UK press coverage of the death of Robin Williams

THIS is a very quick blog post about press coverage of the death of Robin Williams.

Apologies if I do not tease out every argument, but I am up to my eyes in another project, about ethical codes of reporting as it happens.

TRIGGER WARNING – I am going to write here about the apparent suicide of Robin Williams and in as vague terms as I can about the method he used. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please consider whether you want to read any further. The Samaritans in the UK can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90.

Many people have objected on social media to the way the tabloid press in particular covered the death of Robin Williams. They complaints that I have seen focus on the amount of detail included about how he took his own life and the intrusive and insensitive nature of the coverage.

I will deal with those issues separately.

Firstly, the amount of detail in the reports.

There were four elements to this as I see it:

*He hanged himself

*He used a belt

*He was found seated

*He had also slashed his wrists using a pocketknife

The Editors’ Code of the Press Complaints Commission was amended to reflect concerns about the reporting of suicide, with the insertion of Clause 5(2)

*ii) When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.

The PCC Codebook, which elaborates on the code expands on this. Excessive detail, it is feared, can lead to copying by others who read about the method used.

Examples of excessive detail include the amount and type of a prescription drug used; the way in which a chainsaw was set up by one person to kill himself and the manner another set up equipment to electrocute himself. The publications that included these details were all censured by the PCC.

So were the details included by the papers excessive?

That he hanged himself using a belt, and that he slashed his wrists are, in my opinion, not excessive. These are very common methods people use to take, or make attempts on, their own life.

The one detail I am troubled by is that he was found in a seated position. This indicates how he hanged himself. I am not sure it amounts to excessive in the way the cases above do and doubt that it will amount to a breach of the code. However, if I had been editing that story, I would have taken out that detail in particular.

On then to the sensitivity of the way in which the star’s death was reported.

This is a very complex issue. People sometimes criticise the tabloid press for reporting an issue, while still reading every word of the content. Conversely, sometimes criticism is levelled at the papers for a ‘sensational’ (ie attention-grabbing) front page – and the nuances of coverage inside might be overlooked.

Some people feel that any examination of the lives of the dead while their families are still grieving is an unjustifiable intrusion . At the opposite end of the spectrum, some believe that after a life lived in the limelight, the death of a celebrity is public property too. A reasonable path lies somewhere between those two extremes.

Robin Williams had a long, interesting career as a comedian and actor. He has millions of fans worldwide and his untimely death will be the subject of much conversation and, yes, speculation among those fans. It is, I think, unrealistic to expect the media not to reflect that shock, and to examine the circumstances surrounding his death.

Furthermore, any coverage in the UK ought to be seen in the context of US coverage, where, as the family were appealing for time to grieve, US TV was running live helicopter shots of Williams’ home. The fact that one country’s media is more excessive than our own does not excuse bad behaviour, of course, but the coverage here and its potential impact on those grieving should be viewed in that context.

It is interesting to note that the one media that seems to have caused greatest distress in the immediate aftermath of Robin Williams’ death is social media, in particular Twitter, where trolls attacked his daughter, Zelda, causing her to close her account.

Still, that social media sometimes behaves more distressingly than mainstream, is nothing new.

I think what does, to some extent, excuse the coverage is that much of it was already in the public domain from previous coverage, or else was being widely published and discussed in US media.

I think that many of the complaints were about matters of taste and there the Editors’ Code does not go. No ethical code can take account of matters of taste, which are an editor’s discretion.

I know many will not agree with my views, and many were upset by the UK coverage.

If that is the case make your feelings know to the editors concerned; don’t buy their papers; don’t click their websites. If enough of you out there make your point that way, behaviours might change.

As I tweeted during the furore after his death, newspapers are a daily democracy, fighting for your money at the newsagent and your clicks on their websites. Use your vote wisely.

PCC adjudicates on journalist’s Facebook posts

IN what are its dying days the Press Complaints Commission made an extraordinary decision this week when it said it could adjudicate on journalists’ personal social media accounts.

