Ruling

09943-21 Louise Hough v walesonline.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      10th March 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock, 5 Reporting suicide

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09943-21 Louise Hough v walesonline.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Louise Hough complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that walesonline.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 5 (Reporting suicide) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “So many people were ill or dying with Covid in my husband's care home he turned a shotgun on himself and took his own life”, published on 10 September 2021.

2. The article reported that the complainant’s late husband had died by suicide after the strain of “running their private care home when the pandemic hit”. It included an interview with the complainant and explained that she was “demanding a Welsh specific inquiry in to [sic] coronavirus” as she believed “a series of failings by the Welsh Government and local health boards led to virus running riot in care homes”. The article stated that the care home had been subject to cases of Covid amongst the staff and residents; of the latter, many had died. It stated that this “had a terrible impact on [the complainant’s husband] who tragically took his own life”. It reported that the complainant had “joined a group of families in Wales calling for a Welsh inquiry into the pandemic called the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru group” and described her as being “furious” with the Welsh government. It quoted comments by the complainant in which she described the pressures of running a care home at the time. The complainant was also quoted as saying that: “My husband committed suicide,” and that he “got his shotgun and shot himself”.

3. The complainant said that the article intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 2. She said that she had agreed to give her story to a journalist along with multiple other people in the context of an article reporting on the campaign of the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru group, who were seeking to establish a Wales-only inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. She noted that this group article had been published two days prior to the article under complaint. She said that she had only consented for the information in the article surrounding the death of her husband and her personal circumstances to be published within this context. The complainant said that the article under complaint, which focused on her story alone rather than the collective experiences of her fellow campaigners, was substantially different from the context in which she had consented for her story to be published. She said, therefore, that the newspaper had published information over which she had a reasonable expectation of privacy without her consent in breach of Clause 2.

4. The complainant also considered that the article breached Clause 4 for the same reasons. Furthermore, she said that the article had been syndicated to several other newspapers, which she had not consented to, and she was concerned that the publication may have profited from syndicating the story. The complainant also said that, after contacting the publication to complain about the article, the journalist had called her to ask whether he could republish it. She said the journalist and editor had acted in a cavalier manner and had not apologised or acknowledged that the article had breached the Code, nor did it give an explanation as to why or how the article had been published by other newspapers. She supplied the direct correspondence her representative had with the newspaper, in which her first contact person at the newspaper had stated “I'm very sorry to hear it ha[d] upset” the complainant and her family, and that it was not the journalist who had sent the article to the other newspapers who had published it.

5. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 5, as she considered that it focused on her husband’s suicide and the method used in a sensationalist manner.

6. Finally, the complainant also said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because it gave the impression her husband was a patient at a care home, rather than the co-owner.

7. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code; however, it apologised for the distress caused and removed the article during direct correspondence with the complainant’s representative. It said that the topic of both the group article and the article under complaint - the promotion of an inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Wales - was an extremely important issue that demanded the necessary coverage and consideration by those in positions of power. It said that it was motivated to publish the article under complaint by journalistic and public interest considerations only.

8. The publication also said that the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over the information included in the article. It said that the original article had included a report which looked at the members of the group, one of whom was the complainant. The initial article, which was not the subject of complaint, had contained all the quotes that had been published in the article under complaint. The publication said that as this information was in the public domain, as well as being covered by other news sources previously, it did not consider that it was intrusive to tell the complainant’s story again. The publication provided examples of other articles which had reported on the complainant’s husband’s death and contained the same images. It also noted that the complainant had given further solo interviews since the article under complaint had been published. The publication said, therefore, that the information under complaint was already within the public domain prior to the publication of the article under complaint, and had been willingly disclosed by the complainant, and therefore it was entitled to republish it.

9. The publication said that all approaches to the complainant when writing the article had been made with sympathy and that publication was handled sensitively. It reiterated its regret for any distress caused and said that this was not the intention of the article. In addition, the publication said that it was common for articles and information to be shared within the publishing group the newspaper belonged to, and that it had no control over public editorial content being published by other newspapers. It said that, in any case, syndication was not a matter that fell under the Editors’ Code.

10. The publication did not consider that the article engaged Clause 5.

11. The publication said that the article made clear that the complainant’s husband “ran” the care home when it stated that the complainant “and her beloved husband were running their private care home when the pandemic hit”.

Relevant Code Provisions

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 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

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.

Clause 5 (Reporting suicide)*

When reporting suicide, to prevent simulative acts care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used, while taking into account the media's right to report legal proceedings.

Findings of the Committee

12. The Committee first recognised the distressing circumstances that the complainant and the group she belonged to had been through, and offered their condolences. The Committee noted that the complainant was concerned about the syndication of the article both outside the newspaper’s publishing group and sharing within the group. Whilst the Committee acknowledged her concerns, these were not issues which in themselves fell within the Code and therefore not something on which the Committee could make a ruling. The role of the Committee was to find whether the actions of the newspaper had breached the terms of the Clauses of the Code cited by the complainant.

13. In order to consider whether there had been an intrusion into the complainant’s private life, the Committee had to consider whether the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over the information in the article; the complainant’s own public disclosures of information; and the extent to which the material complained about was already in the public domain or would become so. The article quoted comments from the complainant in which she spoke about the personal circumstances and her feelings surrounding her husband’s death – which could be information for which she had a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, this material had previously been published in the original group article and linked report several days earlier, with the complainant’s consent. Where this information was already in the public domain with the consent of the complainant, its republication in the article under complaint did not constitute an intrusion into the complainant’s privacy. The publication of the information in a further article that focused exclusively on the complainant’s story did not raise a breach of Clause 2.

14. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant had been surprised and upset by the republication of her comments about her husband’s death, which was a matter of regret, and it welcomed the publication’s removal of the article as a positive response to the complaint. However, it considered that the information had been presented in a sympathetic, factual light within the article, and placed in the context of the complainant’s campaigning work. It did not consider that there was a failure to handle publication sensitively. The Committee also noted that the complainant felt that the journalist and editor had been cavalier after she made a complaint about the article, which she considered to be insensitive. The publication had denied this, saying that communication between the parties had been amiable and sensitive. The Committee noted that the communication complained of had occurred following the publication of the article, and was not therefore an enquiry or approach made in the process of gathering material for an article. In any case, while there were conflicts in the respective accounts of the complainant and the publication over the content of the telephone conversation which the Committee could not resolve, the written communications between the parties which were available to the Committee demonstrated that the newspaper had responded with sensitivity and sympathy, apologising for the distress publication of the article had caused. The Committee did not identify grounds to establish a breach of Clause 4.

15. Clause 5 states that excessive detail must not be used when reporting on cases of suicide, in order to prevent simulation. The article had identified the method of suicide. It did not, however, include further details about the manner of death. Whilst the Committee acknowledged that the headline reference to the method of her husband’s death had caused her upset, this did not amount to excessive detail. Therefore, there was no breach of Clause 5.

16. Finally, the Committee noted that the complainant’s husband was described as running the care home multiple times within the article. It did not consider that the article gave the misleading impression that he was a patient within the care home and there was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion(s)

17. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

18. N/A


Date complaint received: 15/09/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 22/02/2022