Gazette sacks journalist who quizzed coma victim

Eastbourne Gazette: apologised to family

The Eastbourne Gazette dismissed a journalist who went into a hospital surreptitiously and questioned an accident victim whose injuries were so severe "he barely knew his own name".

The Press Complaints Commission heard that the Gazette had apologised to the family, undertaken not to publish anything of the interview and conceded that it was in clear breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice on journalists visiting patients in hospitals.

The commission noted with approval the newspaper’s actions and that it had taken disciplinary action against the journalist, but it emphasised that the responsibility to ensure that material is gathered in accordance with the requirements of the code lies with editors.

In this instance, said the commission, it believed that there was a serious breach of the code which no action could effectively remedy and upheld the complaint from the patient’s daughter, under both the hospitals and harassment clauses.

Emily Jennings had complained that the reporter from the Gazette approached her and members of her family after her father had suffered a motorcycle accident that left him in a coma.

On Sunday, 4 August, during his first visit home after regaining consciousness, a journalist approached the house and was told that the family would call him at a more appropriate time if they wished to speak about the accident. The journalist left an answerphone message later in the week, and telephoned again on 9 August asking for permission to visit the complainant’s father. This was firmly denied, said Jennings, but that day the journalist entered the hospital without identifying himself and questioned the complainant’s father despite the fact that his injuries were such that "he barely knew his own name".

The newspaper agreed to the "basic facts of the case", although it said the complainant’s father had been happy to talk to the journalist on his first visit to the house, when it was agreed that the time was inappropriate, and then in hospital, a full three weeks after the accident.

The journalist had been dismissed following a disciplinary hearing, the weekly said.

Jennings, however, insisted that it had been made clear when the journalist visited the house that her father did not want to talk, and the assumption that he was fit to be interviewed three weeks after the accident, when he had spent one of those weeks on a life support machine, was ill-founded.

The commission ruled that while there was some dispute about the response to the journalist’s initial approach, the request to desist should have been heeded prior to the hospital visit.

By Jean Morgan

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