Section numbers from the book are used. The book should be read too. Its content provides fuller explanations and context.
220.127.116.11 Inspection or copying of case material
Case study: In 2018 the Buzzfeed news website had some success when it requested copies of case documents referred to during an inquest in London into the death of Russian businessman Alexander Perepilichnyy, who had moved to the UK in 2009. He died, aged 44, in 2012 when jogging near the rented mansion where he lived with his family in Surrey. There was speculation that he was poisoned because as a whistleblower he helped expose a multi-million pound fraud in Russia. His death was one of 14 in the UK which Buzzfeed had reported as possible assassinations linked to politicians or criminals in Russia, and Buzzfeed highlighted shortcomings in the Surrey police investigation onto his death. Coroner Nicholas Hilliard QC held the inquest at the Old Bailey. The case document copies which he agreed could be supplied to Buzzfeed included two pages of the minutes of a meeting in December 2012 of the ‘Gold Group’ of senior police in the Surrey force, who were involved in the investigation into Mr Perepilichnyy’s death; some of his bank documents; the written witness statements of his widow Tatiana Perepilichnaya, who gave evidence at the inquest; and some of the records of police liaison meetings with her after his death. The coroner said Buzzfeed should get this material to help the public understand the inquest proceedings. Buzzfeed did not get all the material it requested, including around 28 other pages of the Gold Group minutes, which concerned ‘national and political’ interest in the police investigation. The police argued that it was not in the public interest to release those pages, because the ‘reasonable confidentiality’ in such police discussions should be maintained, and because release of such material would inhibit frank discussions among officers. The coroner said the content of these other pages was not relevant to the inquest’s investigation of the death and that their disclosure to Buzzfeed was not required to facilitate understanding of the police evidence given to the inquest. The coroner also ordered that sensitive personal and financial information concerning Mrs Perepilichnaya should be redacted in the bank and police liaison records before Buzzfeed got copies of them, because that information too was irrelevant. She had objected to the bank records being released without such redaction and to any of the liaison records being released, because they referred to confidential family matters, and the police too objected to the liaison records being released, saying this might make it less likely that the families would cooperate with police in the future in such circumstances. The coroner said that in making his ruling that Buzzfeed should get some of the case material he used discretion he had under regulation 27(2) of the Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013, which states that a coroner may provide any document or copy of any document to any person who in the opinion of the coroner is a proper person to have possession of it. He noted that the Chief Coroner’s guidance said that ‘members of the media should normally be expected to be considered proper persons for these purposes’. He also said that the Court of Appeal’s judgment in the Guardian News and Media case – summarised in 15.19 in McNae’s - had created a rebuttable presumption in favour of providing the media with access to material referred to in an inquest. The coroner recorded a verdict that Mr Perepilichnyy had most likely died of a natural cause, sudden arrhythmic death syndrome, adding that that there was no definitive proof of that, just as there was no definitive proof he had been poisoned. Forensic examinations had been limited, because the police, not viewing the death as suspicious, had thrown away most of Mr Perepilichnyy’s stomach’s contents soon after his death (BBC and Buzzfeed online reports, 19 December 2018, and the coroner’s written ruling on Buzzfeed’s application, at https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Media-ruling-27-July-18.pdf)
17.10 Reporting restrictions
Case study: The media successfully opposed an application by Greater Manchester Police for anonymity for five officers due to give evidence at an inquest in 2015 into the death of factory worker Jordon Begley. Mr Begley, 23, who had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, died in hospital from a cardiac arrest about two hours after police were called to his home and one of the officers shot him with a police-issue 50,000 volt Taser electric stun gun for nine seconds. Manchester coroner Nigel Meadows lifted a temporary anonymity order, agreeing with media organisations that there was no specific evidence of any ‘real and immediate’ risk to the officers’ safety if they were identified in reports of the inquest. The policeman who fired the Taser said he feared that Begley, who began to walk towards him despite being told to stand still, had a concealed weapon. The inquest jury concluded that the restraint methods and use of the Taser ‘more than materially contributed’ to a ‘package’ of stress factors which caused Mr Begley’s death (Media Lawyer, 3 February 2015; BBC, 2 June 2015; The Guardian, 6 July 2015).
