Ruling

18363-23 Ali v Telegraph & Argus

    • Date complaint received

      18th October 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 18363-23 Ali v Telegraph & Argus


Summary of Complaint

1. Yasmin Ali complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Telegraph & Argus breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “MAN’S DEATH ‘NOT MURDER’”, published on 5 April 2023.

2. The article, which appeared on the newspaper’s front-page and continued on to page three, described a report into the death of the complainant’s brother. It said: “a report into the death of a Bradford biochemist in Pakistan has shed light on unanswered questions over his passing” and that the report had concluded that “Mr Ali’s death ‘seems to be a natural death and no evidence pointing to murder and suicide has surfaced’”. The article’s sub-heading stated: “Inquiry concludes biochemist died a natural death in Pakistan”.

3. The article also quoted a “spokesperson for the family”, who reportedly said:

• [Ali] had suspected mental health issues (namely Narcissism) from 2002, it progressively became worse over the years and his ability to retain any kind of employment or job degraded from 2006 onwards. One of the reasons for [Mr Ali]’s downfall after Imperial College is he told us he’d contracted a H-pylori bacterial infection that led on to duodenum ulcers. His health issue exasperated his mental health, and he sourced medicinal drugs to help him. He suffered from a seizure in the past but at the time, given it was very early on, it was not a worrying issue. [Mr Ali] never recovered but was taking Flagyl metronidazole frequently to abate his painful symptoms. [Mr Ali] used to scream in pain because of his ulcer.”

4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format. The article was deleted prior to a complaint being made to IPSO, and therefore the publication said it was not able to confirm the precise wording of the online headline – though it was able to confirm that the wording of the article itself was identical.

5. The complainant said the article breached Clause 1 in several ways. Firstly, she said the article stated that her brother had died of natural causes, with the headline claiming that his death was “not murder”. She said this was inaccurate, as the only people who could determine whether the cause of death was natural were forensic pathologists and they had made no such confirmation. The complainant said that the newspaper would have been aware that there were questions around the circumstances of her brother’s death, as a journalist acting on its behalf had attended a press conference she had arranged where the press had been told there may have been “suspicious circumstances” around his death.

6. The complainant said that the report referred to in the article was from October 2022, and was not the “final report”. She said that there was an ongoing legal case in Pakistan regarding the circumstances of her brother’s death which the newspaper had been aware of.

7. She said the article had further breached Clause 1, as it had quoted a spokesperson – her other brother – who said her deceased brother had various health issues, was taking medications, and had struggled with unemployment. The complainant said that her deceased brother did not have any illnesses or mental health issues and that the publication had not gone to any lengths to verify these serious claims about him prior to publishing them in its article.

8. The complainant further said it was inaccurate to describe her surviving brother as a “family spokesperson”. The complainant and her siblings had been corresponding with the journalist about her brother’s death, and she and her sister had informed the journalist that they were the best people to for the newspaper to discuss the case with. The complainant said she knew her deceased brother intimately and was his next-of-kin, whereas her surviving brother was estranged from the family. She acknowledged that she had given permission for her surviving brother to talk to the journalist on one occasion when she was busy, but said that he had not been the media contact for the case.

9. The complainant also said the article had breached Clause 4, as it did not cover the police report sensitively and had used it out of context. She also said that a journalist working on behalf of the newspaper had not handled the article’s publication with sympathy or discretion, nor checked the facts of the article with her before publication.

10. The complainant contacted the publication directly, on the day of the online article’s publication, and requested it delete the article and publish a prominent correction. She also had a virtual meeting with the newspaper two weeks later, and followed this up via email three days later. She requested an apology, and the publication of an article – at least 1000 words long, which would appear in part on the front-page of the newspaper, and which would be checked by her prior to publication – which would ‘correct the record’.

11. Prior to a complaint being made to IPSO, the publication offered the complainant an opportunity to write a follow up article which would explain that she was not happy with the outcome of the police report and that she was still seeking answers. However, it said that it could not guarantee that it would publish the article, as it would depend on the contents of the article and whether it reported on matters which could be said to be newsworthy. It also said that it could not say with certainty that the article would appear on the front-page – there may be other stories which would warrant front-page coverage. The publication also deleted the online version of the article while it internally investigated the complainant’s concerns, and said that if the article was incorrect, it would publish an apology and a correction.

12. Once IPSO began its investigation, the publication confirmed its position that it did not accept a breach of the Code. It said the information regarding the health of the complainant’s deceased brother and his unemployment had been provided by his sibling, and this had been correctly attributed as a quote in the article. To supports its position, it provided an email it had received on 21 March from the surviving brother, which included this quote. The publication said that, following a direct complaint from the complainant and as part of its own internal investigations, it contacted the surviving brother and he had confirmed the information he had given was accurate.

