Controversy as Post censured by PCC over funeral story

| December 1, 2009 | 0 Comments

THE Press Complaints Commission has criticised the Bristol Evening Post over its coverage of the funeral of a young suicide victim – stirring controversy among journalists, some of who believe the newspaper behaved correctly.

Comments attached to the report of the PCC ruling on the Press Gazette website were 5-2 in favour of the newspaper’s actions.

Most appeared to think the Post had not set out to offend and had acted in the way most newspapers would behave in similar circumstances.

The PCC – which was criticised as “structurally corrupt” by Guardian journalist and press critic Nick Davies at Bristol NUJ’s annual Benn Lecture last week – censured the Evening Post for failing to find out whether the suicide victim’s family would agree to coverage of the funeral.

The paper published pictures taken outside the cremation service on February 26, 2009, for 17-year-old Mark Cattermole. It also printed details from the order of service and tributes written to Mark by friends and family and left with flowers at the crematorium.

Mark’s mother Hazel Cattermole of Weston-super-Mare complained that the Post’s photographer had “hidden in bushes” and had to be warned off by an undertaker.The PCC said the failure to find out the family’s wishes, and the publication of photos after the photographer had been sent away, meant that the Evening Post had not “paid appropriate regard to the feelings of the family.”

“Newspapers have an important role to play in the reporting of tragic events, which the Commission did not wish unduly to restrict. For instance, some funerals are public celebrations of a person’s life, at which the presence of reporters is welcome. However, given the age of the complainant’s son – and the manner in which he died – the need for restraint and sensitivity on the part of the press was great,” the PCC said.

“The newspaper’s behaviour was not appropriate in the context of this untimely and tragic death. Parents grieving for the loss of their child should not have to be concerned about the behaviour of journalists, or the likelihood that details of the funeral would be covered without their consent.”

The Post denied that the photographer had been hiding. It said that cremations were public events and the photographer had left as soon as he was confronted, and the paper was not aware the family did not want any pictures published.

A reporter picked up an order of service and noted down the family tributes after the family had left.

The paper has told the PCC it will publish an apology to the family for causing them distress. It published the PCC’s adjudication on Monday November 30, though no apology had appeared at the time of writing this report.

On the Press Gazette website only two commentators backed the PCC ruling. One, John Nevill, said the PCC was “a lamb … sent to govern the wolves”.

Another, jamesll, criticised the practice of sending journalists to talk to victims of the recently bereaved – known in newsrooms as “the death knock”.

jamesll wrote: “I have never understood why personal tragedies of this nature are deemed fit for public consumption? What public interest did this “story” serve? When I was a reporter on a local newspaper I always felt very uncomfortable with the whole culture of death knocks and turning up at funerals uninvited.”

But other contributors backed the Evening Post.

grey cardigan said: “What an extraordinary adjudication. I can’t see anything wrong with the Evening Post’s behaviour. It was bog standard newsroom practice, surely?”

Contributor Bob Haywood linked the adjudication to the current high profile of the PCC, which is under attack for its alleged failure to investigate phone hacking at the News of the World.

“The PCC has shown yet again that it is so fearful of statutory regulation that it occasionally chucks in a nonsensical adjudication to appease its critics,” said Bob Haywood.

“Even taking the “prosecution” case, I can’t see what the BEP did wrong. If the BEP had approached the family in advance of the funeral to see what they thought of coverage, I am sure the family would have complained of harassment – and the PCC would have upheld the case.

“Funerals are public occasions. If I’d have been running the news desk that day, I’d have had a reporter inside the church. How many times have we seen the media report on the cards with floral tributes? Hundreds of times. Picking up the order of service to check names/titles? Terrible. Any factual inaccuracies in the piece? Apparently not.”

Another, Sam Spade, called it ” a very odd decision from the PCC”.

“Could it be the fragrant [PCC chair] Baroness Buscombe  making her presence felt yet again? Don’t the politicians call it “sending out a message?”

Sam Spade quoted a speech by Baroness Buscombe in November in which she said: “We make sure people are not approached by journalists or photographers when they need some space.”

She referred to a school in Cheltenham where a pupil died this year. Concerned about the impact of press attention, the school summoned the PCC, which spoke to editors and ensured “the children were left in peace”.

One contributor to the Press Gazette forum, ElizaBennet, said: “I can’t see how this was intrusive in the slightest. A stomach-churning adjudication. Will the last one out please turn the lights out?”

Paul Breeden

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