Ruling

13135-21 Foster v Wigan Observer

    • Date complaint received

      31st March 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

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

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 13135-21 Foster v Wigan Observer

Summary of Complaint

1. Keith Foster complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Wigan Observer 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 “Vets pay tribute to Christine who was 'dedicated' to her job”, published on 23 November 2021.

2. The article – which appeared on page 4 of the newspaper, with a reference to the story also appearing on the newspaper’s front page – reported that “[t]ributes have been paid to [a woman] whose body was found at a popular Wigan beauty spot”. It reported that the woman had earlier been “reported missing from her home” and identified the street on which she lived, before going on to report that she had “lived alone”.

3. The article also included comments from the woman’s co-worker. He was reported as having said that her colleagues “had no idea of her state of mind” and that “there was no suggestion that she intended to harm herself”. The colleague went on to comment that “[h]er parents […] are going to be devastated”. The article also included a photograph of the woman; the front-page reference included a further picture of her.

4. The complainant was the brother of the woman who had gone missing. He said that the publication of the article was insensitive in breach of Clause 4, and that this was the case as the article had been published prior to the formal identification of his sister’s body. He then said that his sister had been found on 19 November 2021; the coroner had contacted his family to request details to allow him to make the identification of the body on 22 November; the article had been published on 23 November; and then the coroner confirmed with the family on 26 November, formally, that it was his sister’s body. Therefore, the article had been published three days before the coroner had confirmed with the family that it was her body which had been found at the beauty spot.

5. He also said that the publication had not acted with sympathy and discretion as required by the Clause, as neither he nor other family members had been contacted prior to the article’s publication and forewarned of what it would contain.

6. The complainant then said that the article included several inaccuracies, in breach of Clause 1. He first said that the article included unconfirmed speculation, including reporting that his sister’s body had been found where the identity of the body had not been formally confirmed and reporting comments that his siter had “intended to harm herself”.

7. The complainant also said that the reference of his sister’s colleague to her “parents” was inaccurate, as one of his parents had passed away. He further said that the article, in reporting his sister’s partial address and the fact that she lived alone, had raised security concerns. He said that there were further inaccuracies in the article, though he did not specify what the additional inaccuracies were.

8. The complainant also said that the newspaper had breached Clause 2 and Clause 3, for the same reasons noted above.

9. The complainant had contacted the newspaper directly prior to making an IPSO complaint, to make it aware of his concerns regarding the article. He first phoned a journalist working for the paper, and asked how the story had come to be published. The journalist had said that he had contacted the colleague ahead of the story being published, but as he did not have the complainant’s contact details – or the contact details of his family – he had not reached out to them. He had, according to the complainant, attributed this to the volume of work he had. The complainant said that he wished for the matter to be formally investigated, and for there to be no further coverage of his sister’s death in any of the publisher’s publications.

10. The complainant’s concerns were then escalated first to an editor, and then to a more senior member of staff. Both staff members apologised for the distress caused, and said that should the complainant wish to work with the newspaper on a tribute to his sister they would be “more than happy to publish that as well.” The senior member of staff also undertook an internal investigation into how the story came to be written – although this was not completed prior to the complainant contacting IPSO.

11. The publication said it did not accept that the article or the conduct of its staff had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that the police had released two statements to the press. The first statement, which was dated 19 November, had a not-for-publication note indicating that police were searching for the complainant’s sister at the beauty spot. A follow-up statement, sent the following day, said:

Officers searching for missing person […] have sadly located a body in the water at […]  in Wigan at around 10.50am today (19 November). A formal identification has not yet taken place. There are not believed to be any suspicious circumstances and a file will be passed to the coroner.

12. The publication said that, after the release of the second statement, it had been widely reported by several publications – including at least one national publication – that police searching for the complainant’s sister had found a body, that there were not believed to be any suspicious circumstances, and that the file had been passed to the coroner. It also provided copies of some of the articles which also reported on this. Therefore, it said, it could not be the case that the publication had ‘broken the news’ of the complainant’s sister’s death or cause of death to her family, where the police had circulated the above statement 4 days prior to the article’s publication and it had been covered by the press.

13. The publication then said that the police had made a public appeal to members of the public for help in locating the complainant’s sister after she had gone missing. There was, the publication said, a public interest in reporting on the police’s updated statement regarding what had happened to her. It said that the piece was intended to be a tribute piece, focussing on kind words about the kind of person she was – it did not consider that it was an insensitive article in how it referred to the complainant’s sister.