17.11 Ethical considerations when covering deaths
Journalists must be sensitive in how deaths are reported. Relevant content in the Editors’ Code of Practice and the Ofcom Broadcasting Code is referred to in 4.7.1 in McNae’s. This Additional Material for ch. 17 has a focus on coverage of suicide, particularly in the reporting of inquests.
Media reports of suicides, including in coverage of inquests, should not reveal excessive detail of the suicide method, to help minimise the risk of others using it to take their own lives.
The Editors’ Code of Practice is the code used by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso). Clause 5 of that code says: ‘When reporting suicide, to prevent simulative acts care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used, while taking into account the media's right to report legal proceedings.’
Clause 9.1 of the Impress Code says: ‘When reporting on suicide or self-harm, publishers must not provide excessive details of the method used or speculate on the motives.’
Rule 2.5 of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code says: ‘Methods of suicide and self-harm must not be included in programmes except where they are editorially justified and are also justified by the context.’
For general context about the codes and the regulators Ipso, Impress and Ofcom, see chs. 2 and 3 in McNae’s.
Ipso has published guidance on coverage of suicides – see Useful Websites at the end of this Additional Material. The guidance says that the Editors’ Code does not seek to prevent reporting of suicide: ‘There is a public interest in raising awareness of this significant public health issue’.
It adds: ‘The fact of someone’s death is not private. Deaths affect communities as well as individuals and are a legitimate subject for reporting.’
But it refers to the danger of reports causing imitative suicides, cites research which has established such imitation can occur, and says that journalists should be prepared to justify the inclusion of any detail of the method of suicide in a report.
The Ipso guidance says that examples of potentially excessive detail include:
- the ligature or point of suspension in a death by hanging;
- the quantity of pills taken in the case of an overdose;
- the steps taken to administer a poison to an individual;
- the position of wounds on a body and how they were incurred.
‘Sometimes there may be specific justification for including detail about the method, for example because it is central to the coroner’s conclusion on the cause of a death; in those instances this detail may not be “excessive”. Journalists should still take great care in selecting what details to include and should be prepared to explain the decision.’
The guidance also says: ‘You should take particular care when reporting on a novel method of suicide, to prevent attention being drawn to a new method and the risk of others using this method. When reporting on novel methods, the threshold of what might be considered “excessive” is likely to be lower given the possibility that the report might draw attention to this method.’
It warns: ‘The circumstances around a suicide can be complicated. It may be difficult to reduce that complexity in a way which makes it easy for readers to understand. However, it is essential to distinguish between claims made at the inquest about possible factors, and any conclusions made by the coroner about how the deceased came to their death. Be careful to avoid claiming that a single factor or factors “caused” the death unless this was a finding by the coroner.’
The Ipso guidance says: ‘Editors may find it helpful to signpost people reading these articles to sources of support by including the contact details for The Samaritans, Papyrus, or other relevant organisations in any articles reporting on a suicide.’
The Impress guidance on clause 9.1 of its Code includes: ‘When reporting on suicide or self-harm, publishers should include the number of a helpline.’
The following case studies set out rulings by Ipso and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) on complaints that what is now clause 5 of the Editors’ Code was breached. As explained in 2.1.1 in McNae’s, in 2014 Ipso replaced the PCC as the regulator of most of the UK’s mainstream press. Adjudications are made for Ipso by its complaints committee. For convenience, this is referred to below merely as Ipso.
