Ruling

20516-17 Jones v The Forester

    • Date complaint received

      21st June 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

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

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20516-17 Jones v The Forester 

Summary of Complaint 

1.    Sarah Jones complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Forester breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 5 (Reporting Suicide) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Mental health worker refused help for his own depression”, published on 6 December 2017. 

2.    The article reported that an inquest had concluded that the complainant’s late husband had taken his own life. It described the location in which he was found and specified the ligature which he had used to end his life by hanging. It also reported details of previous attempts which the complainant’s husband had made to end his life; it said that he had been found “after initially trying to hang himself” with another item. 

3.    The article reported evidence heard at the inquest; it said that the complainant had told the court: “I asked him if we got help would he take it. He said he would but he didn’t”. The article also contained a photograph taken on the day of her husband’s death in July which showed emergency services which had attended the incident, parked on the side of the road. 

4.    The complainant said the article included a level of detail about her husband’s suicide which was excessive, and was insensitive. The complainant said that the publication of the photograph was insensitive because it brought back an upsetting moment. 

5.    The complainant said that the second item referred to in the article had been found at the scene, and that the inquest heard that her husband had previously made an aborted attempt at suicide with this item the same day. However she said that this had not been an attempt to “hang himself”. The complainant further said that the evidence quoted in the article had been incorrectly attributed to her; it was her father who had given this evidence. 

6.    The newspaper said that it understood how distressing articles of this nature can be for the families of the people who have died. It said that as a matter of policy, it did not publish suicide stories at the time of the incident: it only reported such cases when they are heard at the Coroner's Court. 

7.    The newspaper said that the article did not contain excessive detail of the method of suicide used by the complainant’s husband, and said that the detail published would not lead to simulative acts. It said that a death by hanging normally implies some sort of ligature to have been used; the report did not reveal how either of the ligatures had been secured, or applied, but just stated that they had been used. 

8.    The newspaper said that there was a public interest in reporting on the circumstances of Mr Jones’ death. It said that on the day of his death there had been an unprecedented number of emergency services personnel in attendance, which drew public attention. It said that it received a number of calls from the public over the subsequent days asking what the incident was; these calls had been prompted by rumours within the community regarding how Mr Jones had died. The newspaper said that there was a specific public interest justification in reporting exactly what had happened to Mr Jones and to dispel the above rumours, with the information disclosed via the Coroner's Court hearing. 

9.    The newspaper said it was accurate to report that Mr Jones had made an earlier attempt to end his life with another item, by hanging. It provided a transcript of the reporters notes which detailed police evidence which referred to this item: "aborted attempt with the [item] which was also found at the scene" and “he had tried the [item] first." The transcript also recorded that the Coroner in her summary had said "He (Mr Jones) had tried another method with [item] earlier that day." 

10. The newspaper was unable to provide reporter’s notes of the inquest to clarify who had made the statement attributed to the complainant in the article. The newspaper, instead approached a representative from a suicide support charity, who had attended the inquest. These notes demonstrated that when the complainant had been giving evidence, as part of that evidence, she had quoted a statement made by her father. Having established the correct position, the newspaper offered to publish the following wording in its established corrections and clarifications column, on p. 2: 

In an article published in the Forester on December 6, 2017 the newspaper stated that as part of Sarah-Jane Jones’ evidence into her husband Marc’s death we attributed the quote: “I asked him if we got help would he take it. He said he would, but he didn’t.” 

It has been pointed out that Mrs Jones was in fact quoting her father and did not make the statement herself. 

The Forester is happy to clarify the situation and apologises for any upset this error might have caused. 

11. The newspaper said that it was entitled to photograph the incident unfolding, having been invited to do so by the police. It said that the picture was published because of the level of public interest originally shown in the incident in July.

Relevant Code Provisions 

12. 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. 

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. 

The Public Interest 

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest. 

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to: 

·         Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety. 

·         Protecting public health or safety. 

·         Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation. 

·         Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject. 

·         Disclosing a miscarriage of justice. 

·         Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public. 

·         Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above. 

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself. 

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so. 

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time. 

Findings of the Committee

13. The Committee first wished to express its condolences to the complainant and her family for their loss. 

14. The purpose of Clause 5 is to prevent the publication of material which might lead to imitative acts. The Committee acknowledged that in cases involving suicide, newspapers are required to make difficult judgements as to which of the details, heard during the course of inquest proceedings, it will publish. Whether particular details are excessive will depend on the circumstances of each case and the Committee acknowledged the careful consideration which the newspaper had given to the level of detail contained in the article, prior to publication. 