14. Turning to the terms of Clause 4, the publication noted that there is no obligation for publications to contact the relatives of deceased individuals prior to publishing stories. It said that it was often the case that the publication did not consider it necessary to intrude upon the grief of a family at a difficult time and – in this case – where the publication had spoken extensively with a colleague of the complainant’s sister who had known her for many years, it did not consider it necessary or proportionate to contact her family prior to publication

15. The publication then addressed the alleged inaccuracies raised by the complainant. It said that it was clear from statements given by the police and from their actions – bringing the search for the complainant’s sister to an end and passing the file to a coroner – that the body found at the beauty spot was hers; it further noted that there had been no suggestion that this was not the case. It then said that “[i]t is widespread and common practice for the media to report someone's death before formal identification by the coroner if the police are satisfied they know the identity of the deceased.” It did not, therefore, accept that the terms of Clause 1 had been breached.

16.  Turning to the complainant’s Clause 2 concerns, the publication noted the public nature of the appeal made by the police for information on the complainant’s sister’s whereabouts. It said that the extent of the public nature of the appeal could be gathered from the fact that the Facebook appeal for information – which it provided – was shared more than 4,500 times. The Facebook appeal also included the name of her street, and the photographs included in the article were on file from a previous news story the publication had written about her place of work. It did not, therefore, consider that the article published private information in breach of Clause 2.

17. The publication then said that at no point had any journalist working on its behalf sought to contact the complainant, except to respond to the concerns he had raised. It did not therefore consider that the terms of Clause 3 could have possible been breached.

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

18. The Committee first wished to extend its sincere condolences to the complainant for the loss of his sister.

19. The Committee recognised that the loss of his sister was a distressing time for the complainant, and that the article had added to his distress. However, the Committee noted that the terms of Clause 4 do not forbid all reporting of events which may involve personal grief or shock, although publication must be handled sensitively.

20. In this instance, while the Committee understood that the coroner had not formally confirmed the identification of the complainant’s sister with her family at the time of the article’s publication, it noted that this was not a case of the newspaper breaking the news of a loved one’s death to the family. The police had sent a statement to the newspaper three days prior to the article’s publication, confirming that the search for her had been called off and a file passed to the coroner after a body had been found at a local beauty spot; other newspapers had reported on this development, and had linked the discovery of the body with her death. In addition, the coroner had contacted the complainant’s family one day before the article’s publication to request documents which would allow him to make the formal identification. Therefore, while the formal identification had not been made, the publication had had a reasonable basis for considering that they would not be breaking the news of the death to the family, and that the police had made her family aware. In such circumstances, the timing of the article did not constitute insensitive publication under the terms of Clause 4, and there was no breach of the Clause on this point.

21. The complainant had also expressed concerns that the publication had not contacted him or his family prior to the article’s publication. The Committee understood the complainant’s concerns on this point, but noted that the terms of Clause 4 include no requirement for publications to contact the relatives of deceased individuals prior to writing articles about deaths in the community. In the written correspondence the publication had had with the complainant after the publication of the article, it had responded with sympathy and discretion, apologised for any distress caused by the publication of the article, and had escalated the complainant’s concerns in line with his wishes. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 4 in relation to the publication’s contact with the complainant.

22. Turning to the complainant’s concerns under Clause 1, the Committee understood that the complainant had concerns that the newspaper may have published inaccurate information in reporting that the complainant’s sister had been found before her identity had been formally confirmed. However – where it was the case that the body which had been found was the complainant’s sister, and the basis for this claim was a police statement stating that the search for her had been called off after a body had been found – the Committee considered that the newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of this claim, and that it was not significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted.

23. The complainant had also said that the article was in breach of Clause 1 as it included speculation on the part of a colleague about his sister’s state of mind and cause of death, as well as including a reference to their “parents” as opposed to parent. While the Committee understood that this portion of the article caused the complainant distress, the newspaper was entitled to publish the colleague’s thoughts, recollections, and tribute, provided it was correctly distinguished as his thoughts and speculation, as opposed to claims of fact. In this case, where the comments were clearly attributed to the colleague via the use of quote marks and were not adopted by the publication as fact, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. The Committee noted that the complainant had expressed concerns over the security of his sister’s property, as the article had included his sister’s partial address and the fact that she lived alone. However, the terms of Clause 1 relate to the publication of inaccurate, misleading, and distorted information, rather than general concerns about security. In addition, while the complainant had expressed concerns that there were further inaccuracies in the article, the Committee was not able to make a finding on these alleged inaccuracies in circumstances where the nature and extent of the inaccuracies had not been set out. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

25. While the Committee noted that seeing his sister’s death reported in the newspaper had caused him distress and he considered that the reporting had breached Clause 2, it noted that the fact of a death is not private information. The fact that his sister had gone missing and that a body had subsequently been found during the search for her had been widely reported by several news outlets, including a national newspaper, and a public statement had been released by the police. There was no breach of Clause 2.

26. The publication had not contacted the complainant directly, except to respond to the concerns which he flagged directly with them, requesting a response. Where the publication had not sought to contact the complainant directly at any point, there was no breach of Clause 3.

Conclusion(s)

27. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

28. N/A


Date complaint received: 15/12/21

Date decision issued: 09/03/2022