had said that “the figures have been reported before and [the University] had not tried to hide it”.

6. The second article reported that the University had suspended an overnight student support phoneline, called “Nightline”, and had launched an online counselling platform, called Kooth Student. It reported that Nightline was shut earlier in 2018 after it was only opened in December 2017; it said, “by March, the service had stopped suddenly and students directed to a new online student platform called Kooth, together with other national helplines. Kooth was piloted by UWE in the same month Nightline was launched”.

7. The second article reported, “With Nightline now shut, that leaves a 10.5 hour gap between 10pm and 8.30am every day with a big gap on weekends”. It reported that a University spokesperson had told the newspaper that it ran an “emergency contact number during those hours, while security operations and accommodation teams were available on campus around the clock”.

8. The article detailed the journalist’s experience of accessing the Kooth Student service: “we waited nearly 15 minutes to be connected to Jay, an experienced counsellor. About six minutes after we did not respond, the conversation window was closed and we were asked for feedback on the service”.

9. The third article was a tribute piece written by the mother of a student who had taken his own life. It explained that the man was one of fourteen students at the University of the West of England that had taken their own lives in the last eight years.

10. The articles were published in substantially the same form online. The first article was headlined, UWE denies withholding information over student suicides as leaked report reveals 14 deaths and reasons”. The second article was headlined, “'Not good enough' - student hits out at UWE Bristol after Nightline support services cancelled”. The third article was headlined, “Mum reads heartbreaking letter to son who killed himself: ‘What I wish you knew’”.

11. The complainant said that the newspaper had published misleading and inaccurate information on a complex and sensitive topic, in breach of Clause 1. It expressed concern that the journalist had attempted to use the Kooth Student service, which could only be accessed by students. It said that there was no public interest in posing as a student to access the service, in breach of Clause 10.

12. The complainant said that the first article had distorted the University’s response to the FOI. It said that it had not denied holding “any information” about students’ deaths; in its response, it had confirmed that it did not hold the number of confirmed suicides in the last 5 years, as this information is held by the coroner’s office. The complainant said that it did not hold information on the number of confirmed suicides of UWE students on a “central database”, as claimed. It said that it only recorded student deaths, not the cause, even once a cause of death had been confirmed by the coroner. The complainant said that PHE’s report had only been shared with the University in late August 2018, after the deadline for the response to the FoI had passed. The complainant said that PHE’s audit was compiled by cross referencing the deaths it recorded, with case workers’ confidential notes.

13. The complainant said that the first article contained further inaccuracies. It said that the article did not accurately reflect the significant investment which was being made by the University into its mental health support services. It also said that the student’s comments had suggested, inaccurately, that all of its mental health services were fully automated: Kooth and the new text service were staffed by trained counsellors. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report that the student had been told that the University “would not” release data on suicide. It said that the student was informed that information about the alleged student death could not be released as, at that time, the death was subject to formal Coroner’s procedures and an official cause of death had not been determined. The complainant said that the article should have detailed where the figures on suicide had been reported elsewhere, as this would challenge the article’s suggestion that the university was “withholding” information.

14. The complainant said that the second article had created the misleading impression that the University was providing insufficient support to its students, particularly the reference to the period of 10.5 hours in which Kooth Student was closed. It said that it was inaccurate to report that the University had suspended Nightline when this was a decision of both the Student Union and the University. It also said that the article had given the misleading impression that Kooth Student was launched in response to the suspension of Nightline, when in fact they were two entirely separate services.

15. The complainant said that it was disappointed that it was not offered an opportunity to comment on the third article, or to reiterate its condolences to the student’s family.

16. The newspaper did not accept any breach of the Code. It said that, as made clear in the first article, PHE had relied upon information supplied by the University when it had compiled its report. The newspaper provided a copy of the PHE report, which recorded that: “Deaths for inclusion were identified by the UWE Wellbeing Service and Safeguarding staff and the list cross checked against the details of deaths held in the UWE central student record system.” The newspaper said that whether or not the University held these figures “in a database” was a semantic point. It said that the PHE report clearly showed that the complainant was aware of the names of the students using its Wellbeing Service who had died because it had supplied them to PHE.

17. The newspaper said that, in any event, it did not accept that the University held no record of any confirmed suicides amongst its students at the time the FoI was made. The newspaper said that previous suicides of UWE students had been reported in the media months before the FoI was requested, some including quotes from the University’s vice-chancellor.

18. The newspaper offered to publish the following clarification, as a gesture of goodwill:

Our article 'UWE denies withholding records of suicides from concerned students'; 23 November 2018, suggested that UWE held information of student suicide in a 'central database'. Although student suicides had been addressed publicly by the University previous to the FoI request, we are happy to clarify that UWE do not hold this information in a 'central database'.

