Ruling

12091-22 Scott v The Courier

    • Date complaint received

      16th February 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 12091-22 Scott v The Courier

Summary of Complaint

1. Maureen Scott complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Courier breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Tributes made to nursery worker in road crash tragedy / Tributes pour in for victim of road crash”, published on 30 September 2022 and an article headlined “Probe into conduct of death crash medic / Probe into conduct of paramedic”, published on 28 October 2022.

2. The first article reported on tributes to a “nursery worker” who had died in a “road crash”. It stated that her “death was announced on the Facebook page” of a local funeral directors, and contained a copy of the announcement. The article reported that she “worked at” a local nursery and included a quote from a Council spokesperson, who said she had worked at the nursery for “for six years and was a valued member of the nursery team there”. The article also stated that she “had been driving a red Ford Focus” during the collision.

3. The first article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “Tributes paid to Perth woman, 26, killed in Fife road crash”. This version of the article was published on 29 September.

4. The second article reported on a “probe” that had been “launched into the conduct of a paramedic” present at the scene of the woman’s death. It named the woman who had passed away and said that the cars involved in the incident were “a red Ford Focus and a blue Jaguar I-Pace”. It described how “The Scottish Ambulance Service (Sas) is investigating one of its staff members after a complaint was made about their behaviour at the scene – although the nature of this has not been made public”. It contained a quote from a spokesperson from the ambulance service, as well as repeating the first article’s quote from the funeral director’s announcement and the Council spokesperson.

5. The second article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline “Paramedic investigated over conduct at scene of Fife crash that killed Perth woman”, published on 27 October.

6. On 28 September – prior to the publication of both articles under complaint – a journalist acting on behalf of the publication visited the home of the complainant, the mother of the woman who had died, to ask for a comment. The complainant’s sister answered the door and gave no comment.

7. On 29 September, the day after the first article was published online, the complainant’s nephew contacted the newspaper via Facebook messenger stating that “the family” had not approved the article and that the family considered the article inaccurate, though he did not specify why. He requested that the article be removed. When asked by the publication, he said he was “a family member” but did not specify his exact relation to the woman who had died, and that it was “disgusting” for the journalist to approach the family three days after the woman’s death, though he did not expressly request that the publication not contact the family. The publication asked if it could speak to the man by phone, who said he did not want to.

8. On 25 October – after the first article’s publication, but prior to the publication of the second article – a reporter acting on behalf of the publication posted a note through the complainant’s door asking to talk and leaving their phone number.

9. On 26 October, the same reporter contacted the complainant by phone. The complainant answered, and the reporter asked for her comment on the allegations made against the paramedic. The complainant was not aware of the allegations at that time.

10. On 27 October, the complainant contacted IPSO with her concerns about the conduct of the reporter. At the complainant’s request, IPSO passed on to the publication an email request that they not contact her or her family.

11. The complainant said that the articles were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said that her daughter had not worked in childcare for several months prior to her death and had in fact been a working as a duty manager in a hotel. The complainant also said that the “red Ford Focus” referred to in the articles was not her daughter’s car but a courtesy car.

12. The complainant said that the article intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 2, as neither the police nor the family had released information that linked her daughter to the accident – but that the newspaper had published it directly from the funeral director’s social media post. She said that the publication would not have known for certain that the woman who died was her daughter; rather, it had put together the information from the crash and the Facebook post.

13. The complainant also said that the newspaper had breached Clause 3, as she considered that the newspaper had been told by her nephew via Facebook messenger on 29 September that the family did not want to speak to any reporters, but the publication had then contacted her a month later about the second article. She said that she had not been contacted by the publication since she had asked IPSO to send the request to desist contacting her, on behalf of her and her family, on 27 October. 

14. The complainant also said that the article intruded into her grief and shock in breach of Clause 4. She said that in neither case had the publication of the articles been handled sensitively, as both appeared on the front page despite her nephew asking for the first online article to be deleted. The complainant also said that a journalist had come to her door for comment a few days after her daughter’s death, when she was still in shock. She said that her sister had spoken to the reporter, and that she had made clear there was no comment and could not recall stating that it was her niece who had died in the accident. The complainant believed this course of conduct lacked the sympathy and discretion required by the Code.

15. The complainant also said that the phone call between herself and a reporter on 26 October had revealed to her that one of the first responders to the scene was under investigation – which she had not been aware of. She said that finding out this information from the journalists had added to her grief and suffering – particularly as she did not know the exact allegations against the paramedic.

16. The publication firstly stated that it had a great deal of sympathy for the complainant and her family, however it did not accept that either article raised a breach of the Code. The publication accepted that the complainant’s daughter had not been a nursery worker at the time of her death, and whilst it apologised for the error it did not consider that it was significant where she had worked in the role for several years prior to changing career. It also said it was not inaccurate to report that the complainant’s daughter had been driving a red Ford Focus at the time of her death – the articles did not report that she owned the car. It did, however, offer to amend the articles online and publish a clarification on page two to make clear that the complainant’s daughter was working at a hotel at the time of her death and to clarify that she was driving a courtesy car. It also offered to make a charitable donation to a good cause of the complainant’s choosing.

17. The publication also did not consider that the articles intruded into the complainant’s privacy in breach of Clause 2. It noted that the road accident led to the closure of a major road and had a large emergency response. It then said that the complainant’s daughter’s death was not private and was also in the public interest – it also noted that the police had reported that a “26-year-old woman was pronounced dead at the scene” on 26 September. It also noted that the funeral director had posted a tribute on a publicly available Facebook page, which named the complainant’s daughter, stated that she was 26 and that she had been “tragically taken [… as a] result of a tragic accident, on Monday, 26th September 2022”.

