Paper guilty of suicide harrassment, says PCC

A weekly newspaper was wrong to persist in trying to get an interview with the family of a teenage girl who killed herself, the Press Complaints Commission has ruled.

It upheld a complaint against the Bucks Herald that one of its reporters had harassed the family of the 16-year-old girl.

In its adjudication, the PCC said it wanted to make clear it was not ruling that the paper should not have run an article, headlined "Girl found hanged", about the teenager’s suicide. "Indeed, the commission recognises the legitimacy of researching and writing about such tragedies which are clearly in the public interest," it said.

The mother and father of the girl told the PCC that they were approached by the reporter two days after their daughter had committed suicide and asked whether they wanted a tribute to appear in the local paper. They declined, and said they would contact the paper if they changed their minds.

They maintained that the reporter called at least four times over the next few days.

The Editors’ Code at its heart is designed to protect the vulnerable

The editor said the complainants had indicated to the journalist that they did want to have a tribute published but not at that time. She therefore called again the following day, when there was a deadline, and, having not been told to go away and not come back, returned one more time the same day just before the deadline.

The editor told the PCC that his journalists knew not to return to a home once it was made clear that a family did not want to talk.

In its adjudication, the PCC said: "The commission recognises the difficulty for journalists in seeking information when the background to a story is of such a tragic nature, and that it can often be difficult to judge the impact of a particular approach on the recently bereaved.

"The Editors’ Code at its heart, however, is designed to protect the vulnerable and the commission will consider whether it is applied in spirit as well as to the letter.

"In this case, regardless of whether the complainants had explicitly told the journalist that she should leave and not return to their house, the commission considered that common sense should have indicated that the repeated approaches over a short period of time were not appropriate."

The PCC ruled that approaches by the paper to other people about the suicide did not breach the code, but it said it could understand why the family found such approaches "insensitive".

by Jon Slattery

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