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Complainant Name:
Mrs S Tobin, Mrs J Warner

Clauses Noted: 1, 5

Publication: Luton on Sunday


Mrs S Tobin of St Albans, Hertfordshire and Mrs J Warner of Ampthill, Bedford complained that an article in Luton on Sunday on 19 September 1999 headlined "Three dead in airport horror" contained inaccuracies and intruded into their grief and shock in breach of Clauses 1 (Accuracy) and 5 (Intrusion in grief or shock) of the Code of Practice.

The complaint is partially upheld.

The article reported an air crash the previous day in which the complainants' husbands died. The complainants said the statement that two of the victims had been decapitated was both inaccurate and insensitive in breach of Clause 5. The ambulance service confirmed that the question of decapitation was raised at the press briefing and was categorically denied. The newspaper's report appeared before the complainants had formally identified their husbands' bodies.

The complainants said it was never a theory as to the cause of the crash that the plane may have touched down in error on the taxiway. An airport spokeswoman said the media were told that the plane came into land on the runway. She said the taxiway is not at right angles to the runway - it is parallel to it. The complainants said the report gave the misleading impression that the plane was carrying out an illegitimate manoeuvre.

None of the occupants of the plane were members of Luton Flying Club. They were members of Lynton Aviation Flying Club - all were professionals in the industry. The article gave the misleading impression that they were amateurs.

The newspaper said that the article was as accurate as it could be given what they perceived as an absence of cooperation from the airport, police and ambulance services. An unofficial ambulance source told the reporter that two of the men had been decapitated. They were aware that the official spokesperson had denied this. However, they chose instead to believe the word of an ambulance driver as he had proved reliable in the past and, although he was not at the crash site himself, he was in constant radio contact with colleagues who were. They intended to report the official findings of the coroner's inquest.

The newspaper said that the Air Accident Investigators had told them only that a report would be made. The theory that the plane had come to land in error on the taxiway was the newspaper's own. They intended to publish details of the accident investigation if and when these are made public.

An official police statement said the dead men were members of a Luton Flying Club. The article said only that the men were "believed" to be members of Luton Flying Club.



The Commission did not find that the reference to Luton Flying Club was materially misleading as the report made clear this was only speculation. It was also clear that it was no more than 'a theory' that the plane may have landed on the taxiway. The Commission expected the newspaper to carry a report of the Air Accident Investigation findings which would clarify any inaccuracies in the original piece.

The Commission recognised the difficulty of reporting events such as these at an early stage when full information is not yet available. However, in cases involving death, newspapers have a duty under the Code to ensure that publication is handled sensitively and does not intrude into the grief of the bereaved. In this case, the Commission noted that the newspaper had reported as fact the claims of an unofficial source who was not present at the crash site and whose version of events had been officially contradicted. The Commission found that the newspaper had not taken sufficient care on a matter which would clearly be of great sensitivity to the bereaved.


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