Ruling

22282-23 Sawyer v mirror.co.uk

  • Complaint Summary

    Catherine Sawyer complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that mirror.co.uk 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 “Grieving young mum 'saw friends having fun without her' before taking her own life”, published on 31 October 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      19th June 2024

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

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

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 22282-23 Sawyer v mirror.co.uk


Summary of Complaint

1. Catherine Sawyer complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that mirror.co.uk 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 “Grieving young mum 'saw friends having fun without her' before taking her own life”, published on 31 October 2023.

2. The article – which appeared online only – reported on an inquest into the death of the complainant’s sister who was found “at home”, “hanged”, in February 2022. The article reported that “the court heard” several details about the woman’s death, including that her “dad […] went to her house, but couldn't get in as his daughter had left her key in the lock. He forced his way in”. It also said that the woman’s “mental health began to deteriorate when her elder sister took her own life”, and that the woman’s partner “said [she] began to believe her sister was still alive and that she was being ‘tricked’”.

3. The article also reported that the deceased woman’s “mother […] said she struggled. She said her daughter saw friends having a ‘whale of a time’ on social media without her”. In addition to this, the article reported that “[o]n November 14 […the woman] was then admitted to […] a mental health hospital for wom[e]n”.

4. The complainant said headline of the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as she believed it sensationalised her sister’s death, and reported it in a simplified manner. In addition to this, she said that the article’s claim that her sister “saw friends having a ‘whale of a time’ on social media without her” exaggerated the role social media played in her sister’s death. She said this was merely commented on during the inquest rather than being one of the defining factors that contributed to it, and the headline and article unduly focused on this single factor.

5. The complainant also said that the article inaccurately reported that her “dad [...] went to [the deceased woman’s] house“ and had “forced his way in”, as it was the police who had forced entry into the house. She also said it inaccurately reported that the deceased woman’s partner said “began to believe her sister was still alive and that she was being ‘tricked’”; she said it was a consultant who had said this, and not her sister’s partner. She also said that her mother had never “said her daughter saw friends having a "whale of a time" on social media without her”, as it was the coroner who said this.

6. In addition to this, the complainant said the article was inaccurate as she felt it suggested that her sister died upon being released from hospital, when in fact there were three months between her leaving hospital and her death.

7. The complainant also said the article breached Clause 4 as it was published the day after the inquest hearing, and referred to how her sister had died and the location of her death. The complainant felt this was neither sensitive nor sympathetic towards her sister’s friends and family. Further to this, the complainant said she and her family were asked to contact the reporter, present at the inquest, to make a statement but did not feel like they were given enough time to do so. The complainant also said that, while at the inquest hearing, she asked for the article to be written in a sensitive manner. The complainant added that neither she nor her family was told that the article would be published the day after the inquest.

8. The complainant said the article breached Clause 5 as it reported the method and location of her sister’s death – which she felt was unnecessary and caused her family distress. She believed that the article highlighted that hanging was a successful method to readers who were struggling with their mental health, and wanted this information to be removed to protect her sister’s children. The complainant referred to the guidelines used by most mental health charities, which she considered advised publications not to mention the type of method used when reporting that a person had taken their own life. The complainant considered that reporting a “simple cause” of her sister’s death and trivialising death by suicide mocked the illness and suffering caused by suicide, and also expressed concern that the article did not link to specific mental health and suicide charities.

9. On the day it received the complaint from IPSO, the publication updated the article by removing the reference to the complainant’s father forcing his way into the house, and added the following footnote correction on 28 November 2023:

“A previous version of this article reported that [the woman’s] father had forced his way into [the woman’s] house and found her. In fact, it was the Police who entered [the woman’s] property and found her. The article has been amended accordingly and we would like to apologise for the error.”

10. The publication also provided an audio recording of the inquest. Part of this recording referred to the fact that “the police had blue-lighted round” after the complainant’s father attended his daughter’s house and was unable to enter as the woman had left the key “sidewards” in the door.

