532/2020 - A Woman and the Waterford News & Star
The Press Council of Ireland upheld an appeal made by the editor of the Waterford News & Star against this decision by the Press Ombudsman – details below.
On 29 October 2020 the Press Ombudsman upheld a complaint by a woman that Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland was breached by the Waterford News & Star.
The Waterford News & Star published a report on the outcome of a Coroner’s Court inquest where a man had died by suicide. The report included the name of the man and his wife, their full address, information that the wife had performed CPR until paramedics arrived and the results of a blood analysis which identified, among other things, a cocaine-type substance in the deceased person’s blood.
The man’s wife complained that publication of information about the inclusion of a cocaine-type substance was not relevant as the cause of death was not drugs related. She also complained about the publication of the graphic detail of how she performed CPR on her husband and the publication of her name and full address.
The editor of the Waterford News & Star responded by offering her deepest sympathies to the complainant. She defended the report by stating that Principle 5.3 of the Code of Practice clearly states that considerations of privacy do not restrict “the right to report judicial proceedings”. She said that the Waterford News & Star’s policy is to publish information given at inquests and that the newspaper cannot anticipate how families will react to the publication of details revealed at inquests but in this particular case some graphic details were omitted. She went on to state “We consider each and every inquest, and how the families might experience them. We will never be able to make the publication of inquests comfortable for families, but we always endeavour to deal with the information as sensitively as possible”.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
Decision of the Press Ombudsman
It is widely recognised and accepted that families of deceased persons feel vulnerable about the publication of information given in public at inquests. Editors are not restricted in their right to publish details made public at inquests. However, editors are required to show “sympathy and discretion at all times” in “situations of personal grief or shock”. The editor of the Waterford News & Star has acknowledged the need to balance the right to publish inquest details against the requirement to exercise discretion. If too much information is withheld the public value and importance of inquest findings may be diluted. If too much information is published vulnerable families may suffer additional pain and suffering. Principle 5.2 states “the right to privacy should not prevent the publication of matters of public record or in the public interest”. There is no doubt that what was published by the Waterford News & Star was an accurate account of information made public by the inquest. I think including information about the blood analysis was important as part of the understanding of the death, but information about the performance of CPR was unnecessary as it did not add to the understanding. Therefore, I am upholding this part of the complaint on the basis of a breach of Principle 5. The publication of the complainant’s name and full address was not a breach of Principle 5.
Claims that the article breached Principle 4 and Principle 10 of the Code are not upheld.
Both the complainant and the editor of the Waterford News & Star appealed the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland on the grounds that there had been an error in the Press Ombudsman’s application of the Code of Practice.
Decision of the Press Council on Appeal
The Press Council considered both appeals at its meeting on 4 December 2020. It noted that Principle 5.3 of the Code of Practice states that while the feelings of grieving families should be taken into account in publishing information in situations of personal grief or shock, this should not be interpreted as restricting the right to report judicial proceedings.
In these circumstances the Press Council upheld the appeal by the editor of the Waterford News & Star. It rejected the appeal by the complainant.