18. With regards to Clause 3, the publication noted that it had been contacted by a person purporting to be a member of the complainant’s family – however, it had concerns about the veracity of the man’s identity and what his connection was to the story. The publication said it would need to speak to the man over the phone, and not via Facebook, in order to verify his identity and clarify his concerns, but the man did not wish to. Furthermore, the publication said its approaches to the family were justified, proportionate and handled sensitively in line with its commitments under the Editors’ Code. It also said that it had not contacted the complainant or her family since it had received the request via IPSO not to contact her or her family.

19. In relation to Clause 4, the publication did not consider that it had made any intrusive or unsympathetic approaches and believed that publication of both articles had been handled sensitively. It said that it first approached the complainant’s house for comment and spoke to the complainant’s sister, and that it was confident that this approach was done sympathetically. It said that a short conversation took place and, at variance with the account provided by the complainant, said it was confirmed that the complainant’s daughter who had been involved in the accident and that the family were not in a position to comment. It noted that no comment was attributed to the family in the article.

20. The publication accepted that it spoke to the complainant directly before the publication of the second article, and on this occasion did reveal the allegations against the paramedic to the complainant. The publication expressed regret about the circumstances which led to it revealing this information to the complainant, but believed that the problem lay with the Scottish Ambulance Services for not bringing the allegations to the complainant in a timely manner – noting that there was almost a full month between the first and second stories being published, and that the allegations were raised during this period. It said that it had approached the ambulance service regarding the allegations on the 24 October, and had received the quote from the service, published in the second article, on 25 October. The publication was not told by the ambulance service at this point that the family was unaware of the allegations. The publication said that the reporter was aware the complainant was distressed, but she had not been angry with the reporter nor was there any difficulty during the phone call – she said the conversation had been polite and reasonable.

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 3 (Harassment)*

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii)  Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

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.

Findings of the Committee

21. The Committee firstly expressed its condolences to the complainant and her family for their loss.

22. The first article had described that complainant’s daughter as being a “nursery worker” when in fact she had stopped working in a nursery several months prior to her death. Where the complainant’s daughter had worked as a nursery worker for six years, up until just a few months prior to her death, it was not significantly inaccurate to describe her as a nursery worker; her employment in that role was both sustained and recent. In addition, whilst the article did not explicitly state that the car being driven was a courtesy car, it correctly described the car’s make, model and colour and did not state that the car was owned by the complainant’s daughter – simply that she was driving it at the time of the accident, which was not disputed. On this basis, there was no breach of Clause 1.

23. The Committee then turned to the complainant’s concerns under Clause 2. Whilst the Committee noted the complainant’s concerns that neither the family, nor the police, had told the publication that her daughter had died in the crash, it made clear that the fact of a death is not private, and journalists are entitled to report on deaths in the community. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 2.

24. With regards to Clause 3, the Committee considered the series of contacts the journalists working on behalf of the publication had made. A reporter had spoken to the complainant’s sister and had left after establishing that the family did not wish to make a comment. She had not asked the newspaper to stop contacting her or her family further at this time. The publication had later been contacted by the complainant’s nephew, who did not identify his exact connection to the family and said he did not want to speak on the phone to any journalists. Whilst he said the family did not wish for the article to be published, and that he found it “disgusting” they had been contacted so soon after the death, he did not state that any specific members of the family were making a request not to be contacted by the newspaper.

25. Almost a month after the nephew contacted the publication, the complainant received a note and a phone call from a reporter – again, it did not appear that the complainant had requested that the publication desist in contacting her in response to this approach. The complainant did make a request for her and her family not to be contacted after the publication of the second article – after which the publication did not contact them again. On this basis, the Committee did not conclude that the publication had persisted in contacting the complainant after being asked to desist from doing so. After reviewing the messages on social media and the accounts of the conversations that took place, the Committee did not consider that any of the contact was either intimidating or harassing where the language used by the newspaper was sympathetic and professional. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 3.

26. With regards to the complainant’s concerns that the publication of the two articles was not handled sensitively, whilst the Committee acknowledged that the articles’ publication had caused the complainant and her family distress, the articles did not report on the incident or the allegations against the paramedic in a way that was insensitive, but simply reiterated the details of both, as well as acting as a tribute to the complainant’s daughter. With regards to the approach made to the complainant’s home three days after her daughter’s death, the complainant did not engage with the reporter herself, and newspapers are entitled to contact the bereaved to see if they have anything they want published on the matter. Speaking to the complainant’s sister was not insensitive where the complainant had not specified any language or actions that were unsympathetic. There was no breach of Clause 4 on those points.

27. The Committee acknowledged that the publication had revealed that allegations had been made against the paramedic before the complainant had been told by the relevant authority. When considering whether this engaged Clause 4, the Committee noted that the reporter contacted the complainant a month after the incident had occurred. Before speaking to the family it had approached the ambulance service – who did not inform the reporter that the complainant and her family were unaware of the allegations. Given the delay between the incident and the newspaper’s contact, and the limited content of the information revealed by the publication, the Committee did not consider that the approach was unsympathetic and there was no breach of Clause 4.

Conclusion(s)

28. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

29. N/A


Date complaint received: 27/10/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 31/01/2023