PCC: Sunday Times Facebook approach insensitive

The Sunday Times has been censured by the Press Complaints Commission for intruding on the grief of the family of a dead student after a reporter used Facebook to ask about an earlier complaint to the press watchdog.

The family of Toby Rundle initially filed a complaint the PCC about the accuracy of a number of details included in a Sunday Times report from 11 October which claimed he’d taken his own life in his rooms at Oxford University.

Deborah Rundle complained to the PCC for a second time that while its investigation into the article was ongoing, a reporter from the paper contacted her daughter through Facebook.

According to the PCC, the daughter informed the reporter that the family did not wish to speak, in view of the ongoing complaint. Despite this the reporter asked about the details of the complaint, sending a copy of the article to the complainant’s daughter so she could highlight what was wrong with it.

The press watchdog today upheld Rundle’s complaint that the reporter had breached clause five of the editors’ code of practice by intruding on the grief or shock of a bereaved individual.

The managing editor of the newspaper apologised for this second approach, the PCC adjudication said, explaining that the reporter was a freelance and was unaware of the PCC complaint.

However, the managing editor accepted that the reporter should not have continued questioning Mrs Rundle’s daughter once the complaint was mentioned.

The PCC said: “It was regrettable that a communication failure at the newspaper resulted in a further approach being made to the family despite the fact that there was an outstanding complaint about the previous coverage.

“It would also have been sensible for the reporter not to have pursued the matter directly with Mrs Rundle’s daughter once the complaint was brought to her attention.”

The Sunday Times reporter understood her error and apologised for it, the PCC said. In addition,the paper offered to send a private letter of apology to the family.

All section editors and deputies had also been alerted to the complaint and told not to contact the family, the PCC added.

However, the PCC rejected Rundle’s further complaint that the October article, headlined “‘Harry Potter’ student found hanged in his Oxford room”, was “salacious and insensitive” and took information from her son’s outdated MySpace page which was created as a spoof some years previously.

The newspaper said the MySpace information was in the public domain, regardless of whether it was contemporaneous, but it would remove the references from the online article as a gesture of goodwill.

Rejecting these complaints, the PCC said: “It was clearly regrettable that the complainant did not recognise the description of her own son from the collection of quotes that the newspaper had found online…

“One of the hazards of posting information online is that it can remain permanently and publicly accessible, and that a degree of control is lost once it is uploaded.

“While this may not be a matter of concern for many people, it can be an issue when people are suddenly thrust into the public spotlight.”

The PCC said the question of whether publication was “handled sensitively” at a time of grief would always be, to some degree, a subjective judgment.

The commission said it generally considered three questions on this issue: did the article break the news of the death, was the coverage treated in a light-hearted or humorous manner and did the article include any gratuitous or gruesome detail?

“On balance, the commission did not consider that the answer to any of these questions was yes. However, it did wish to record that the newspaper had, in its view, still come close to breaching the code.

“While the tone of the article was not light-hearted, it did contain information about the complainant’s son that amounted to trivia taken from his MySpace page. The commission could understand why the complainant felt aggrieved that this type of detail was used so liberally in an article that reported such a recent tragic event.”

The commission asked its chairman to write to the newspaper to emphasise its concerns.

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