3983/2019 Headline and The Sunday Times

By admin
Monday, 18th February 2019
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The Press Council of Ireland has rejected an appeal from The Sunday Times against a decision made by the Press Ombudsman.

The Press Ombudsman, on 31 August 2018, had upheld a complaint that The Sunday Times breached Principle 5.4 of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. Principle 5.4 states:

In the reporting of suicide, excessive detail of the means of suicide should be avoided.

The complaint was made by Headline, an organisation that describes itself as “Ireland’s national media monitoring programme, working to promote responsible and accurate coverage of mental health and suicide related issues”.

On 10 June 2018 The Sunday Times published an article under the heading “Prisoner hanged himself in Mountjoy after six failed attempts”. The article reported on the findings of a report by the Deputy Inspector of Prisons into the death of a prisoner.   It was reported that the inquiry found that the prisoner who had died by suicide “had self-harmed 11 times in the three months before his death, including at least six attempts to take his own life”.  The report included specific details of how the prisoner had hanged himself.

Headline wrote to The Sunday Times expressing its concern that the article “could be considerably damaging to vulnerable readers”.  It said that the article included “excessive and unnecessary detail” about the prisoner’s suicide and said that while it accepted that it was necessary to report what killed the prisoner, given the findings of the Inspector’s report, it was not necessary to describe “the how”.

The editor of The Sunday Times defended its reporting stating that one of the concerns expressed by the Deputy Inspector of Prisons in her report, which he said was a publicly accessible document, was that the prisoner had access to the means of suicide. He said The Sunday Times was aware of a number of different guidelines not to report on specific details of how people die by suicide and these were discussed in advance of publication.  However, he said that in this instance the clear failure on the part of the Irish Prison Service meant this was a matter of public interest, and he had “a duty to explain how and why (the) prisoner … died in custody despite being on suicide watch”.    

Headline made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman claiming that Principle 5.4 of the Code of Practice had been breached.  It repeated that while it accepted that in order to serve the public interest in highlighting the failings of the Irish Prison Service it was necessary to describe what killed the prisoner, it was not necessary to describe in detail the how.

The Sunday Times in response stated that the newspaper takes “very seriously” the Code of Practice’s obligations and recommendations on all reporting matters, including suicide. It said the article included details of the suicide from the report to adequately explain how Mountjoy Prison had “failed a vulnerable young man”.  It said that Principle 5.4 entitled an editor to exercise discretion and that a newspaper “cannot be lawfully prohibited or censored from reporting a detail contained in official reports issued by State/statutory entities“. The newspaper went on to argue that any interpretation of Principle 5.4 which prohibited or censored the reporting of details contained in official reports “would not only be improper and extraordinary, it would be incompatible with freedom of expression rights under Irish and European law”. It stated that there was a significant degree of public interest in the detailed circumstances that led to the prisoner’s death and that The Sunday Times had a duty to inform the public of what precisely the report says happened to the prisoner.

Headline responded to the submission stating that it was in full agreement with the newspaper on the necessity to inform the public and bring attention to any state service that failed its people in such a tragic and avoidable way, but repeated that its key concern was the inclusion in the article of the words that described how the prisoner killed himself.

As the complaint could not be resolved through conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

I am not persuaded by The Sunday Times’ concerns about freedom of expression or the right to publish details included in official reports.   All newspapers that are members of the Press Council of Ireland are aware that membership obliges adherence to the Code of Practice.  Any restriction on publication resulting from adherence to the Code is entirely voluntary and cannot be construed as an infringement of freedom of expression. The argument put forward that it was in the public interest to include information on how the prisoner killed himself is also not persuasive.   The inclusion of detailed information about how the prisoner killed himself was excessive and therefore a breach of Principle 5.4.

The newspaper appealed the Press Ombudsman’s decision to the Press Council of Ireland on the grounds that there had been an error in the Ombudsman’s application of the Code of Practice.   It cited a number of reasons in support of its appeal.

At its meeting on 1 February 2019 the Press Council considered all of the reasons put forward by the newspaper in its appeal.  

The Council decided to reject the appeal on the following grounds:

  • the Press Ombudsman’s decision was valid under Principle 5.4 of the Code and he did not act outside his remit;
  • the article was a report of a suicide within the meaning of Principle 5.4;
  • there was no onus on the Ombudsman to consider the absence of a complaint from the family or other persons connected to the prisoner;
  • in accepting that the words complained of were an accurate reflection of an extract from a statutory report and noting the newspaper’s explanation for their inclusion, the Council concluded that while it was necessary to describe what killed the prisoner in the article, the inclusion of the detail as to how constituted excessive detail of the means of suicide in the context of Principle 5.4 of the Code.