15. In this case, the article had specified the ligature which the complainant’s husband had used to end his life. The publication of the precise material which Mr Jones had been used as a ligature identified that a readily available item within the home had been used to end his life. The Committee considered in detail the disclosure of this information. The newspaper had argued that there was a public interest in reporting the circumstances surrounding the complainant’s husband’s death, in order to address the rumours which had been present within the community at the time of his death. The Committee recognised that there is a public interest in newspapers reporting on inquest proceedings. However, the newspaper had not advanced a justification for specifying the ligature which the complainant’s husband had used, nor was there any justification in the article as to why this item had been specified. The publication of the ligature which had been used was excessive and presented the possibility that it might lead to simulative acts. The complaint was therefore upheld as a breach of Clause 5. 

16. The Committee then turned to consider the complaint under Clause 1. While giving evidence at the inquest, the complainant had recalled a statement which had been made by her father, but the article had misattributed her father’s words to her. The Committee were concerned by this error, particularly as it had occurred in an inquest report, and given the sensitivity of the subject matter. However, it was the case that the statement had formed part of the complainant’s oral evidence, and while these words had originally been spoken by her father, there was no dispute that, save for the attribution, the evidence heard by the inquest had been reported accurately. In those circumstances, the Committee did not consider that, by attributing these words to the complainant, the article was significantly inaccurate or misleading. While this unfortunate misattribution did not represent a breach of Clause 1, given the sensitivity of the complaint, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification making clear who had said the words. 

17. The transcript of the reporter’s notes had recorded that the coroner had referred to a previous “aborted attempt” by the complainant’s husband to end his life using another item. The Committee were concerned that the newspaper had been unable to demonstrate that it had taken care over the claim that he had used this item to attempt to end his life by “hanging”, in breach of Clause 1(i). The transcript of the reporters notes had demonstrated that the article had contained a clear misunderstanding of the evidence heard at the inquest: no finding had been made by the coroner in relation to the method by which the complainant’s husband had used this item. However, in these particular circumstances, the Committee declined to make a further finding under Clause 1(ii). There was no public interest in requiring the publication of a correction which would result in the identification of excessive detail of the method used to attempt suicide.  

18. The article was an inquest report in which the details heard had been published in a factual and non-sensational way. The photograph accompanying the article had shown emergency services attending the scene; it did not disclose information regarding the circumstances surrounding the complainant’s husband death, nor did it disclose information relating to his close family members. In those circumstances, the Committee concluded that publication had not been handled insensitively, and there was no breach of Clause 4. 

Conclusions 

19. The complaint was upheld in part. 

Remedial Action Required 

20. Having upheld the complaint in part, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. 

21. The newspaper had published excessive detail regarding the method of suicide in breach of Clause 5. In such circumstances, the appropriate remedy was the publication of an adjudication. 

22. As the breach of the Code had appeared on p. 4 of the print edition, the Committee decided that the adjudication should be published on p. 4 or further forward. 

23. The headline to the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, give the title of the newspaper and refer to the complaint’s subject matter. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance. 

24. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows: 

Sarah Jones complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Forester breached Clause 5 (Reporting Suicide) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Mental health worker refused help for his own depression”, published on 6 December 2017. The complaint was upheld, and IPSO has required The Forester to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach. 

The article reported that an inquest had concluded that the complainant’s late husband had taken his own life, and specified the ligature which he had used to end his life by hanging. 

The complainant said the article included a level of detail about her husband’s suicide which was excessive, and was insensitive. 

The newspaper said that it understood how distressing articles of this nature can be for the families of the people who have died. It believed that the article did not contain excessive detail of the method of suicide used by the complainant’s husband, and said that the detail published would not lead to simulative acts. 

The Committee decided that the publication of the precise material which the complainant’s husband had been used as a ligature identified that a readily available item within the home had been used to end his life. The Committee recognised that newspaper’s play an important public function in reporting on inquest proceedings. However, the newspaper had not advanced a specific public interest justification in specifying the ligature which the complainant’s husband had used, nor was there any justification in the article as to why this item had been specified. The publication of the ligature which had been used was excessive and presented the possibility that it might lead to simulative acts. The complaint was therefore upheld as a breach of Clause 5. 

Date complaint received: 07/12/2017

Date decision issued: 25/05/2018