Press Complaints Commission
spacer spacer
SEARCH FOR     Or try the cases search  
Cases Banner
Making a complaint
Code of Practice Information
Code Advice

Complainant Name:
Mr James McKeown

Clauses Noted: 4, 5

Publication: Evening Chronicle (Newcastle Upon Tyne)


Mr James McKeown of Jarrow, Tyne and Wear, complained of how a reporter questioned him and neighbours just twelve hours into a police search for his son, before it was known that he had drowned. The resultant report appeared the same day in the Evening Chronicle (Newcastle upon Tyne), 29 May 1997, headlined "River swimmer is feared dead". The complainant said the reporter asked for an interview about his son's death when the family hoped he was still alive. When told to leave, the reporter allegedly then shocked neighbours with questions about his son, also visiting the home of the two young friends who were with the complainant's son at the time of the accident. The complainant alleged breaches of Clauses 8 (Harassment) and 10 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Code of Practice.

The newspaper replied that the police had told them the young man was "missing presumed drowned". The reporter then visited the complainant's home in accordance with usual procedures intended to ensure that those involved in a story had an opportunity to comment. The reporter left when asked. He denied telling the complainant or his neighbours that his son had drowned or that he had pestered them; all his visits had followed the same procedure.

Some neighbours had wished to give tributes, which were then published in the newspaper. No other complaints had been received.

The editor also pointed out that the report said the young man was "feared drowned" not that he was dead, although the quote from the local chief inspector did refer to what appeared to be a "tragic accident". He added that while there is never an intention to upset families in these circumstances, this must be balanced by a duty to be accurate.



The Commission first considered the complaint under Clause 8 of the Code. It noted that the newspaper's policy is to enquire once only at a home in such circumstances. This was a reasonable procedure - and it was clear from statements from the complainant and his neighbours that it had been followed to the letter, with the reporter leaving when asked to do so. On this point, the Commission therefore found no breach of the Code.

The Commission then considered the complaint under Clause 10, which seeks to ensure that in cases of grief or shock, enquiries are carried out with sympathy and discretion.

This part of the Code is designed to protect people who are particularly vulnerable at times of tragedy - by reminding reporters that they must be discreet. It is not there to stop legitimate newsgathering. The Commission recognises that even at times of shock, newspapers may wish to seek out information from those involved in a tragedy which may be in the public interest, and then to publish it. This often involves reporters approaching people who are grieving, or their neighbours, at a very early stage to seek comment. Although this form of newsgathering can cause great distress to those involved, it is right that it should happen - but only, as the Code makes clear, with sympathy and discretion.

While the Commission will always uphold the right of reporters to seek information in this way, it has always held that it is not the job of reporters to break the news of a death to the family or friends of those involved - particularly when it has not been confirmed. In a recent adjudication on a complaint under Clause 10, a newspaper was censured when it became clear that a reporter had informed a mother of the death of her daughter prior to the police contacting her with the tragic news.

In this case, the Commission had to consider not the practice of newsgathering in these circumstances, but the extent to which the reporter had compounded the grief of those involved by not acting with due discretion and breaking to them news which they had not already heard.

In deciding the matter, the Commission bore three facts in mind. First, it was quite clear that at the time the reporter called on the complainant the parents of the boy still hoped he was alive. They had not informed other relatives or neighbours that he was missing, nor had they given the police permission to reveal their son's name. However, as the newspaper confirmed, the reporter was acting on information that the boy had drowned - and the memory of the complainant was quite clear that he asked about the "death" of his son.

Secondly, while the newspaper maintained that the reporter had not told neighbours about the death of the complainant's son, it was clear from their answers to the questions - printed in the newspaper - that the reporter had told them that the boy had drowned, not simply that he was missing. Indeed, the deputy editor had told the Commission that some neighbours wished to "give tributes to the dead youth" - something they could not have done if the reporter had not broken the news. The quote from one neighbour in the newspaper article said that "I can't believe it because he was such a lovely lad and he was only 20 as well." The Commission therefore concluded that the reporter had himself informed neighbours about the death of the boy before it was confirmed, and before the parents had broken the news. Although it may have been inadvertent, the reporter had as a result informed the dead boy's uncle of the news - which was the first he had heard of the fact that his nephew was missing, let alone dead.

Thirdly, the newspaper published an article - which made quite clear that the boy had died - some eight hours before the family was informed by the police that a body had been found. The report said that "frantic friends .. jumped into the river to try to save him but he slipped from their grasp and went under." Crucially, it quoted the mother of one of those friends talking about the boy's "death".

In all the circumstances, the Commission found that the newspaper could not have acted with the discretion due in these circumstances. News of the death - either directly or indirectly - had been broken to the parents, and to the boy's uncles, by the reporter and by the newspaper before they found out about it.

The complaint under Clause 10 was therefore upheld


<< Go Back
Home ] Cases ] Site map ]