It upheld a complaint from a councillor on harassment, Clause 4 of the Editors’ Code, over Facebook postings by Lorraine King of the Brent&Kilburn Times.

She had received an email from Councillor Jim Moher complaining that letters he had sent to the paper had not been published that week. She was on compassionate leave at the time following the death of her mother.

On her Facebook account she posted messages which said: “I plan to make his life a misery as much as possible” and “Lord God forgive me if I bump into him before I get back to work, you will be visiting me in Holloway”. The post were visible to 250 of her 1,000 friends and had attracted a number of comments and ‘likes’.

The councillor was made aware of the postings and he made a complaint to the PCC, which was upheld.

In its adjudication the PCC said: “The complainant’s concerns about the postings on Facebook related directly to the news editor’s contact with the complainant in her professional role, and had been viewed by individuals she had come into contact with as part of that role, a number of whom were personally acquainted with the complainant. The complaint could therefore be framed as a complaint under Clause 4 of the Code, which states that “journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit”.

“The comments had contained abusive language, personal insults and an implied threat of violence – albeit not one which the Commission considered was intended to be taken seriously. Further, they appeared to suggest that the news editor intended to use her professional role to make his “life a misery”. The newspaper had not denied that the complainant was readily identifiable as the subject of the remarks, which had been published to a wide audience. While the Commission acknowledged that the comments had been published at a difficult time for the news editor personally, it had no hesitation in finding that this constituted intimidation within the meaning of Clause 4, and a serious failure to uphold the highest professional standards required by the preamble to the Code.”

The PCC does not adjudicate on social media postings by newspapers, but it does cover their use by journalists in terms of professional conduct.

Accepting the adjudication, Archant, publishers of the Brent&Kilburn Times, said: “Following the ruling, Archant is reviewing and re-issuing its existing social media guidelines, to ensure all editorial staff are reminded of their obligations, both under the Editors’ Code and the company’s policies. All Archant editorial staff have clauses written into their contracts of employment making it clear they must adhere to the Editors’ Code at all times.”

It think the PCC has made a mistake here, setting a worrying precedent that its successor, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, has to decide whether to follow when it begins regulating the press in September.

Let’s consider the issues.

Firstly, we can dismiss the idea that this Facebook account was private. Personal yes, private, no.

It had 1,000 friends and the posts in question could be seen by 250 and were ‘liked’ by 54. That is not private, that is publishing to an audience.

Given the rich vein that social media faux pas have provided for journalists in recent years, it is the height of hypocrisy for us to claim that such mistake by one of our own were somehow private.

If this had been an exchange between two councillors, discovered by a reporter on that paper, would they have used it? Of course they would, a page lead at very least and on a quiet week, a splash.

Secondly, we should look at the exchange involved. The councillor knew the journalist had suffered a recent bereavement, having, as he pointed out, sorted out parking arrangements for grieving relatives. Yet still he emailed about missing letters. He deserved a robust response via email, saying the matter would be dealt with on the journalist’s return to work, or a suggestion that he take the matter up with staff who were in work, not a news editor who was on leave after a bereavement.

The news editor’s response on Facebook was not wise, to say the least, but in the array of misjudged social media posts we have seen it was pretty mild. However, it was a journalist expressing ill will towards someone her newspaper covers. Bias is something we are constantly accused of in the press, often by every shade of the political spectrum, and this post confirmed those usually unfounded suspicions.

The question is who should deal with this? Is it really the PCC?

I would argue not. That does not mean it should not be dealt with, but it should be a matter between the editor and the journalist, not the PCC.

This was not a Facebook feed for the paper, it was not posted in work, or during working hours, the journalist was on leave.

Is the PCC really saying that it can police every utterance by a journalist on any forum they make it? It has made a rod for IPSO’s back if that is the case.

I have been of the opinion for some time that journalists should be careful about what they put on social media. The line in so many biographies ‘my views not those of my employer’ gives you and your employer no protection at all. You may hold a councillor in low regard, but you cannot commit that to Facebook and not expect it to be used to question your impartiality.

