Mr Enda Fanning and the Irish Sun
The Press Ombudsman has decided not to uphold a complaint by Mr Enda Fanning about the publication of his son’s photograph by the Irish Sun.
On 16 June 2015 six Irish students died in Berkeley, California when a balcony collapsed. The tragedy was the lead story for Irish newspapers for a number of days. On 19 June the Irish Sun on its front page featured a photograph of an unnamed young male attending a candle-lit vigil. The young man’s face showed his distress and suffering. The caption accompanying the photograph read “Overcome … Student at San Francisco vigil for victims of balcony collapse”.
On 29 June the father of the young man, Mr Enda Fanning, wrote to the editor of the Irish Sun to complain about the publication of his son’s photograph. He said “tragedies are traumatic for all concerned. The Irish Sun newspaper managed to make a terrible tragedy even more difficult for those involved”.
The editor replied the following day empathising with the shock and worry Mr Fanning’s family had endured. He went on to defend the publication of the photograph saying “We only knew the subject of the photograph as a mourner and this image was taken by an Associated Press photographer. It was published and televised across the world. It was an image that really told the impact of the tragedy of what happened and I can understand it is hard to see your son so upset. This was a public vigil in San Francisco and the media had an important job to cover it.”
On 2 July Mr Fanning made a formal complaint to the Press Ombudsman’s Office claiming that the publication of his son’s photograph breached Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. Principle 5.3 states:
Sympathy and discretion must be shown at all times in seeking information in situations of personal grief or shock. In publishing such information, the feelings of grieving families should be taken into account.
During the conciliation process the editor of the Irish Sun submitted a personal letter to Mr Fanning expressing his regret and apologies for the distress and pain caused by the publication of the photograph of his son. He stated that the photograph would not be published again. In his formal response to the Press Ombudsman’s Office he wrote
“The Irish Sun was reporting and covering the vigil held for the six victims and the injured survivors three days after the accident at a public park near the scene of the accident which was attended … (by Mr Fanning’s son) … along with other students and local residents. This was not a private place or event and it was visibly attended by the media/press photographers.
The photograph was published as part of our coverage to address and respond to the unique sense of loss and unparalleled sadness here and in Berkeley and the helplessness that many people felt in Ireland at not being able to reach out in a meaningful way to those affected and traumatised by these events.”
Mr Fanning replied to this defence of the publication of his son’s photograph and said that in his opinion his son’s face should have been pixilated. He said the prominent publication of the photograph on the front page was an intrusion on privacy and caused upset. He asked would his son’s photograph “have been any less informative to the public had his face been pixilated out and unidentifiable?”
At this stage the conciliation process concluded and the complaint was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
I am not upholding this complaint despite having great sympathy for Mr Fanning. Any family caught up in a tragedy is likely to suffer greatly. Sometimes media coverage of a tragedy can add to the suffering of families and victims. Newspaper editors have to weigh up their responsibility to tell the story with the impact that telling of the story may have on those involved. In this instance the newspaper received through an agency a photograph of a person attending a public vigil. The newspaper felt that the image contributed to an appreciation of the sense of shock and grief experienced by those involved in the accident and decided to publish the photograph. I am influenced in coming to this decision by the fact that the photograph was taken in a public place at an event which was open to anyone. There would have been a reasonable expectation amongst those attending that photographs might be taken and published.
17 August 2015