Case study: An article headlined ‘Northampton woman dies of caffeine overdose, inquest hears’ breached clause 5, Ipso ruled in 2018. The article, published by the Northampton Chronicle and Echo, reported an inquest. The deceased woman’s sister-in-law complained to Ipso that the level of detail included in the report made it easy for others to understand how they could take their own lives using the method described. She said such information was difficult to find online in other sources, because the method was relatively unknown. The report described the substance ingested by the woman, the amount used, what it was mixed with, the approximate cost of the substance, the amount which constituted a ‘lethal dose’, and where it was purchased. The newspaper agreed it had fallen short of the expectations of clause 5. It said that its local news team had initially thought that this detail would serve as a warning to others. It had been contacted by the Samaritans shortly after the report was published, and had therefore removed the report from its website within 24 hours of publication. It added that steps had been taken to improve its staff’s understanding of clause 5. Ipso said that the level of detail included in the article was excessive in a number of respects. It expressed concern that the details were ‘sufficient to support’ someone else ‘engaging in a simulative act’. It was a relatively novel method of suicide, and there was a risk of increasing the awareness of this method among the population, Ipso said (Dayman v Northampton Chronicle and Echo, 28 November 2018).
Case study: In 2018 Ipso ruled that The Forester breached clause 5 by specifying in an inquest report the type of ligature a man used to take his own life by hanging. His widow complained about the report, which had the headline: ‘Mental health worker refused help for his own depression’. The newspaper argued that the report did not contain excessive detail of the method of suicide used by her husband, and that the detail published would not lead to simulative acts. It said that a death by hanging normally implies some sort of ligature was used, and that the report did not reveal how the ligature had been secured, or applied, by the man in his suicide, but just stated it had been used. Ipso acknowledged that newspapers are required to make difficult judgments on what details should be published from inquests, and that The Forester had given ‘careful consideration’ about what level of detail to publish. But, Ipso said, the newspaper had not advanced a justification for specifying the ligature which the complainant’s husband had used, nor did the report include any justification as to why this item had been specified. Ipso ruled that The Forester’s publication of detail identifying the type of ligature he used was excessive and ‘presented the possibility that it might lead to simulative acts’ (Jones v The Forester, 25 May 2018).
Case study: In 2016 Ipso ruled that the Lancashire Evening Post had breached clause 5 by the inclusion of excessive detail of suicide method in a report of an inquest. The ruling was on a complaint made by the stepmother of the woman who took her own life. The report, reflecting the inquest’s evidence and verdict, stated that she had ended her life by hanging herself in a hotel room ‘mirroring the death of her mother seven years earlier’. The report included that in the hours before her death she had been three times over the drink-drive limit, and had taken three drugs, which it named. The online version of the report identified the item from which she had been found hanged. Two captions to photos of her in that report – they showed her posing for photographs at home and on holiday – referred to her death and identified the item she had used as a ligature in the suicide. The Post told Ipso that this detail in the captions had been automatically copied from information attached to the photos by the freelance agency which supplied them, and had since been removed. The Post said that it did not consider that identifying the item from which the woman had been found hanged constituted excessive detail. It had not included information, such as how the ligature had been applied or secured, that would enable anyone to imitate the method, the newspaper said. Ipso said that the online report had included a number of details relating to the method of suicide, which were not included in the print article. Ipso noted in particular that inclusion of details concerning the items the woman had used in the suicide illustrated that they were easily accessible and could have led to simulative acts. Ipso said that these details were clearly excessive, and their publication was irresponsible, and breached clause 5. Ipso accepted that some of the information had been accidentally published because the photographer’s caption had been automatically included with the image file. Ipso added that both the print and online versions of the report had stated that the woman had consumed alcohol and had taken three specific drugs in the hours before she died, but there was no suggestion in the report that she had consumed the alcohol and drugs as part of the method of suicide, and so the inclusion of these details did not breach clause 5 (Farrow v Lancashire Evening Post, 11 February 2016)
Case study: In 2012 the PCC ruled that a newspaper had breached (what is now) clause 5 in an inquest report. A man had taken his own life by inhaling gas. The newspaper said that details it published had been placed in the public domain through the inquest, and their omission would have prevented it from fully explaining the coroner's verdict. But the PCC said that the report contained the name of the gas, how it had been obtained, and the manner in which it had been inhaled, and that, taken together, this level of detail was excessive (A woman v Wiltshire Gazette and Herald, 1 November 2012)
Case study: In 2010 the PCC did not uphold a complaint that the Southern Daily Echo had breached clause 5 in an inquest report. A man had taken his own life by inhaling helium. The Echo’s report said that he had bought a ‘blow up balloon kit', which included ‘helium canisters', and had died after ‘inhaling too much' of the gas. The PCC said that, even though it was a fairly uncommon method of suicide, the Echo was entitled to report the basic details of the method. Details about the precise apparatus that had been constructed - and how much gas had been inhaled - might well have been excessive in breach of the Code, but they had not been included, the PCC said. It was satisfied that the newspaper had published ‘a suitably limited level of detail’ (Ms Rosie Nicol-Harper v Southern Daily Echo, 30 September 2010).
