Clauses Noted: 1, 5
Publication: News & Star
North Cumbria Local Medical Committee complained to the Press Complaints Commission with the signed authority of Mrs Catriona Thornhill that an article headlined ‘Doctor found dead’ published in News & Star on 16 May 2001 contained inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) and was intrusive in breach of Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief and shock) of the Code of Practice.
The complaint was not upheld.
The article reported that Dr Stephen Thornhill, a well-respected local GP, had died that morning. Dr Thornhill’s parents had not been informed of his death, although his widow, the complainant, had. She complained that the prompt publication had led to a sensationalised article, which had not made sufficiently clear that the published details were still unconfirmed. It was acknowledged that the newspaper was entitled to report on the tragedy; the question was whether it had done so sensitively. The complainant maintained that it had not, and whilst an apology was welcome, she was concerned that the newspaper would not hesitate to do the same again in similar circumstances.
Dr Thornhill’s death had been confirmed to the newspaper in a press statement released by North Cumbria Health Authority and by Cumbria Constabulary. The latter had also confirmed the details subsequently published relating to the circumstances of the tragedy. The newspaper apologised wholeheartedly to the family for any distress that the reporting of the ‘unexpected and dramatic’ details of the death had caused. However, it argued that the piece had been a respectful tribute to a prominent local figure, and that the article did not appear to have broken news of the tragedy to any of Dr Thornhill’s relatives.
It was clear that the family and colleagues of Dr Thornhill had found publication of details in the article so soon after his death extremely distressing, and the Commission wished firstly to express its deepest sympathies to those affected by the tragedy. It acknowledged that the complainant would not have objected to the mere reporting of the incident; the subject of the complaint was rather the details contained within the piece and the manner in which they were presented, in light of the short elapse of time since the tragedy.
With regards to the former point, the Commission noted that the article had presented details of the incident as conjecture and that the coroner had yet to report on the incident. Given furthermore that there appeared to be no complaint about the accuracy of the contentions in the article, the Commission did not consider that the presentation of these details had raised any breach of Clause 1.
In considering the complaint under Clause 5, the Commission bore in mind the criteria generally used to establish whether a bereavement has been reported insensitively in breach of the Code. It noted firstly that neither the article nor the newspaper’s reporters had broken the news of the bereavement to Dr Thornhill’s next of kin. In fact, the newspaper did not appear to have approached any family member at what was clearly a difficult time and the complainant had been informed of the tragedy by the authorities prior to publication. The Commission considered secondly whether the article had sought to sensationalise the tragedy or present it in a frivolous way. It was appropriate that the newspaper had apologised for any distress caused to Dr Thornhill’s relatives, and the Commission was pleased to note that the article had reported the GP’s many positive achievements respectfully. However, the Commission considered that the piece had been presented as a straight forward news report of the death of a local figure, and it upholds the right of newspapers to report in such circumstances. Whilst sympathising wholeheartedly with the distress felt by the complainant and by those who had known Dr Thornhill following publication of the article, in light of the above the Commission could not consider that the piece had breached the Code in any way.
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