By Daisy Cooper
(Additional research by Georgia Tomlinson)
The daily newspapers in February made for sombre reading. There were five stories, comprising 13 articles, where editors used instances of suicide and death to sell papers.
On Wednesday 11 February at 23.06, the BBC posted an article online by political editor Nick Robinson entitled “Who’s winning the tax dodge row?” In reporting that day’s Prime Minister’s questions and the opposition Leader’s repeated questioning about Tory donors, Robinson wrote “The Labour leader’s aides say that he sees this as another Milly Dowler moment – the moment when he spoke out against phone hacking and took on Rupert Murdoch.” The following morning, after complaints on Twitter about the reference to Milly Dowler, the Labour party denied that its leader or his aides had used any such phrase, and Nick Robinson clarified that he “did not quote anyone”.
By 11:36am, Spectator blogger Isabel Hardman had published a piece which explained that ‘Nick Robinson has clarified his blog’ (referencing Robinson’s ‘Calm down Twitter’ tweet). The Hardman blog included a quote from a Labour party spokesperson who said: “Ed is not comparing this to a Milly Dowler moment. This is about standing up for what is right, not making comparisons.”
Just minutes earlier, at 11:28 on Thursday 12 February, the Daily Telegraph published its own online story. The article itself was fairly even-handed, reporting two paragraphs of Nick Robinson’s article putting the reference in context, the Labour party’s denial that it had used the term, and Mr Robinson’s later clarifications on twitter. In light of this, the Telegraph’s headline – “Ed Miliband sees tax avoidance row as another ‘Milly Dowler’ moment” – was clearly misleading and therefore a breach of the Editors’ Code on accuracy.
Whilst Robinson’s reference was clearly clumsy, it appeared that the matter had been put to bed.
Instead, what followed over the next two days was a series of manifestly misleading and apparently politically motivated headlines. . On Friday 13th February the Daily Mail, The Times, the Daily Telegraph and The Sun printed inaccurate headlines and straplines – all breaching Article 1 of the Editors’ Code on Accuracy – accusing the Labour party of using Milly Dowler in its electioneering.
There seems to be little chance of IPSO finding such a breach, following its rulings in Littler v Sunday Express, and Elton-Campbell v Daily Mail. In those cases, IPSO decided that an inaccurate headline is not misleading (or even a significant inaccuracy) if the “overall meaning” of the article is correct. This approach makes a mockery of the concept of “accuracy”.
Moreover, in publishing the headlines with large photographs, editors had no regard for the impact they would have on the Dowler family, as the tweets from sister Gemma showed:
The Editors’ Code is unfortunately silent on the use of images that may be distressing for a bereaved family.
Despite a second blog from Nick Robinson where he re-iterated that neither Ed Miliband nor his aides ever used the phrase ‘Milly Dowler moment’ (he said: “I did not directly quote anyone using the phrase “Milly Dowler moment”), the Daily Mail then printed a wholly inaccurate column by Amanda Platell entitled “Miliband’s sickening betrayal of Milly Dowler”. She claimed that Ed Miliband “sought to capitalize on Tory links to tax avoiders by evoking the memory of Milly Dowler” and “His aides revealed that he regarded the tax row as a ‘Milly Dowler’ moment”. Both these statements had been known to be untrue for two days.
The second morbid story was that printed by The Daily Telegraph on the 27th February: “Times publisher, News UK, launches internal investigation after suicides of two members of its commercial staff”. The story was quickly and widely condemned – by the public and other newspapers – as being a cynical response to the Times’ reporting of allegations by the respected journalist, Peter Oborne. Four days earlier, accusing The Telegraph of failing to observe the “Chinese wall” between advertising and editorial coverage – a claim, which the paper “strongly denied”. The Telegraph was quickly accused of using the deaths of two staff members at a rival newspaper to deflect allegations onto its rivals (it ran an attack story against the Guardian as well) with an inference that their behaviour must be even worse because it may have led to suicide. But the cause of death had not yet been confirmed and News UK’s official statement was that the company had lost two members of its commercial staff “in unconnected circumstances in recent months from our London and Manchester offices”.
Strictly speaking, there is no breach of the Editors’ Code. Its only provisions on the topic state that, “When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.” However, the story falls short of the Samaritans’ Media Guidelines for the Reporting of Suicide in two ways.
Firstly, in writing that “two members of its commercial department took their own lives within weeks of one another amid fears that staff are being put under unreasonable pressure to hit targets”, the paper has fallen foul of this paragraph:
“Over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide can be misleading and is unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide. For example, avoid the suggestion that a single incident, such as loss of a job, relationship breakdown or bereavement, was the cause.”
Secondly, in reporting that “In addition to the tragic deaths, at least nine other staff members from the company’s advertising arm have been signed off recently with stress-related complaints”, the paper may have increased the risk of copycat behaviour due to ‘over-identification’. The Guidelines advise as follows:
“Remember that there is a risk of copycat behaviour due to ‘over-identification’. Vulnerable individuals may identify with a person who has died, or with the circumstances in which a person took their own life. For example, combining references to life circumstances, say a debt problem or job loss, and descriptions of an easy-to-copy suicide method in the same report, could put at greater risk people who are vulnerable.”