19. The newspaper provided a copy of the Freedom of Information requested submitted by the University’s students. It recorded that The Student Support & Wellbeing Service funding since 2014 was as follows:

  • 2014/15 £1,027,000
  • 2015/16 £1,010,000
  • 2016/17 £1,041,000
  • 2017/18 £1,092,000

20. The newspaper said that it was not inaccurate to report that Nightline had been suspended by the University and the second article made clear that Kooth was piloted by UWE in the same month Nightline was launched.

21. The newspaper denied that its journalist’s actions had breached Clause 10. It said that the journalist was given access to the portal via a student’s log in details, with his permission. It said that as soon as the chat connected with a counsellor, the chat was closed immediately. The newspaper said that the journalist did not claim to be a student, give any false information or take up any valuable time of a counsellor.

Relevant Code Provisions

22. 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.

Clause 10 *(Clandestine devices and subterfuge)

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

The Public interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.
2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.

Findings of the Committee

22. Public Health England had relied on information supplied to it by the University when it had compiled its death by suicide audit; deaths for inclusion in the audit had been selected by the UWE Wellbeing Service and Safeguarding staff and the list cross checked against the details of deaths held in UWE Bristol’s central student record system. However, at the time the FOI was made, the University did not record the cause of a student’s death, irrespective of whether an inquest had concluded. Further, PHE’s Report did not identify that the University had held records of the number of confirmed suicides amongst its student population. This was contrary to the first article’s claim that PHE’s report had shown that the University had recorded that 14 of its students had died by suicide in the last 5 years.  The newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point, in breach of Clause 1(i). This was a significant claim, as it supported the core criticism made against the University in the first article, which was that it was withholding information which it had in its possession regarding the number of confirmed student suicides, from its own students. A correction was therefore required under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

23. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that its students did not receive support via “ro[bots]”, and its explanation that its online services were administered by trained counsellors. However, the complainant did not dispute that the student’s statement in which this claim had been made, had been reported accurately in the first article; these comments had not been adopted by the newspaper as fact. Further, it was not in dispute that Kooth Student was a digitised platform through which a student could access support via an online chat service, rather than through a face-to-face meeting. In those circumstances, the Committee did not conclude that the student’s comments gave rise to a misleading impression of the Kooth Student service. This aspect of the complaint did not breach Clause 1.

24. It was not inaccurate to report in the first article that funding for the University’s Student Support and Wellbeing Service had "stayed almost the same" and "remained largely unchanged" in the last five years; this was apparent from the University’s response to the FoI.  Further, it was not misleading to report that the University has said that it “would not” disclose suicide data, when it had said it “could not” at that time. The omission of the specific source of where else figures on suicide had been reported, did not render the article misleading. There was no further breach of Clause 1 in respect of the first article.

25. The second article did not claim that Kooth Student was launched in response to the suspension of Nightline; it made clear that Kooth was piloted by UWE in the same month Nightline was launched. It was not misleading to report that the University had suspended the Nightline service, when it had been one of the two organisations which had made this decision. It was not in dispute that Kooth Student did not operate for a period of 10.5 hours overnight. The Committee noted that the article made clear that other emergency support was available to students during that time period. No misleading impression was given of the support available to students; the second article did not breach Clause 1.

26. The Code does not create an obligation for publication’s to request comment from each individual or organisation that is referred to in an article. In any event, the University was not the focus of the third article; reference to the complainant was made only to explain, accurately, that the man was a former student. There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of the third article.

27. The Committee turned to consider the complaint made under Clause 10. Clause 10 prevents members of the press from engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, unless justified in the public interest. The journalist had used a student’s details in order to log in to Kooth Student. While the journalist had obtained these details with the student’s permission, it remained the case that by accessing a service which was only available to students, the journalist had held himself out as being a student of the University. The Committee noted that the journalist’s misrepresentation was limited. It involved only a brief interaction with the Kooth service in order to experience it as a student of the University would; the journalist did not engage directly with any of the counsellors. There was a public interest in investigating the support available at the University, given the concerns raised about the number of suicides amongst its student population. The Committee considered that the newspaper’s actions in obtaining and publishing information via this method had been proportionate to this clear public interest. There was no breach of Clause 10.

Conclusion

28. The complaint was upheld in part.

Remedial Action Required

29. The newspaper had offered to publish a correction which made clear the correct position that at the time the Freedom of Information request had been made, UWE Bristol did not record information relating to student suicide in a central database. The Committee considered that the newspaper was entitled to challenge the complainant’s position that it did not record this information, in light of the information relied upon by PHE; upon receipt of the further explanations provided by the complainant regarding its record holding, the newspaper promptly offered to publish a correction. The correction was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii) and should now be published both in print and online.

Date complaint received: 20/12/2018

Date decision issued:16/05/2019