104/2019 - A Woman and the Waterford News and Star
The Press Council of Ireland has overturned a decision of the Press Ombudsman to uphold a complaint that an article published by the Waterford News & Star breached Principle 5.3 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
On 13 August 2019 the Press Ombudsman upheld a complaint that an article published in the Waterford News & Star breached Principle 5.3 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. A complaint that Principle 10 (Reporting of Suicide) had been breached is not upheld.
The Waterford News & Star published an account of an inquest into the death of a man who had died by suicide.
The man’s wife complained that the report breached Principle 5.3 and Principle 10 of the Code of Practice. She said she was writing to “highlight the deep pain” caused to her by the article. In particular, she objected to her identification in the article by name, particularly because she used her maiden name in her day-to-day life so people in her wider circle and people at her place of work did not know that her husband took his own life or that he and she were husband and wife. She said the article could have identified her as the man’s wife without naming her. She also objected to her full address being published, instead of the area in which she and her husband lived. She complained about the publication of the details of the last conversation she had with her husband, which she said showed insensitivity towards her husband’s death and the pain she was experiencing as a result. She described these words as “very precious” and an unnecessary breach of her privacy. She also complained about the fact that the article referred to a ligature mark identified during the post-mortem, particularly when the coroner had asked for her preference with regard to the recorded cause of death, and she had given her preference to record her husband’s death as suicide rather than hanging.
The editor of the Waterford News & Star replied to the complaint and expressed her sympathies to the woman on the death of her husband. She said that the woman’s name and address were read into the evidence as the main witness account, which the editor regarded as very important in recording the facts of a person’s death. She said the complete address was published to “avoid any confusion of inadvertently identifying anybody else”. She said the final words exchanged between the complainant and her husband were included in the report because the paper reports the information that is presented at inquests in order to give a fair and accurate account of the lead up to a person’s death. In regard to reporting the ligature mark found by the pathologist the editor said she felt it important “to present the information provided at the inquest accurately”.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
Newspapers are entitled to publish court proceedings. Indeed, it is in the public interest that court matters, including inquests, are extensively covered in our newspapers. However, what editors decide to publish needs to be considered in the light of the Code of Practice. Specifically, editors need to consider the obligation found in Principle 5.3 to take the feelings of grieving families into account. In this particular case I believe that identifying the complainant by the publication of her name, and the publication of the last words exchanged between the complainant and her husband, was a breach of the requirements found in Principle 5.3. The important service that newspapers play in highlighting suicides did not require the publication of the complainant’s name or the final words she shared with her husband. Editors will always have difficult choices to make as they exercise, in such cases, discretion which is an essential component of their profession.
While publication of the full address of the man who died was understandably distressing for the complainant, as it was also her address, it is common for newspapers, when publishing court reports, to publish full details of addresses given in evidence so as to avoid, for legal and other reasons, inadvertently identifying another person with the report.
This Principle requires the avoidance of publication of excessive detail of the means of suicide. In this instance the newspaper did not publish excessive details of the means of suicide.
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 Principle 5.3 of the Code of Practice.
Decision of the Press Council
At its meeting on 11 October 2019 the Press Council considered the appeal and 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.
Note: The complainant chose to have the complaint reported without revealing her identity.