Journalists and the bereaved: One hero, several villains and a response from the PCC

Journalists often get criticised for bothering the bereaved, but the untold story is the many journalists every week who help families cope with their loss by the caring way they handle their approaches.

Untold until now that is. Holdthefrontpage has spotted the tale of Derby Telegraph journalist Paul Whyatt who has been praised by the family of a 19-year-old man who was killed in a street attack.

HTFP reports that a notice printed in the family announcements section thanked all those who had supported them, including Paul who reported on the death. Full story here.

It is a shame that the journalists who have been intruding on the private grief of the sister of freelance Chris Wheal have not shown the same professionalism and courtesy as Whyatt. Wheal’s young nephew was killed in a freak accident in July, prompting him to write movingly about the experience of dealing with the press.

Now he has accused the PCC of failing to protect his sister from journalists who persisted in contacting her even though the watchdog had asked them to desist.

In a new blog post he writes:

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) asked the media to leave my sister alone after her son’s inquest. So far a news agency (SWNS), a sell-your-story specialist (Phoenix) and two magazines (Full House and That’s Life) have been in touch. And the BBC stood outside filming.

The PCC has no authority over the agencies (or freelances). It does not cover broadcasters at all. Full House has chosen not to sign up to the PCC’s code. The PCC’s version of self-regulation has failed.

10.30am update: The PCC has got in touch to put their side of this story across, here is their statement:

Since the tragic death of Mr. Wheal’s nephew in July, the PCC has sought to help the family to deal with the ensuing media attention it has faced. After proactively contacting him to offer our support, the PCC circulated two private advisory notice to editors which made clear the family’s position that they did not wish to speak to the media about the death. The first notice was sent around the time of the funeral; the second just before the inquest.

It is important not to lose sight of the fact that these notices have had a clear and decisive effect in limiting the contact with the family at a time of grief.  Mr Wheal has received contact from a news agency, a small magazine and the BBC (none of which are formally part of the system overseen by the PCC).  There has been one letter sent by a mainstream magazine to the family.

The circulation list used by the PCC for this service is comprehensive, and we are constantly updating it.    However, it is not always possible to cover every title individually (as there are thousands published across the country).   Following Mr Wheal’s case we will look to expand our reach further.  However, the PCC cannot act other than informally with broadcasters or agencies that are not part of the mainstream newspaper or magazine industry.

It is worth pointing out that the PCC is offering a service that no statutory regulator does – or could – provide, as it is based on the buy-in and co-operation of members.  This includes the vast majority of printed publications in the UK.  Neither the BBC or OFCOM are able to deal with the issue of pre-broadcast concerns about harassment.  The service is not perfect (and we are improving it), but it provides valuable help to those that need it.

Senior members of PCC staff also met Mr. Wheal recently to discuss how the PCC could better get the message out to police press officers advising families after such tragic incidents. We are currently revising our guidance to the public on “media attention following a death” based on the feedback Mr. Wheal provided, and will continue our ongoing efforts working with the police, Coroners and others to ensure that bereaved and vulnerable individuals understand how we can help them.

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