Ruling

11883-15 Taylor v Gravesend News Shopper

    • Date complaint received

      15th March 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 5 Reporting suicide

Decision of the Complaints Committee 11883-15 Taylor v Gravesend News Shopper

Summary of complaint

1. Naomi Taylor complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Gravesend News Shopper breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Gravesend father blames lack of help after depressed daughter found hanged in bedroom”, published online on 4 December 2015, and headlined “Woman found hanged had suffered depression”, published in print on 9 December 2015.

2. The online version of the article reported the inquest of Kayley Fothergill, the complainant’s daughter. It said that the inquest heard that Ms Fothergill had depression, and had hanged herself in her bedroom “following a drinking session”. It reported that Ms Fothergill’s stepfather “accused doctors of a lack of concern and understanding … after she allegedly visited the doctors several times for help”. It said that Ms Fothergill’s mother had found her “at around 2.10am”, and that it was thought that she had been there since “just before 8pm”. It included comments from the investigating police officer who told the court that a neighbour had seen Ms Fothergill through a window, and had described her as hanging like a “plastic doll”. The article also included information about the method of suicide.

3. The article appeared in substantively the same form in print, but did not include reference to the neighbour’s description of Ms Fothergill.

4. The complainant said the article included a level of detail about Ms Fothergill’s suicide which was excessive, and that it was insensitive in breach of Clause 5 for the article to include the neighbour’s description of Ms Fothergill. The complainant also said that it was insensitive for the article to have been published at all; she had contacted the newspaper at the time of publication and had asked for the article to be withheld.

5. The complainant said that the article had incorrectly reported the time of Ms Fothergill’s death and when her body had been found; it was also inaccurate to report that she had found Ms Fothergill; and Ms Fothergill had not been found hanged as described in the article.

6. The newspaper expressed its condolences for the complainant’s loss. It said that, when publishing inquest reports, it took great care to ensure that no unnecessary and insensitive details were included. In this instance, while it understood that any description of Ms Fothergill following her death could have been distressing for the family to read, it took the view that the inclusion of the neighbour’s description – which was primary evidence given to the investigating police officer by an eyewitness – was both necessary and justified. This illustrated the tragic nature of her death, and the neighbour’s anguish at seeing her through the window.

7. The newspaper did not accept that the article contained excessive detail of the method of suicide used by Ms Fothergill. It said that the information published about the method omitted significant details heard during the inquest proceedings, and would not be sufficient to allow imitation.

8. The newspaper noted that in any case, it had exercised discretion when selecting the material for publication. It said that during the inquest proceedings, the court had heard a great many details about Ms Fothergill’s life and personal circumstances which the newspaper had decided not to publish. It said that this demonstrated that sympathy and discretion had been exercised prior to publication.

9. The newspaper noted that following the inquest, another member of the family had requested that the inquest should not be reported at all. The newspaper said that the publication deadline had already passed by the time it had been contacted by the complainant. It was therefore unable to consider her request to withhold publication in the newspaper, and said that in any case it would not have acceded. It said that the coroner made clear that publishing reports on the inquest was a matter of editorial discretion. Further, prior to publication, the reporter had confirmed with the coroner’s court that no reporting restrictions were in place.

10. The newspaper said that the details included in the article had been heard at the inquest. The reporter had taken detailed notes during the proceedings, and had reproduced accurately the details relating to the time of death, who had discovered the body and when, and  how Ms Fothergill had been found hanged. The newspaper provided a copy of these notes in support of its position. It offered to correct any points which could be shown to have given an inaccurate representation of the inquest proceedings.

Relevant Code Provisions

11. 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.

iii) The press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

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

12. The Committee recognised the importance of the principle of open justice, which is protected explicitly by the terms of Clause 5. As such – and while the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern about the article in the circumstances – the editorial decision to publish a report of the inquest following the family’s request not to do so did not raise a breach of Clause 5.

13. While Clause 5 protects the press’ right to report legal proceedings, it requires that publication is handled sensitively in cases involving personal grief or shock. The Committee noted the newspaper’s position that it was necessary to include the comparison of Ms Fothergill to a “plastic doll”. It took the view, however, that this comparison was gratuitous; given the potential for such an emotive description to cause distress, its inclusion represented a failure to handle publication sensitively. The Committee upheld this aspect of the complaint as a breach of Clause 5 (i), in respect of the online article.

14. The important right of the newspaper to report the public hearing of an inquest was a relevant issue for the Committee to consider when approaching the separate and distinct issue as to whether the details of Ms Fothergill’s suicide were excessive within the meaning of Clause 5(ii).

15. There is no means of drawing a clear black line between details which may be published, in compliance with Clause 5(ii), and those which may not.  The rule does not forbid the publication of all details but it does recognise that a line may be crossed. While the Committee is able to provide guidance through its decisions, the nuance of each case will vary and consideration of the details given by the newspaper must be considered in the context of the case as a whole.

16. The Committee noted the newspaper’s position that the article did not reproduce in the same level of detail the method of Ms Fothergill’s suicide, as was heard during the inquest proceedings. It welcomed the consideration given by the newspaper to which details to omit, and noted that the purpose of Clause 5 (ii) is to prevent the publication of material that might lead others to imitate a method of suicide. It took the view that the level of detail included in the article about the specific method of Ms Fothergill’s suicide did not go so far as to be excessive under the terms of Clause 5 (ii).

17. The newspaper had provided copies of notes taken by the reporter during the inquest proceedings. The details reported in the article relating to the time of death and the circumstances in which Ms Fothergill’s body was found were corroborated by the notes. This demonstrated that the newspaper had taken care not to publish inaccurate information, and there was no breach of Clause 1 (i). The Committee noted that newspapers are not responsible for the accuracy of information given in court; rather they have an obligation to accurately report proceedings. In this instance, the Committee did not establish grounds to suggest that the newspaper had inaccurately reported the inquest proceedings, and there was no correction required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusions

18. The complaint was upheld under Clause 5.

Remedial Action Required

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

20. The newspaper had failed to handle publication sensitively in breach of Clause 5 (i).

21. In order to remedy the breach 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. Should the newspaper intend to continue to publish the article online, without amendment, in light of this decision, it should also publish the adjudication in full, beneath the headline.

22. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows:

Following the publication online of an article in the Gravesend News Shopper on 4 December 2015 headlined “Gravesend father blames lack of help after depressed daughter found hanged in bedroom”, Naomi Taylor complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Gravesend News Shopper breached Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The complaint was upheld by IPSO’s Complaints Committee and the Gravesend News Shopper was required to publish this adjudication.

The article was a report of the inquest into the death of the complainant’s daughter. It said that the complainant’s daughter had hanged herself, and included a description of her body which a witness had given during inquest proceedings.

The complainant said that the description was insensitive in breach of Clause 5.

The newspaper said that the publication of the description was necessary, as it illustrated the tragedy of Ms Fothergill’s death, and did not consider that it was insensitive to include it in the coverage.

The Committee noted that while the terms of Clause 5 protect the press’ right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests, they do require that publication is handled sensitively in cases involving personal grief or shock. The Committee found that the description included in the article was gratuitous; given the potential for such an emotive description to cause distress, its inclusion represented a failure to handle publication sensitively. The Committee upheld the complaint as a breach of Clause 5.

Date complaint received: 27/12/2015
Date decision issued: 15/03/2016