BYLINE INVESTIGATES IS LAUNCHING A MAJOR NEW SERIES EXAMINING THE ROLE OF THE TABLOID PRESS IN THE EVENTS LEADING TO THE DEATH OF CAROLINE FLACK. TODAY WE TELL HOW:
- THE 999 story was published by Victoria Newton – who was promoted to Sun Editor-in-Chief two weeks ago
- SUN on Sunday knew Caroline Flack had mental health challenges at least 12 months before her death
- PAPER ran article claiming she made attempt on own life – a serious breach of press industry rules
- IPSO, which sets the rules, is owned and governed by the publications it regulates, and:
- TOOK no action against Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid despite apparently flagrant disregard of its ‘Code of Practice’
A STORY in The Sun on Sunday claiming Caroline Flack attempted suicide more than a year before her death was a “clear breach” of the paper’s industry Code of Practice, an expert on Press regulation has said.
Speaking to Byline Investigates, Paul Wragg, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Leeds, also condemned the article by the paper’s Associate Showbiz Editor Clemmie Moodie as a “gross invasion of privacy with no demonstrable justification” that could amount “to harassment”.
Of the “exclusive” article headlined TV CAROLINE ROW SPARKS 999 DRAMA, Prof Wragg said: “It is a clear breach of the (industry self-regulator) Independent Press Standards Organisation’s Editors’ Code of Practice.
“It touches on intimate, private relationship and serious mental health issues – it’s essentially about a potential suicide.
“This is a story written about someone going through a terrible ordeal – whether the threat of suicide was real or not. It is an incredibly private matter.”
Prof Wragg’s comments follow the opening of an inquest – adjourned until August 5 – at Poplar Coroners’ Court in London into the death last Saturday of Ms Flack.
Coroner Sarah Bourke confirmed Ms Flack’s provisional cause of death, before a brief narrative on some of the circumstances surrounding the police’s discovery of her body was given.
Prior to her death, Ms Flack had stepped down from presenting the current series of Love Island after an alleged assault on her boyfriend, Lewis Burton.
The television presenter pleaded not guilty at a court hearing in December and was released on bail but, as is common in alleged domestic abuse cases, was ordered to stop having contact with Mr Burton ahead of a trial, which had been due to begin in March.
The November 25, 2018, Sun on Sunday article centred on Ms Flack being checked over by paramedics after her former partner Andrew Brady dialled 999 out of concern for her welfare after an apparently heated telephone conversation between the pair.
Byline Investigates is choosing not to reproduce the content of the article, but can say it gave a detailed description of events leading up to the call, including discussion of whether or not Ms Flack was at risk of taking her own life, and one particular method of doing so.
Prof Wragg said: “This story is not only wrong in the light of what happened to Ms Flack, this week. But at the time, when Ms Flack was alive, it was wrong in itself, because there is no conceivable public interest to justify this sort of outrageous intrusion.”
Prof Wragg went on to explain why The Sun on Sunday article appeared to breach its own Editors’ Code of Practice, which sets out a series of ‘clauses’ prescribing the professional standards expected of its members, and which IPSO is supposed to enforce.
Prof Wragg said: “This story is a gross invasion of privacy with no demonstrable justification – the story is a clear breach of the Editors’ Code, as regards privacy.”
He added: “The story is a clear breach of Clause 4 – intrusion into grief or shock. Clearly, the incident described in the story, is a shocking scenario.
“Moreover, when writing about suicide journalists are obliged to consider the possibility of copycat responses – has the Editor considered her obligation?
“Has she considered the possibility that someone vulnerable, thinking that Caroline Flack has attempted suicide, might attempt it themselves – and succeed?”
Byline Investigates told on Sunday how The Sun and its weekend sister paper published more than 40 articles about Ms Flack in the eight weeks after her being charged with common assault, against Mr Burton’s wishes.
Publishers News UK removed one story – about a Valentine’s Day card mocking the presenter – from its website within hours of the announcement of her death.
Prof Wragg added: “It may also be a breach of Clause 3, which covers harassment. This article on its own may not be harassment, but in the context of a series of articles, it could be. This is something that journalists have to bear in mind.”