11. The publication did not accept that the article’s headline breached the Code, though it said it regretted any upset it had caused. It said it did not consider the headline sensationalised the woman’s death as, during the hearing, the coroner specifically asked if social media 'played a part' in the complainant’s sister’s death, to which the complainant’s mother replied: “Yes. It was my friends are doing this, my friends are doing that and that affected her more so towards the end of her life”. It supported its position on this point by providing the reporter’s notes, taken during the inquest; as well as an audio recording of the inquest hearing and a transcript of the relevant sections that were in dispute.

12. The publication also did not accept a breach of Clause 1 in relation to the article’s claim that the deceased woman’s partner “said [she] began to believe her sister was still alive and that she was being ‘tricked’”. It referred to the recording of the inquest, which said:

Partner: Obviously I wanted her to come home, you know it’s not nice her being in there in the first place but she needed to be there she needed help.

Coroner: Can you sum up for me what your concerns were about her mental health? At that stage.

Partner: Yeah so almost every day I would get a phone call or text message telling me she wanted to kill herself. She wasn’t in a good place mentally, she still believed her sister was alive and everyone was playing a joke on her.

13. The publication did not accept that the article inaccurately reported the mother’s claim that her deceased daughter “said she struggled. The publication again referred to the transcript of the inquest:

Coroner: As is typical with so many people social media played a part, as well didn’t it?

Complainant’s mother: Yes. It was my friends are doing this, my friends are doing that and that affected her more so towards the end of her life when she wasn’t feeling her best any way that everyone was having a whale of a time and she was where she was.

14. The publication also did not accept a breach of Clause 1 in relation to the complainant’s concern that the article implied her sister had died upon being released from hospital, rather than three months later. The publication said the article reported that the sister had been admitted to hospital in November and that she died the following February.

15. In response to the alleged breach of Clause 4, the publication said it was satisfied that the approach to the complainant and her family, made by the reporter while at court, was made sensitively. It said that the reporter approached the family during the inquest and asked if they would like to send over a tribute or any photos of the complainant’s sister. The publication provided a memo from the journalist who attended the hearing in which she said that she provided her email address to the complainant and her family, and believed she advised that the story would likely be published the following day. In these circumstances, the publication did not consider this represented a breach of Clause 4.

16. Turning to Clause 5, the publication did not consider it was excessively detailed to report that the complainant’s sister was found hanged. The publication said it took care to ensure no further detail was included; for example, the type of ligature used.

17. During IPSO’s investigation, and after listening to the audio recording of the inquest proceedings, the complainant accepted that it was the deceased woman’s partner who had said she “believed her sister was still alive”, rather than a consultant as she had initially believed.

Relevant 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.

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.

Findings of the Committee

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

19. The Committee first considered whether the article had inaccurately reported that the complainant’s father “went to her house, but couldn't get in as his daughter had left her key in the lock. He forced his way in”. Both parties accepted that this was not accurate: the complainant’s father had not forced his way into her house. Rather, it was the police who had done so. The question for the Committee was whether the publication had taken care not to report inaccurate information on this point.

20. In deciding whether care had been taken on the above point, the Committee noted the notes provided by the publication, taken during the inquest, did not include any reference to the father having forced entry to the woman’s home. The audio recording, provided by the publication, highlighted that it was the police who “blue-lighted round” after the complainant’s father had attended her house and was unable to enter as the complainant’s sister had left the key “sidewards” in the door. Where the audio recording directly contradicted the article, the Committee considered the publication had failed to take care over the accuracy of this claim, therefore, there was a breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point.

21. This inaccurate information was significant, given that it related to an inquest hearing, and the importance of reporting such sensitive and serious matters accurately. Therefore, a correction was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

22. The Committee next considered whether the correction published was sufficient to address the terms of Clause 1(ii), which requires that significantly inaccurate information is corrected promptly and with due prominence. The Committee considered the footnote correction was sufficiently prominent, given the fact that the inaccurate information appeared only in the text of the article and the article had been amended to remove it.

23. Turning next to the wording of the correction, the Committee considered that it put the correct position on record, by making clear that “it was the Police who entered [the woman’s] property and found her”. The Committee also considered that the correction, offered on 28 November 2023 and published on the same day it received the complaint from IPSO, was sufficiently prompt. Therefore, there was no further breach of Clause 1(ii).

