Reporting the point of death

This September’s newspapers have been reporting terrible tragedies new and old. Amongst them was a fatal accident at the Burghley Three Day Event earlier this month.

“Somersaulting through the air, a horse crashes onto its fallen rider as she lies helpless in two foot of water. These were the last tragic seconds in the life of international eventer Caroline Pratt” reported the Daily Mail accompanied by shocking photographs of the terrible fall. The Daily Telegraph carried an illustrated article (still on its website) entitled “The horrific moment that a horse crushes its rider in the water jump at Burghley” accompanied by a sequence of three photographs showing the horse cartwheeling over its thrown rider, a mere second or two before her death.

Other newspapers were more circumspect, showing Miss Pratt riding gelding Primitive Streak at earlier sporting events, which may have caused less upset to family members and readers.

But the tragedy took place at a very public event (which was being filmed by the BBC).

The Society of Editors’ Code of Practice calls on the media to maintain the highest professional standards.

However, coverage of the point of death is an area where its guidance as to what those standards should be is less than explicit. Living people are entitled to privacy but the approach taken by biographers and historians as well as some journalists is that this cannot protect the dead.

Clause 5 of the Code calls upon the media not to intrude into personal grief or shock (publication to be handled sensitively) but this does not protect the deceased, and upset caused to third parties is not something that the editors or the Press Complaints Comission can entertain: The PCC’s central ethos is to offer redress and protection to members of the public who find themselves caught up in news stories, not to adjudicate when unconnected parties feel that coverage exceeds the limits of taste, decency etc.

This was apparent when footballer Mark-Vivien Foe, 28, died of a heart attack during an international game during 2003. A concerted campaign by football fans against the Sun and the Daily Mirror, which had front page pictures of the star dying whilst representing his country Cameroon, was not particularly effective as the Press watchdog is unable to investigate such third party complaints (the PCC did contact Foe’s family via his agent to make sure they knew how to make a complaint, but the fact that they lived in Cameroon would have radically reduced the likelihood of a successful complaint about UK press coverage). In the event, the issue seems to have been defused e.g. by the newspapers’ subsequent glowing tributes to the ex-West Ham United and Manchester City footballer.

The match between the Cameroon and Columbia was being shown live on Eurosport which could not, of course, have predicted when Foe collapsed in the centre circle that it would lead to his untimely death a matter of minutes later. The unintended and contemporaneous showing of the point of death, if unforeseen, is not something a Regulator would punish.

In fact, things are much clearer but more restricted for broadcast journalists: the Ofcom Code (still the old BSC Code on Standards) allows violent events to be covered in news and current affairs programmes, but states that “scenes in which people are clearly seen being killed, or about to die, require exceptional justification”. Only in the rarest circumstances therefore, should broadcasters show the intimate moments of death itself. The dead should be treated with respect and, in practice, this means that the point of death is almost never shown (and certainly not before the watershed).

Both the print and television regulators have less trouble with the consequences of violence, which arguably need to be shown to avoid the sanitisation of news. So the shocking images of the dead in the recent Russian school siege, although harrowing, do not present the same issues as the point of death itself.

Increasingly-sophisticated picture telephones mean that the media is going to be confronted with ever more intrusive but powerful images of death and serious injury, from accidents to terrorist outrages, leading to hard decisions for picture editors. Assuming such problems will arise more and more frequently, it may well be that the PCC will have to consider providing more specific guidance on the standards to be applied in balancing the public’s right to know what actually happened against the pain and grief of those close to the deceased, who may not want to see, or be reminded of, the point of death.

Nick Armstrong is a partner in the Media Group of City Solicitors Charles Russell.

Nick Armstrong

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