Yesterday (February 19), Ms Flack’s family offered some insight into her state of mind by sharing an Instagram message she wrote, but did not publish.
One section of the long message (published below in full) read: “The reason I am talking today is because my family can’t take anymore. I’ve lost my job. My home. My ability to speak. And the truth has been taken out of my hands and used as entertainment.
“I can’t spend every day hidden away being told not to say or speak to anyone. I’m so sorry to my family for what I have brought upon them and for what my friends have had to go through.”
Although it describes itself as “independent”, IPSO is in fact owned and governed by the publications it regulates.
Its rules are set by the “Regulatory Funding Company” (RFC) , whose board members include senior figures from the publishers of The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mirror, The Times, and The Sun; and the RFC has a veto on most IPSO activity through the members it nominates for appointment to the IPSO Board.
Byline Investigates sent IPSO the full version of Dr Wragg’s comments and asked whether it had received any complaints about the Sun on Sunday article or whether it had pro-actively sought to enforce its own Code of Practice in relation to the piece.
A spokesperson for the “regulator” declined to comment on our questions about the Sun on Sunday’s November 2018 coverage of Ms Flack, or on its apparent lack of action.
However, IPSO rules state it can only accept complaints about newspaper coverage of mental illness from the person about whom an article is written, and that all complaints must be received within four months of publication.
In practice, this makes such complaints rare and, in the case of suicide, impossible, unless a grieving family acts before the four-month deadline. In civil law, an action must be brought to court within a year of publication.
The spokesperson added: “IPSO is the independent regulator of the majority of newspapers and magazines in the UK. We are a self-regulator, funded by our members through an arms-length body, the RFC. We have a 5-year funding agreement, which gives us certainty over our income and guarantees our independence.”
Last night it emerged that IPSO has received a number of complaints about coverage on MailOnline following the opening of the inquest, after it published details of the cause of her death in a headline and repeated it through a push notification on its app.
One social media user, called Jess Brammar, said in a Tweet (above) that she was “genuinely completely sickened” by the headline in the unprompted Mail notification.
Although IPSO can choose whether to consider complaints from “representative” groups of those affected, industry nominees on the relevant IPSO committees can stop them, and they are very rare.
Last night, Press reform organisation Hacked Off criticised IPSO’s lack of action over the Sun on Sunday’s piece.
Victim liaison officer Rose Hayden said: “IPSO has serious questions to answer about why it failed to act over the Sun on Sunday’s article of November 2018 which reported a possible suicide attempt. There is no public interest in reporting such a sensitive and personal matter.
“IPSO must be held accountable for the way the Sun and other newspapers subsequently pursued Ms Flack. A complaints-handler with a backbone would have dealt with the 2018 article and subsequent coverage very differently.
“Had an independent regulator existed the cruel and distressing coverage Caroline Flack endured would at the very least have been properly sanctioned and remedied. Instead, the press acted with impunity because they knew IPSO wouldn’t lift a finger.”
Charity the Samaritans, which works closely with media organisations on best practice for reporting suicide, suggests avoiding giving stories excessive prominence or putting the cause of death in headlines.
A spokesperson for the charity said: “Celebrity deaths draw a lot of media attention, which can significantly increase the risk of imitational suicide behaviour. Research constantly demonstrates links between types of media coverage and an increase in suicide rates. This week, we are asking media to remember Samaritans Media Guidelines on reporting suicide.
“Responsible reporting of suicide can have a positive effect by encouraging people to seek help, and irresponsible reporting can be harmful.”
Byline Investigates has sought comment on this article from the Sun on Sunday’s publishers News UK, Rebekah Brooks, Victoria Newton, and Clemmie Moodie, but had yet to receive a response at the time of publication.
- Prof Paul Wragg has written a book on Press regulation, A Free and Regulated Press.
- Byline Investigates strives to adhere to the best practice guidelines of IMPRESS, the only British news regulator officially endorsed by the Press Recognition Panel, an independent body set up by Royal Charter to ensure that regulators of the UK press and other news publishers are independent, properly funded and able to protect the public.