24. When considering whether the headline of the article sensationalised the complainant’s sister’s death, and inaccurately inferred that social media was a prominent factor in the woman’s death the Committee noted that the terms of Clause 1 cover the care taken by publications not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and to correct significantly inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, rather than concerns about the presentation of the material itself. The Committee also had regard for the transcript provided by the publication, which appeared to show the complainant’s mother had stated that social media played a part in the complainant’s sister’s death. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider there was a breach of Clause 1 on this point.

25. Turning next to whether the article inaccurately reported that the woman’s partner “said [she] began to believe her sister was still alive and that she was being ‘tricked’”, the Committee noted that during IPSO’s investigation, the complainant accepted that this was not inaccurate. Where both parties were in agreement that this was not inaccurate, the Committee did not consider this was a breach of Clause 1 on this point.

26. The Committee next considered whether the article had inaccurately reported that “mother said she struggled. She said her daughter saw friends having a ‘whale of a time’ on social media without her”. The Committee again had regard for the audio recording provided by the publication. This recording showed that, while it was the coroner who had asked the complainant’s mother about whether social media had played a role in the death, the mother had responded by saying, “Yes. It was my friends are doing this, my friends are doing that and that affected her more so towards the end of her life when she wasn’t feeling her best any way that everyone was having a whale of a time and she was where she was”. As the article accurately quoted the complainant’s mother, there was no breach of Clause 1.

27. The Committee also considered whether the article had inaccurately suggested that the woman had died soon after being released from hospital. However, it noted that the article made clear that the woman was admitted to hospital in November, and died the following February. It therefore did not consider this to be a breach of Clause 1.

28. The Committee turned next to the alleged breach of Clause 4 and considered the complainant’s concern that including the location and method of her sister’s death intruded into the family’s grief. While the Committee noted that the method and location of the complainant’s sister’s death had been distressing for the woman’s family and friends to read, this information was presented in a factual manner, in the form of extensive quotes from the inquest. The Committee was also mindful that it is a fundamental principle of open justice that court proceedings can be reported on by the media in an open and transparent way. Therefore, the Committee did not consider it was insensitive in breach of the Code for the publication to have reported this information. As such, the Committee did not consider there was a breach of Clause 4 on this point.

29. The Committee then considered whether the approach made by the reporter at the hearing intruded into the family’s grief and breached Clause 4. While the Committee appreciated that the family felt their grief was intruded upon by the reporter, it did not consider that the approach demonstrated a lack of sympathy or discretion, in light of the fact that the terms of the Clause do not prohibit approaches to grieving individuals. In addition, complainant had not alleged that the approach itself was intrusive. Rather, she had expressed concern that the article was published too soon after the approach and that she was not given sufficient time to provide a statement. While the Committee understood that this had upset the complainant, it did not consider that this meant that the approach made by the reporter was done without sympathy or discretion. In these circumstances, there was no breach of Clause 4.

30. While the Committee acknowledged that the publication of the article had caused the complainant and her family concern and upset, it did not consider that the article contained a level of detail of the method used or the location in which it took place that was excessive in breach of Clause 5, to the extent that there was a risk of simulative acts: The article did not include details beyond the fact that she had died by hanging – for instance, the ligature or the point of suspension. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider the article gave rise to the level of excessive detail in breach of Clause 5.

31. The complainant had also expressed concerns that the article did not flag specific mental health charities, was not written with the guidelines of these charities in mind, and trivialised death by suicide. The Committee first noted that the article did not appear to mock or trivialise death by suicide: as noted above, it was a factual report of inquest proceedings, though it acknowledged the complainant’s sincere concerns on this point. However, Clause 5 relates to concerns around excessive detail of the method of suicide and, in such circumstances, there was no breach of the Code on this point.

Conclusions

32. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1 (i).

Remedial action required

33. The published correction put the correct position on record and was offered promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required.


Date complaint received: 08/11/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 31/05/2024