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Suicide pictures cleared by press watchdog

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has rejected complaints against three newspapers over their publication of photographs showing a woman falling to her death after jumping from the top floor of a London hotel.03 Apr 2006

The photographs did not breach a clause in the PCC Code of Practice that deals with journalistic “intrusion into grief or shock”, according to the regulator.

London lawyer Katherine Ward jumped to her death from the fourth floor of the Jurys Hotel in Kensington on 3rd January. The incident was witnessed by passers-by and a photographer, who took pictures of Ms Ward as she stood on a window ledge and again as she fell.

Some of the pictures were published in articles in The Sun, the Evening Standard and The Times.

A friend of Ms Ward complained to the PCC that the articles, including the pictures, breached a requirement of the PCC Code that:

“In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests.”

Considering the cases separately, the PCC concluded that there had been no breach.

While it agreed that the publication of the pictures was likely to offend and upset readers, the PCC stated that it did not have the job of judging “whether publication had exceeded any bounds of tastefulness”. Its role was to assess publications in terms only of the Code of Practice.

The question, therefore, was whether the publication had been “handled sensitively”.

According to The Sun adjudication, followed in the other two judgments, “the simple fact of publishing photographs of what was a public incident did not, in itself, constitute a failure to be sensitive.”

“It should be slow to restrict the right of newspapers to report newsworthy events that take place in public. This includes the right to publish photographs,” wrote the Commission. “This tragic case concerned an unusual death, which had taken place in public. As such, it was a newsworthy event.”

As none of the reports had published the information in an insensitive manner – i.e. by being unnecessarily explicit, or presenting the photos in a gratuitously graphic way – there was no breach.

The PCC then considered another issue that is not specifically mentioned in the Code, but could also be a breach of the “intrusion into grief or shock” clause: whether the publication had broken the news of the death to the family.

While the PCC could find no evidence that any of the papers had broken the news to family members it was very critical of the Evening Standard, finding that:

“The newspaper had not demonstrated to the Commission’s satisfaction that it had taken enough care before publication to establish that printing the picture would not have identified Ms Ward to her family. It had seemingly not made specific checks, but rather assumed from the fact that the police were aware of the woman’s identity that the family must have known.”

In its opinion, the “fact that publication did not lead to identification seemed to the Commission to be more a matter of luck than judgement.”

The PCC confirmed that the Code of Practice Committee is due to consider whether the Code should be extended to cover the encouragement of ‘copycat’ suicides. It also suggested that the Committee look again at how the Code covers the reporting of suicides and sudden deaths at the moment.