13. The publication did not consider the description of the brother as a “family spokesperson” to be inaccurate. It said that the complainant’s brother was the person who had originally approached the publication about his brother’s death, rather than the complainant or her sister. It also said that, as he was the brother of the deceased individual, he had a right to comment on the case, and had been a source of information on the case since 2022. The publication also noted that he had appeared together with his sisters at a press conference about the death.

14. The publication said that the article – which supported the headline, as required by the terms of Clause 1 (i) of the Code – was an accurate summary of the findings of the police report, and provided a copy of the report in question. The report said: “After analyzing the postmortem, forensic reports and investigation conducted so fit, it seems to be a natural death and no evidence pointing to murder and suicide has surfaced. However, investigation team is further investigating the case to evaluate the aspect of negligence on part of hotel management and employees alongwith any tangible evidences which emerge during investigation [sic]”.

15. The publication said that “not murder” had appeared in the article in quotation marks and therefore it had not been presented as a claim of fact. The publication said that the surviving brother had said the report was the final police report, and that in an email to the publication said there was “no further evidence to suggest now it was murder”.

16. The publication said there was no breach of Clause 4 as the journalist acting on behalf of the newspaper during the preparation of the article under complaint had conducted themselves professionally and with appropriate sympathy and discretion.

17. The publication had published several articles about the complainant’s brother’s death prior to the article under complaint, which the complainant referred to during IPSO’s investigation. She said the publication had previously quoted her surviving brother in one of these articles. In this quote he reportedly said that their deceased brother was “the glue of the family” and that “he’s not just a normal brother, he’s helped me with my education […], he got me intogrammar school by educating me when I was young […] when he did he was paying the fees and worked two jobs alongside his studies". The complainant said this information did not tally with the quote he had given the publication for the article under complaint. Therefore, she said that the publication should have recognised this and taken further steps to verify this information.

Clause 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 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 offer its sincere condolences to the complainant and her family for the loss of her brother.

19. In making its decision, the Committee had regard for the October 2022 police report which appeared to be the basis for the article under complaint. The Committee noted that the report said that the death “seems to be a natural death and no evidence pointing to murder and suicide has surfaced”. As the official police report had indicated that there was “no evidence” that the death was murder it was not inaccurate for the article to summarise the report’s findings as “man’s death ’not murder’” in its headline, particularly in the context of an article which focussed on the report.

20. The article subheading reported: “Inquiry concludes biochemist died a natural death in Pakistan”, which the complainant had said was inaccurate as the report was not final. The Committee noted that there is a difference between a police report and an inquiry, and that there was the potential for the sub-heading to be read as a claim that the report was the outcome of a final inquiry. However, the article had not referred to the report as a final report and – regardless of whether the report was final or there were further inquiries to be made – the publication was entitled to base an article on its contents. In circumstances where the police report had suggested cause of death was natural causes – and the article had set this out in more detail - the findings of the report were accurately reported in the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. The article’s claims about the deceased brother’s heath issues and unemployment had been attributed to a “spokesperson for the family”. This information had been provided by the surviving brother and the Committee understood that the complainant believed this was inaccurate, both because the statement itself was inaccurate and because her brother was not a “spokesperson of the family”. The Committee noted that the surviving brother was entitled to discuss his brother and the circumstances of his death, and publishing his recollections and views of his brother was not, in and of itself, inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. The Committee further noted he had been present at the press conference and had been quoted in previous articles about his deceased brother. In addition, the complainant had not explicitly stated to the journalist that her surviving brother was not a reliable source. In this case, where he was a family member making a comment about his brother’s death, it was not significantly inaccurate to refer to him as a ”spokesperson” and this did not represent a failure to take care over accuracy, where he’d previously spoken to the publication on behalf of the family with their knowledge and agreement.

22. Turning to the content of what the “spokesperson” had said regarding the brother’s health and unemployment, the Committee was not in a position to reconcile the two differing accounts. However, in the Committee’s view, relying on a source within the family did not represent a failure to take care, and the publication had been able to show where it had obtained this quote by providing email correspondence to IPSO during its investigation. Where it was indisputably the case the surviving brother had made the comments attributed to the spokesperson, the article was not inaccurate on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

23. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant disagreed with the contents of the article, but noted that the article simply reported on the findings of an official police report, and included further comments from another sibling. The Committee did not consider, therefore, that the article reached the bar of insensitivity set out by the terms of Clause 4.

24. The Committee next considered whether the behaviour of the publication breached the terms of Clause 4. It did not consider that the publication or anyone acting on its behalf had communicated with the complainant in an insensitive or unsympathetic manner. It also noted the terms of Clause 4 do not require the publication to approach individuals prior to publication, and therefore not approaching the complainant for comment prior to publication did not represent a breach of the Code. There was no breach of Clause 4.

Conclusions

25. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

26. N/A


Date complaint received: 07/05/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 27/09/2023


Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.