28 Feb UPDATE On PCC Complaint. The Daily Mail, 25th January 2012

The Press Complaints Commission received 15 complaints about the Daily Mail’s story about David Norkett’s death. To summarise, its headline said “Killed By Cannabis” even though the coroner said his death wasn’t directly related to cannabis. He died because he fell downstairs.

Disgracefully, the PCC has decided there was nothing the matter with the article. In doing so it condemns itself as the corrupt, dishonest, laughing stock that it has become. It plumbs new depths with this decision. I shall be writing to Lord Hunt the new chairman.

The original complaint is here.

This is the commission’s decision.

Commission’s decision in the case of
Various v Daily Mail

The Commission received 15 complaints that the newspaper had breached Clauses 1 (Accuracy) and 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Code. The complainants considered that the newspaper had failed to handle the publication sensitively and the headline was inaccurate as Mr David Norkett had not been killed by cannabis.

The Commission turned first to the complaints under Clause 1. The article was a report of a Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Mr David Norkett after he had fallen head first down a stairwell in a multi-storey car park in Reading. Several complainants considered that the newspaper had exploited the death of Mr Norkett to push its own anti-cannabis agenda. However, the Commission made clear that newspapers are entitled to report on public inquests, and the choice of inquests to cover was a matter of discretion for the editor. The question for the Commission to consider was whether any aspects of the newspaper’s report raised a breach of the Code.

The complainants considered that the headline’s statement “Killed by cannabis” was inaccurate, especially in light of the Coroner Dr Peter Bedford’s comment that “The awful events that took David’s life weren’t directly related to the fact that he had taken cannabis”. While the Commission acknowledged the complainants’ position, it noted that the headline itself had clarified that Mr Norkett had died “falling down stairs while high on skunk”. Furthermore, the body of the piece had included further comments from Dr Bedford who stated that “We can’t say completely (that if he had not had cannabis, he would not have fallen) but I think, deep down, we all know that wasn’t likely to have happened otherwise”. In the circumstances, the Commission was satisfied that on reading the article as a whole, readers in general would not be misled as to the circumstances surrounding Mr Norkett’s death.

The complainants had also raised concerns about the headline’s statement that the death of Mr Norkett proved that Sir Richard Branson was wrong in his belief that drugs should be decriminalised. The article had made clear that Sir Richard had expressed his opinions to the Home Affairs Committee on the same day as the inquest into Mr Norkett’s death. Under the terms of Clause 1, newspapers are entitled to take an editorial position on a matter of public debate. The Commission acknowledged that the question of whether drugs should be decriminalised was contentious and it understood that some readers would not agree with the headline’s claim. However, the newspaper was entitled to present its editorial opinion, and it was not the case that its inclusion within a report on an inquest constituted a breach of the Code. While the Commission acknowledged that some readers would disagree that Mr Norkett’s death proved Sir Richard was wrong about the decriminalisation of drugs, this did not render the article a breach of the Code.

One complainant considered that the article had misrepresented Sir Richard’s position. However, the Commission made clear that it would require a complaint from Sir Richard Branson, or his personal representative in order to establish whether he considered that he had been misrepresented. In the absence of such a complaint, it could not comment further on this aspect of the complaint.

Furthermore, the Commission could not agree that the Coroner had found that alcohol and not cannabis had been the contributing factor in Mr Norkett’s death and it was not the case that including the comments of the Coroner constituted a breach of the Code. In addition, the Commission was satisfied that the headline would not mislead readers into believing that cannabis necessarily made people fall down stairs.

The Commission then turned to the complaint about the URL address for the online edition of the article, which read “David-Norkett-17-dies-falling-high-skunk-proves-Richard-Branson-wrong-drugs”. The Commission considered it represented a brief synopsis of the full headline. Given the headline had not raised a breach of the Code, it was satisfied that readers would not be misled by the URL address, furthermore, it could not agree that it implied a direct link between cannabis and death. The Commission did not establish a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.

Concerns had also been raised under Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Code. The Commission acknowledged the complainants’ position, however, it made clear that while it considers all complaints from members of the public, many complaints from parties who are not directly affected by the matters about which they are complaining, and especially those that are framed under the terms of Clause 5, pose substantial difficulties. The family of the Mr Norkett or their personal representatives were the correct parties to complain about this matter. Without the family’s involvement, the Commission did not consider that it was in a position to make a ruling as to whether the article had intruded into their grief or shock. As such, it could not comment further on this aspect of the complaint.

One complainant found the article’s headline offensive, however, the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice do not address issues of taste and offence. The Code is designed to address the potentially competing rights of freedom of expression and other rights of individuals, such as privacy. Newspapers and magazines have editorial freedom to publish what they consider to be appropriate provided that the rights of individuals – enshrined in the terms of the Code which specifically defines and protects these rights – are not compromised. To come to an inevitably subjective judgement as to whether such material is tasteless or offensive would amount to the Commission acting as a moral arbiter, which can lead to censorship. It could not, therefore, comment on this aspect of the complaint further.