A third story concerned a 29-year-old woman who had taken her life and who was, according to the Coroner, “severely troubled by a number of aspects of her life”. The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express all printed headlines which suggested that the sole reason for her suicide was that she couldn’t face turning 30 without having a husband or children. Whilst all of the papers acknowledged a number of other factors in the body of the article the headlines clearly over-simplified the issues contrary to the Samaritans’ Guidelines. In addition, whilst the Daily Mail didn’t mention the method of suicide at all, both The Sun and the Daily Express did (though arguably neither provided “excessive detail” as proscribed by the Editors’ Code). In addition, whilst the Mail and Express provided the Samaritans contact details, The Sun did not.
The fourth story concerned a young woman who was found unconscious in a bath who happened to be the daughter of a famous singer who had herself died in similar circumstances years before. The double-page spread in the Daily Mirror – which included details of the young woman’s health, medical history and photos of previous hospital admissions – is a clear breach of the Editors’ Code on privacy: “Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications”. The article also included six anonymous quotes about her life and current medical condition reportedly from ‘family sources’, ‘relatives’, a ‘hospital worker’ and a ‘source’. All of the details were published despite the article also including a quote from the young woman’s father’s statement: “Privacy is requested in this matter”.
The fifth and final salacious story was about the murder of a man who was under investigation for having indecent pictures of children on his iPad. Despite the legal principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, The Sun and The Daily Star printed super-size front-page headlines about the so-called “German Paedo”. Whilst both newspapers made it clear in the text that the man was only under investigation, these headlines were clearly inaccurate and misleading. The Daily Mail also ran with the story seeking to water down the unproven allegation by printing the word ‘paedophile’ in inverted commas.
The Sun also published a photograph of the alleged killer’s wife and children. Although the children’s faces have been pixelated the wife is named and the approximate ages of the children given. The paper is therefore in breach of Article 6 of the Editors Code which in the words of the Editor’s Codebook the press should go “to exceptional lengths” to safeguard children. The fame of a parent cannot be the sole justification for publishing a photograph of a child. The publication of the photographs, even when pixelated, is a breach of the code.
Finally on the topic of death, it is also worth noting a published correction admitting “an inexcusable error” which highlights the hurt that can be caused to bereaved families by what appear to be simple mistakes. On 8th February, The Sunday Times Printed the following:
“A photo caption accompanying the online version of our story about whistleblowing within the Metropolitan Police (“Officers menaced for exposing Yard binges”, News, last week) incorrectly stated that PC Keith Blakelock had got drunk at police expense in the Cayman Islands. We apologise to the family of PC Blakelock, who was murdered in rioting in 1985, for this inexcusable error. As the story made clear, officers protecting a potential witness in the murder case had got drunk.”
The reporting of grief and shock are also sensitive issues.
Article 5 of the Editors’ Code of Practice states: “In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.” In February, five tabloids – the Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Star and Sun – published the same witness photographs and story about a distressed driver who was rescued from a car as it was sinking, reportedly with just 60 or 60-90 seconds left.
Only one paper, the Daily Express, chose to pixelate the woman’s face. Four papers chose to publish large half page images where the woman was clearly identifiable and her distress visible: in the Daily Star’s own words “Her tormented face could be seen pressed up against the glass as she battled desperately to breathe air”. Given that one paper pixelated her face, one can only assume that the papers did not have the woman’s consent to publishing the photographs. And if editors were in any doubt about whether the publication of the woman’s “tormented face” constituted a breach of their code, they only had to turn to the Editors’ Codebook, which says:
“The public’s right to information is vital in covering major events such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters – and may sometimes justify publication of graphic images of the victims without consent. But the same is not usually true of a routine car accident and caution is needed when publishing images of people receiving medical treatment, even in public places.” [emphasis added].
One area that has changed under IPSO is that of representative groups, those that work with and campaign on behalf of (for example) women, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community, who are now sometimes able to bring complaints. Whilst this is a step forward for these groups, it doesn’t appear to have had a deterrent effect.
The Daily Star headline “Romanians on the rise: 170,000 east Europeans work here” is numerically accurate but the article is misleading. The article accurately reported that the number of Bulgarian and Romanians working in the UK had risen 15% in a year but linked this to the lifting of employment restrictions on 1 January. The article failed to mention that 15% is according to the Office of National Statistics, the average yearly increase since before work restrictions were lifted. So whilst the numbers are going up each year, they have not gone up any faster since the restrictions were lifted.
The Daily Star also published a story about a so-called “sex-swap telly star” facing a criminal charge after a road accident. The reference to his transition is clearly irrelevant to the story and a breach of Code 12 (ii): “Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.”
The term “sex-swap” is one that has been accepted by the press to be one that is unsuitable and problematic for members of the trans community.
Another month of inaccuracy and victimisation by the national press.