Case study: In 2010 the PCC ruled that The News (Portsmouth) breached clause 5 in an inquest report about a woman who killed herself by taking pills. The report said her handbag had been found to contain pill packets for a set number of an anti-depressant, and gave the precise quantity of pills that were missing and the dosage she had ingested (compared to the therapeutic dose). It also referred to the amount of alcohol found in her blood. The editor acknowledged that the reference to the number of missing pills might be considered excessive. He agreed to amend the online version of the story and circulated information to all staff about the requirements of the Code clause. The PCC noted that the report contained the name of the anti-depressant, the number of pills missing from the packet and the post-mortem result showing the level of drugs in the deceased's system. It said that, taken together, this was sufficient information to spell out to readers the precise method of death. It concluded that this level of detail was excessive (A woman v The News (Portsmouth) 28 January 2010).
Case study: In 2009 the PCC upheld a complaint by parents that a report published by the Reading Chronicle contained too much detail about how their daughter killed herself. She had consumed poisonous leaves. The report set out the precise type of leaf that had been used, the fact that the leaves had been ingested, the specific type of toxin found in the leaves, and the fact that death would have been quick as there was no antidote. The newspaper said it had taken care to remove a reference to how the leaves were prepared which, in its view, was the sole detail that could have led to copy-cat suicides. It considered that it was important to report the fundamental cause of death and said that this particular method of suicide was ‘not that rare’. The PCC ruled that the level of detail was excessive. It said the report included the type of leaf used, how the deceased found out about it, the fact there was no antidote, and a reference to the speed of the process. The PCC said that, taken together, it was concerned that this information may have been sufficient to spell out to others how to carry out such a suicide (Mr and Mrs Marsh v Reading Chronicle, 30 April 2009).
Case study: In 2009 the PCC ruled that several national and local newspapers had breached clause 5 in reports, from an inquest, about how a man cut off his own head with a chainsaw to protest at having his flat repossessed. For example, it upheld a complaint against the Crawley Observer website. The PCC said: ‘The article contained a long and graphic reference to the method of suicide. It set out the precise apparatus that had been constructed by the individual to enable his death.’ The newspaper said it had taken the article from a live feed from the Press Association (PA) and published it unamended. PA had subsequently made clear that it had quickly realised that the content of its copy was too explicit, and then issued a second version of it. Unfortunately, this did not replace the version on the Crawley Observer’s website, due to ‘a procedural failure at PA’. Even before being aware of the PCC complaint, PA took several steps to ensure that the situation would not be repeated. The PCC said it was crucial that newspapers minimise the risk of copycat suicides. ‘This means that, particularly in inquest reports (many of which will be provided by external agencies), care needs to be taken in the editing process to remove excessive detail.’ The Daily Mirror, whose coverage also set out the precise apparatus that had been constructed by the man to enable his suicide, argued that the method of suicide was so exceptional that the reporting of it was in the public interest. The Mirror said it did not consider that the reporting could encourage copycat suicides. It also questioned whether the restriction on the right to report inquests in full was practicable for newspapers or consistent with the principle of open justice. But the PCC ruled that the Mirror was among the newspapers whose coverage had breached the Code. The PCC said it disagreed with the suggestion that the Code should not restrict detail in inquest reports. Clause 5 of the Code enshrines the right to report inquests, but this does not mean that publishing every detail will always be acceptable, it added. The Daily Mail, also ruled to have breached the clause in coverage of the inquest, said it had removed detail from its article as soon as it had been made aware of the problem. It pointed out that online publishing was a 24-hour job, relying on sometimes inexperienced journalists working under tight time pressures. The PCC also ruled that The Sun’s and the Daily Star’s coverage had breached clause 5. Both their reports referred to the existence of the chainsaw, how it had been positioned and how it had been activated. The PCC noted that both newspapers had taken care to remove much of the graphic detail. But the PCC said that, while this was ‘a difficult judgement call’, it felt that on balance their articles ‘still included slightly too much detail to comply with the Code’ (various adjudications issued 2 January 2009).