However, even journalists are entitled to some personal time, even though they are always on duty. Out of hours, outside work and on compassionate leave ought to be considered personal, and not part of their professional conduct, unless specifically addressed to the complainant,which these postings were not.

This was a situation where neither complainant nor journalist covered themselves in glory, but it should have been a matter for the editor, not the PCC.

Are you ready for IPSO?

FROM September a new press regulator will begin operating in the UK, in the shape of IPSO.

IPSO will regulate much of the national and regional newspaper industry, with some notable exceptions, as well as the magazine sector. It will also regulate their associated websites.

Its birth is not without controversy, as it marks the industry’s rejection of the Government’s response to the Leveson Inquiry – a Royal Charter regulator. Hacked Off, the organisation representing victims of press abuses have dismissed IPSO as not Royal Charter compliant and the ‘PCC Mark 2.’

Nevertheless IPSO has appointed its new chairman, appeal court judge Sir Alan Moses, and is searching for a chief executive and members of its board.

For titles that have signed up to IPSO, despite criticisms levelled at it, there will be a very different and more exacting regime with which to comply.

Much will be familiar to titles that have signed up to IPSO. It will still use the Editors’ Code – although, as always, it can be revised as circumstance require.

It will also use the existing secretariat of the PCC, a wise move in my view as it is very efficient at responding to complainants, gathering information and putting together a file for adjudication. It takes 35 working days from complaint to adjudication at the moment, which is faster than any legal action you will ever be involved in.

IPSO, unlike the Press Complaints Commission, will be able to conduct investigations and, again, unlike its predecessor, it will be able to levy fines of up to £1m.

Such actions will only be taken where there has been a ‘systemic’ failure in regulation at a title – but what will this amount to and how is it to be avoided?

I am now running IPSO compliance training for publications that want to get ready for the new regulator.

The sessions include:

• Training staff on the Editors’ Code and its implementation with practical workshops to illustrate the latest complaints and decisions
• Training senior editorial executives in the Code and its implementation so that they can make sound decisions and give clear guidance to junior staff when tackling ethically difficult assignments
• A compliance audit to ensure the publications practices and reporting structures are robust, to avoid findings of systemic failure in regulation
• An optional service as an external independent arbitrator in disputes where internal resolution has failed to reach agreement

Publications will need to show IPSO that compliance with the Code is taken seriously and runs through their organisation from editor to junior reporter. Regular training that is independent of the title, and of IPSO itself, which I provide, can go a long way to doing that.

There are more details on the training courses page.

If you want your publication to be ready for IPSO, contact me now to discuss training at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com

HERE’S your round-up of coverage I’ve spotted today.

After a quiet day, unanimity breaks out with everyone going for the line about David Blunkett and transcripts of intimate voicemails.

The Guardian

Daily Mail

Hacked Off

The Independent

The Drum

Press Association (here on MSN)

That’s it for now. As ever, drop me a line if your copy is missing from here and you would like a mention, or if you’ve spotted something you think worthy of inclusion.

Phonehacking Trial, Day 7

AFTER near unanimity on the best ‘lines’ from the first few days of the trial, today seemed to mark the first day when papers chose different angles.

Always interesting when the press do this on any story as it gives you a little insight into how they think editorially and what they think will push their readers’ buttons.

Many of them spend a large amount of money and time finding out exactly what their readers think, do and consume and if a paper is well-targeted you can tell a lot about its readership from the angles it takes on stories and the stories it chooses for page leads, and the others it drops completely.

Anyway, here’s the coverage from today, enjoy.

Daily Mail

The Independent

The Guardian

Daily Mirror

Hacked Off

The Drum

Evening Standard

Press Association (here on MSN)

Peter Jukes has been doing a great job livetweeting the trial and is now crowdsourcing funds to help him keep at it until Christmas – a very worthy cause.

That’s it for now. As ever, if you spot something superlative, give me a shout.

Phonehacking Trial, Day 6

Week Two of the trial and stories are still coming thick and fast.

