Key rulings 2010
Intrusion into grief
In February 2010, the Commission published its ruling on the high-profile complaint from Andrew Cowles, the civil partner of Stephen Gately, against an article by Jan Moir published in the Daily Mail in October 2009. The Commission had received 25,000 complaints about the article from members of the public, by far the largest number of complaints it has received on a single issue.
After detailed and thorough consideration by the Commission, the complaint was not upheld under Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) or Clause 12 (Discrimination). The Commission could, however, fully understand why the complainant and others had been upset by the article. At the heart of the story was the tragic death of a young man which had affected a large number of people, and the Commission considered that the newspaper had to accept responsibility for the distress it had caused. It welcomed the columnist's apology to the family for the ill-timed nature of the article, which was the right response on her part.
However, the Commission also had to consider the complaint in the wider context of press freedom - a fundamental component of a working democracy. The complaint had raised an essential point of principle for the Commission: the extent to which a newspaper has the right to publish opinions that many readers may find unpalatable and offensive. In its ruling, the Commission said the following:
'As a general point, the Commission considered that it should be slow to prevent columnists from expressing their views, however controversial they may be. The price of freedom of expression is that commentators and columnists say things with which other people may not agree, may fi nd offensive or may consider to be inappropriate. Robust opinion sparks vigorous debate; it can anger and upset. This is not of itself a bad thing. Argument and debate are working parts of an active society and should not be constrained unnecessarily (within the boundaries of the Code and the law)'.
This was clearly a difficult but important case for the Commission to consider. The article had plainly caused distress to Mr Cowles, as well as many others, and this was something that the Commission found to be regrettable. Ultimately, however, the Commission did not uphold the complaint.
PCC Director Stephen Abell commented at the time as follows: 'In the end, the Commission, while not shying away from recognising the fl aws in the article, has judged that it would not be proportionate to rule against the columnist's right to offer freely-expressed views about something that was the focus of public attention'.
Since the terms of Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) were expanded to incorporate specific rules in relation to suicide reporting - stating that 'care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used' in order to avoid copycat actions - the Commission has been asked to make a number of rulings under this Clause. 2010 was no exception.
The Commission found a breach of the Code in an inquest report in The News (Portsmouth), which reported the death of a woman by suicide. The article noted that the deceased's handbag had been found to contain pill packets for a set number of a named anti-depressant. It went on to report the precise quantity of pills that were missing and the dosage she had ingested. There was also a reference to the amount of alcohol found in her blood.
In the Commission's view, such a level of detail represented 'sufficient information to spell out to readers the precise method of death'. This was therefore ruled to be 'excessive detail' in breach of Clause 5 (ii).
The Commission did not find a breach of the Code in relation to another inquest report on suicide, this time in the Southern Daily Echo. The man had taken his own life after deliberately inhaling helium. The article had referred to the man having used a 'balloon kit', and had noted that he died after 'inhaling too much' of the gas, which the complainant considered to go into too much detail. The newspaper said that it had omitted various details from the inquest hearing including: the precise means by which the gas had been inhaled; and the quantity that would generally lead to death.
The Commission ruled that the article did not constitute a breach of the terms of the Code. It said that the newspaper was entitled to cover the inquest proceedings and report basic information about the method. The level of detail it had included was 'suitably limited'. The complaint was not upheld.