Case study: In 2009 the PCC ruled that the Daily Sport had breached the Editors’ Code by publishing a list of what it said were the 10 most popular 'suicide hotspots' in the United Kingdom. The Choose Life organisation complained that the newspaper had provided unnecessary detail which might encourage vulnerable people to visit the places shown and take their own lives. As such, the article was highly irresponsible, it said. The Daily Sport said that the article was a fair and balanced factual report in the public interest, based on information in the public domain. The PCC said that the Code does not seek to prevent a newspaper reporting on the general subject of suicide, or investigating a pattern of suicides, in a manner that serves the public interest. But the PCC said that the Daily Sport article was ‘an entirely gratuitous guide to where individuals have killed themselves’, which explicitly pointed out to people that there were a number of options about how and where to attempt suicide. This was clearly excessive in the context. The PCC said that it was also concerned that the light-hearted presentation of the piece - which referred, for instance, to one bridge as being a 'well-known favourite for Britain's top-yourself tourists' - may have glamorised suicide in the eyes of some readers. As the Code is designed to minimise the chances of imitative suicides, this was a further breach of the Code, the PCC said (Choose Life v Daily Sport, 1 August 2009).
In this 2009 ruling, the PCC said that references to the whereabouts of individual suicides in the context of a newsworthy event - such as an inquest report - are generally acceptable under the Code. But it should be noted that in a blog in 2018, Charlotte Unwin, who was then Head of Standards at Ipso, posed the question of whether journalists should specify the location where someone has gone to take their life, ‘if that location is a key part of that person’s suicide’. She said: ‘Could the details of a location be considered part of a method of suicide? I’d be interested in hearing journalists’ thoughts on this point.’ For her blog, see Useful Websites, at the end of this Additional Material.
Charities which work to reduce the number of suicides have issued guidance to the media to help minimise the risk of imitative suicides. See Useful Websites, below.
The Samaritans’ guidance says, for example: ‘Don’t refer to a specific site or location as popular or known for suicides, for example, “notorious site” or “hot spot” and refrain from providing information, such as the height of a bridge or cliff.’
The guidance says too: ‘Avoid dramatic headlines and strong terms such as “suicide epidemic”. Never suggest that someone died instantly or that their death was quick, easy, painless, inevitable or a solution to their problems. Steer clear of language that sensationalises or glorifies suicide.’
It also says: ‘Avoid dramatic, emotive or sensational pictures or video footage. Excessive imagery can glamourise a death and lead vulnerable individuals to over-identify with the deceased.’
‘Avoid positioning a story too prominently, for example on the front page, as a lead bulletin, or at the top of an online breaking news feed. This may significantly increase the likelihood of influencing vulnerable people.’