It’s still the opening of the trial, which the judge has decided can be livetweeted and @PeterJukes is doing a particularly fine, comprehensive job. The line about codewords from the film ‘Where Eagles Dare’ proved irresistible in the early copy today.

Coverage today.

Guardian and the “Where Eagles Dare” line.

Daily Mail

The Independent

Daily Telegraph

The Drum

Hacked Off

Broadsword calling Danny Boy – signing off until I see some later takes this evening.

Phonehacking Trial, Day 5

EARLY take on the coverage up so far on the phonehacking trial. As usual if more emerges later I will update.

The coverage has been pretty comprehensive this week, both online, in print, livetweeting and blogging. I think some predictions that the trial might be downplayed proved to be ill-founded.

It has been interesting for me watching site stats to see which links have been most clicked, and at this time of night, The Guardian outstrips the rest quite easily, even after I started handicapping it a bit by dropping it down the list. However, later on, in the small hours of the morning, sites like The Daily Beast, The Drum and Hacked Off come back strongly with a lot of visitors heading their way from here.

Anyway, coverage is as follows:

Press Association (on MSN here, also available on BT and on homepages of Newsquest, Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror)

Evening Standard

The Independent

The Drum

Hacked Off

Daily Mail

Daily Telegraph

The Guardian

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the Sundays do with this given that they don’t normally go for trial coverage as it will have been gone over thoroughly in the Saturday papers. I will round them up here if they do anything significant with it.

That’s it for now, an interesting week and more to come. Have a good weekend.

UPDATE

Eastern Daily Press with a local line

Five laws editors need to know better than their staff

BEING an editor places great demands on your time.

You might well have arranged training for your staff, but have you thought about your own? When was the last law refresher you attended?

You might reasonably leave day-to-day spotting of legals to your newsdesk and subs, but in some cases it is you that will be held responsible when things go wrong.

Here, briefly, are five areas of law an editor really needs to know.

1 – Sexual offences anonymity
There is now a large number of offences which give anonymity to a victim as soon as a an offence is reported and that report can be to anyone, not just police. Relatively new offences like trafficking and voyeurism are catching journalists out because they do not realise they are sexual offences.

The consequences of breach are very serious, a prosecution under the Sexual Offences Amendment Act 1992 – and the CPS will sometimes prosecute both the paper and the editor. Conviction will result in a criminal record for a sexual offence.

2 – Contempt of Court

The law isn’t new, it’s been around since 1981, but what is new is Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s willingness to prosecute.

He said when he took office that prejudicial publication was a concern and he has been true to his word in allowing prosecutions for contempt.

They can still, theoretically, jail editors for contempt (last time that happened was the editor of The Mirror in 1949 over converage of the Haigh Acid Baths Murders) Nowadays they give the editor a personal fine, as well as the paper. Fines are unlimited, but tend to be in the tens of thousands of pounds.

Publication of material which would not have resulted in prosecution five years ago, is now being being taken to court.

3 – Defamation Act 2013

Libel remains your most potentially expensive problem. The new Act will probably be implemented from summer 2014. It contains new defences and new limits on how claimants can take action against you. You and your staff need to understand the changes it introduces.

4 – Bribery Act, RIPA, Misuse of Computers

The laws we saw Leveson explore at some length. You may well be taking on young, technically adept journalists. They, and you, need to know the legal limits on use of their technical expertise in obtaining stories. Likewise, what is a bribe, who can be bribed and how to avoid a bribery charge?

5 – Copyright

The next big issue coming down the track I think. Journalists are magpies and tend to regard the Internet as a limitless source of free material, especially imagery. People posting pictures online seem to be becoming more aware of their legal rights over such material and we will, I think, start seeing actions for copyright breach in the near future for the sort of online pilfering reporters have regarded as safe up until now.

If the above has given you pause for though, I run in-house law refreshers for editors and their staff. All sessions are tailored to the individual publication concerned. If you would like to talk about training, drop me a line at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com