Extract from: House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee
Press standards, privacy and libel
Second Report of Session 2009–10 (Volume I)
The Case of Bridgend
381. Between January 2007 and August 2008 there were more than 20 suicides in and around Bridgend, South Wales, involving people aged under 27. Again, the media coverage was intensive. This time numerous complaints were made to the PCC about the accuracy of reporting, the extensive and repeated use of the victims’ photographs, the headlines, the descriptions given of the suicide methods used and the various attempts to link the suicides in a ‘death cult’ or something of the kind.
382. In February 2008, the Member of Parliament for Bridgend, Madeleine Moon, collated details of 15 relatives of suicide victims who did not want any further press coverage and asked for an end to the repeated publication of photographs of those who had died.
Ms Moon also made a complaint to the PCC about a Sunday Times magazine article, featuring a large picture of a noose under the title ‘Death Valleys’. The PCC did not uphold this complaint, stating that since much of the extensive coverage had identified hanging as a common feature of the deaths the use of the noose did not constitute excessive detail. The PCC acknowledged that the pictures would be ‘an upsetting and stark reminder to the families about how their relatives had died’.
383. On 20 February 2008, Sir Christopher Meyer, then Chairman of the PCC, wrote to Madeleine Moon offering to attend a meeting in Bridgend, if this would be of assistance. In May 2008, three months after the initial complaint to the PCC, Sir Christopher and other PCC representatives visited Bridgend to talk to local people and communicated to the press the wishes of those who requested the coverage to stop. When asked in an interview if the PCC had been too late, Sir Christopher conceded that the PCC ‘should have been down
384. As part of our inquiry, we heard evidence in private from Mr Langan of Samaritans and from Tim Fuller, the father of one of the young people who took their own lives. We wish to thank them, and especially Mr Fuller, for his willingness to discuss such events with us.
385. Mr Langan told us of the practical difficulties of applying the PCC Code, and how the experience of reporting in Bridgend had shown that a number of issues were not catered for by it:
“One of the things that Bridgend threw up is within the remit of the PCC a lot of things fall outside that Code. There were particular issues around the re-publication and duplication of photographs [...]. When we looked at the regular re-publication of
10 or 20 photographs of people of a certain age then other people of that age would see perhaps a pattern of normalisation and that was equally dangerous. The current
Code does not address that. We think the guidance note behind that could do with some work but we see the Code of Conduct as a working document. We want to keep working with the PCC and the Code Committee to extend that remit so it is actually going to go further.”
386. Mr Fuller described to us the impact that press reporting had when his daughter took her own life in February 2008 and in the months afterwards. He did not feel that he could visit her house because the press were gathered outside it,352 indeed he was advised by the police and the coroner not to go there, and he was not aware that he could have used the services of the PCC to ask reporters to leave.
“It was at the end of that session with the police when that was wrapped up and I was ready to go home the police and the Coroner let me know that they had released the details of the name and address of my daughter and advised that unless I could handle it not to go anywhere near the address because there were cameras and press and all sorts there.”
387. The knowledge that the press would be printing a story about his daughter also put pressure on Mr Fuller at a distressing time: “I found I was frantically making phone calls to people that perhaps I would not speak to for two or three days. Maybe if they put the news on and they have children they would pick the papers up the next morning and they would see all this information. I felt I wanted to let them know myself rather than seeing it first-hand in the media. I was put under pressure there. It took away from me the opportunity to let people know what had happened.”
388. Due to the linking of a number of suicides, press interest in Mr Fuller’s daughter’s death did not go away. He found particularly distressing the constant re-listing of the names of all of the young suicide victims355 and the unauthorised use of photographs of his daughter which he had not seen before.
389. Although Mr Fuller did not attend the PCC meeting in Bridgend in May 2008, he explained to us that the invitation to do so opened a dialogue with them which led him to make a complaint against the Daily Express about their coverage of his daughter’s death.
In the time immediately after her suicide, the only contact he had was with the police liaison team and the coroner in Bridgend.
390. It is clear to us that an ordinary person who suddenly finds himself and his family the focus of media attention in circumstances such as those detailed to us by Mr Fuller would be ill-prepared to deal with it. The PCC can perform a vital role in assisting such people, yet Mr Fuller was unaware of this for a full three months after his daughter’s death.
391. In oral evidence to us the then PCC Chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer said the PCC felt frustration that its message was not getting through:
“One of our painting the Forth Bridge tasks is constantly to remind police forces around the country that they really must, in situations of suicide or murder or whatever, tell families how to deal with the press [...]. When we go on our missions outside London we always invite to the events or to a lunch or whatever the local coroner or the local coroners, depending on how many there are, as well as the local judges. A number of times we have found that the system has not worked properly and a coroner has said ‘I did not know about that’, so we send them all the stuff and say ‘Please make sure that you and your staff know about this.’ It is a permanent struggle to be perfectly frank.”
392. We recommend that the PCC should not wait for people who find themselves suddenly thrust into the media glare in traumatic circumstances to come to it, but should take more steps to ensure that such people are aware of its services. This could perhaps most easily be achieved through dedicated and compulsory training of coroners and police family liaison officers about ways in which the PCC can help and through providing them with standard leaflets which can be offered to those with whom they come into contact.
393. Following the resolution of Mr Fuller’s complaint by the PCC, the Daily Express apologised to Mr Fuller and withdrew the offending articles. The apology took the form of a letter to the PCC, which was passed to Mr Fuller. The paper did not accept that its reporting broke the Code by giving excessive detail of suicide method, something which Mr Fuller contests:
“In the article, and in the response as well, from the Daily Express they say that they did not give specific details of the method used and they are allowed to say that she was found hanging and that was the nature of her death. They said they gave no more details about how that happened but within the article they quoted the mother of the previous victim who actually described that they found him hanging and he had used his dressing gown cord and they found him hanging from the framework of a built-in wardrobe they were having constructed which to me is quite specific.”
394. Mr Fuller went on to say:
“I do not know whether [my daughter] would have read that information printed beforehand but [my daughter] too used a dressing gown cord so we just have this thought. I do believe that some of these youngsters were influenced by the publicity, not of the minute detail but the method. A big question has been asked why all bar one of the victims used hanging as their form of death.”
395. The coverage of suicide in the media is one of the most sensitive areas that falls into the PCC’s remit. We note the good work the PCC did in Bridgend from May 2008, although we believe the PCC should have acted sooner and more proactively.
396. The PCC Code provides suitable guidance on suicide reporting, but in our view the PCC should be tougher in ensuring that journalists abide by it. The experience of Bridgend shows the damage that can be caused if irresponsible reporting is allowed to continue unchecked; the PCC needs to monitor the conduct of the journalists and the standard of coverage in such cases.
397. During our inquiry, regarding the reporting of personal tragedies, we also asked how the press – local newspapers, in particular – moderated their websites, when asking readers to comment on stories. Certain comments of which we have been made aware have been sick and obscene.
The PCC told us, though, that it did not consider this a
398. The Editor’s Codebook refers to complaints about newspaper websites, making clear that editors are responsible for “any user-generated material that they have decided to leave online, having been made aware of it, or received a complaint.”
We believe this does not go far enough, with respect to moderating comment on stories about personal tragedies, in particular. The Codebook should be amended to include a specific responsibility to moderate websites and take down offensive comments, without the need for a prior complaint. We also believe the PCC should be proactive in monitoring adherence, which could easily be done by periodic sampling of newspaper websites, to maintain standards.