PCC ruling on headline
Rod Hemley complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined “L&D ‘pervert’ is found dead”, published on 28 September 2011, in the Herald and Post, intruded into his grief in breach of Clause 5 (intrusion into grief and shock) of the Editor’s Code of Practice. He also complained that the piece was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.
The complaint under Clause 5 was upheld. The newspaper had breached Clause 1 of the Code but had taken sufficient form of remedial action under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
The front page article reported on the death of the complainant’s civil partner, Ameet Mohabeer, who had taken his own life.
At the time of his death, Mr Mohabeer had been facing 13 charges of sexual assault on a male and four charges of causing a man to engage in a penetrative sexual activity; the offences were alleged to have occurred at Luton & Dunstable Hospital, where he had been employed.
The complainant said that the use of the word ‘pervert’ in the headline was insensitive and inaccurate: Mr Mohabeer had pleaded not guilty and no evidence had been presented against him.
The complainant was further concerned that the article inaccurately stated that Mr Mohabeer was due in court to enter a plea in the case on 3 October 2011, when he had already pleaded not guilty and a trial date had been set for several months later.
He considered that this inaccuracy would have given readers the misleading impression that his partner had taken his own life to avoid appearing in court the following day.
The newspaper accepted an inaccuracy in relation to the claim that Mr Mohabeer had been due in court several days after his death: it had published a front-page correction and apology on this point, which had also been appended to the online article.
However, it stood by its decision to use the headline “L&D ‘pervert’ is found dead”; while it had sympathy for the complainant, it said there were 14 alleged victims in the case. Mr Mohabeer had been the only suspect in the police investigation, and several victims had contacted the newspaper to say that his death had denied them justice.
The newspaper had amended the headline of the online article to read “L&D accused is found dead”, but stressed that this was not an admission that it had breached Clause 5.
Clause 5 (intrusion into grief or shock) says that in cases involving personal grief or shock, any approaches by journalists should be sympathetic and discreet and “publication handled sensitively”.
The Code does not prohibit the publication of any unwelcome information in such cases, or all material that is critical or negative about the deceased; rather it makes clear that such details must be published in a sensitive manner.
The principal question for the Commission in this case was whether the headline “L&D ‘Pervert’ is found dead” met this standard.
There could be no dispute that the newspaper was entitled to report the allegations against Mr Mohabeer and the existence of the criminal case in the context of his death.
The Commission accepted the newspaper’s position that the ongoing legal action was highly relevant, and it noted that Clause 5 makes clear that its terms should not be taken as restricting the right to report legal proceedings.
The newspaper had also been entitled to publish the reaction of a patient who made allegations about Mr Mohabeer.
However, its other obligations under Clause 5 remained.
Mr Mohabeer’s death had occurred just days before publication. The word ‘pervert’ was clearly a perjorative and colloquial term, and it had been presented prominently as the headline on the front page story.
Given that Mr Mohabeer had been contesting the sexual abuse allegations at the time of his death, and he had not been convicted of any crime in this regard, the Commission judged the phrase to be unacceptable and gratuitous.
It therefore ruled that its presentation - so soon after Mr Mohabeer had taken his own life - constituted insensitive publication under the terms of Clause 5. It upheld the complaint.
The newspaper had accepted that it had misreported the court dates relating to Mr Mohabeer’s trial: it stated that Mr Mohabeer was due in court on 3 October to enter a plea when, in fact, his plea of ‘not guilty’ had been entered on 15 September and the trial date had been set for 27 February 2012.
It was clear that the newspaper had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information, and that the article contained a significant inaccuracy, in breach of Clause 1 (accuracy) of the Code.
It was therefore incumbent on the newspaper to run an appropriate correction and apology.
The newspaper had published a front page print correction and apology on 13 October 2011.
The Commission noted that this had been published unilaterally, without agreement as to prominence.
Although this raised a technical breach of the Code, the Commission did not censure the newspaper on this point, as the prominence of the apology (on the front page) was unquestionable.
It reminded the editor, however, of the importance of establishing agreement ahead of the publication of corrections and apologies in cases involving the PCC. The Commission examined the text of the apology - which was also appended to the online piece - and judged it sufficient to remedy the breach of the Code, in accordance with the requirements of Clause 1 (ii).
No further action was required at this point.
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