The guidance says that suicide is extremely complex and that most of the time there is no single event or factor that leads someone to take their own life. ‘Speculation about the “trigger” or cause of a suicide can oversimplify the issue and should be avoided.’ It says that the suggestion that a single circumstance or incident, such as bullying, job loss, relationship breakdown or a bereavement, was the cause increases the risk of imitative suicides.
The guidance warns: ‘There is a risk that comments alongside articles will romanticise suicidal behaviour, for example references to a person going to “a better place” or “heaven gained another angel”. Some individuals may use comment sections to share their experiences of suicide attempts or self-harm, which may influence some people who are vulnerable. Comments may also lead to inaccurate speculation about a cause or method of suicide and have the potential to be inappropriate or offensive to family and friends.’
It says it is safer not to open comments sections on suicide stories and that careful consideration should be given to the appropriateness of promoting stories through ‘push’ notifications.
The guidance adds that what is published should make the point that suicides are preventable, referring to a source of support such as the Samaritans.
Inclusion of ‘gratuitous’ detail can breach codes
The media should avoid, when covering an inquest, publishing detail insensitively, because this could breach the general protection in regulators’ codes for the feelings of bereaved people.
Case study: In 2016 Ipso ruled that the Gravesend News Shopper had breached what is now clause 4 of the Editors’ Code. It reported the inquest into the death of a depressed woman who had hanged herself in her bedroom. The report included a quote, from evidence at the inquest, that a neighbour had described seeing the woman’s body hanging like a ‘plastic doll’. The newspaper’s position was that it was necessary to include the comparison of the dead woman to a ‘plastic doll’. But Ipso said that this comparison was gratuitous, ‘given the potential for such an emotive description to cause distress’, and that its inclusion represented a failure to handle publication sensitively. Other complaints made by the woman’s mother about the article were not upheld (Taylor v Gravesend News Shopper, 15 March 2016)
The Ipso guidance on covering suicides says: ‘Journalists must also use sensitivity when choosing the pictures or videos they will use to illustrate a story about the death of an individual. Editors and journalists should consider what the photos or video show and the context of the individual’s death in deciding which photos to publish. It may be helpful to approach the family of those who died, to see if there is a particular photo that they would prefer.’ For context about use of photos in reports about people who have recently died, see 4.15 in McNae’s.
17.12 Treasure inquests
Historically, coroners’ courts have decided whether historical objects found on or buried in the ground should be classed as ‘treasure’. The Crown or a franchisee has legal rights to take possession of valuable objects ruled to have been treasure deliberately hidden by a past generation—for example, buried for safety during warfare. The Treasure Act 1996 amended this ancient law to encourage those who use metal-detectors to declare discoveries so that museums can decide if they want the found objects. For the Government’s guidance on this law – see Useful Websites, below. The Act has various definitions of treasure, including:
- a found object which is not a single coin, which contains at least 10 per cent of gold or silver and which is at least 300 years old, and any other object found with it.
Anyone with reasonable grounds for believing an object they have found might be classed as treasure is required to notify a coroner within 14 days of the discovery or the realisation. Failure to do so is punishable by a fine or a jail term of up to three months.
The coroner, once notified or if he/she has reason to suspect any other found object is treasure, must hold an investigation, which could involve an inquest with a jury if there is ‘sufficient reason’.
If the find is ruled to be treasure, the British Museum or National Museum of Wales is given the opportunity to acquire it. The finder can be paid a reward, based on the treasure’s market value, from public funds, and some money may be awarded to the owner of the land on which the treasure was found.
The reward may be reduced, or not even offered, if the finder was trespassing or illegally disturbing an archaeological site. If the object is not classed as treasure or no museum wants it, the finder can keep or sell it, subject to the rights of the land-owner or occupier.
Ipso guidance on reporting suicides
Blog by Ipso’s head of standards: ‘Reporting suicides at notorious locations’
Guidance from The Samaritans charity about coverage of suicides
Guidance from the Papyrus charity, which aims to reduce suicides by young people
Government guidance on treasure including definitions