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Re: Complaint by X (ref: X/12/2018)

Date of complaint: 22 October 2018


Article complained of: “Remembering Sean Hughes: ‘The Sadness is he
didn’t get to be old, just lonely’” Michael Hann
Date of publication: 19 October 2017

Decision

Introduction

1. Throughout this decision, X will be referred to as “the complainant” and the


above-mentioned article as “the article”. Guardian News & Media will be
referred to as “GNM”, the former Press Complaints Commission Code as “the
Code”, the readers’ editor as RE and review panel as “the panel”.

The Article

2. The article is an opinion piece by Michael Hann (the author) published online
very shortly after the death of the comedian Sean Hughes. The article is wide
ranging in its discussion and talks about Sean’s talent as a comedian and
actor and his professional achievements. However, it is also very personally
critical of Sean, in particular in relation to his drinking. The article also
contained the following paragraph:

“It’s also worth noting that it is hard to get people to talk publicly about
Hughes, precisely because so many people had bad experiences with him,
especially women. Those who knew him talk of how he seemed to be
looking for reasons to cut off people he loved: Donnelly recalls Hughes
falling out with one of his oldest friends a few years back, and how he told
Hughes that the other person had done nothing wrong, but this made no
impression. It was as if he was afraid of intimacy, and this meant women
would experience the absolute worst of him. No one I speak to will go into
specifics – it seems not to be something people want to revisit – but dark
mutterings among women who had relationships with him floated around
like an ugly cloud, becoming visible again after his death.”

3. The article generated a great deal of criticism - particularly in relation to the


above paragraph - and another complaint to the RE which resulted in an
addendum note to the article published online on 27 July 2018 (“the note”).
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The note concludes that “overall the article is well-rounded and within the
editorial standards” but that the paragraph referring to “people having had bad
experiences with Sean Hughes, especially women” was “ill-judged” because
“it did not specify those experiences and, insofar as possible, attribute them to
one or more accusers.” The RE recognised that this was likely to have caused
Sean Hughes’ family and friends distress, being published without further
detail of the allegation and so soon after the death and that this “ought to have
been given greater weight by the decision-makers”. The note does not
consider any other breaches of the Code nor does it make any significant
corrections beyond a correction to an earlier version which said that Luke
Young was a Crystal Palace player when in fact he played for Charlton.

Complaint to the RE

4. The complainant first complained to the RE by email on 7 August 2018, 9


months after the Article was first published. The complainant had had a close
personal relationship with Sean and identified this to the RE at the time of her
initial email. Although there was a delay in this complaint being made, the
Panel does not consider that delay to be material to the issues for
determination in this complaint and so will not consider it further. The email of
7 August 2018 raised a number of concerns about the article but with a
particular focus on an alleged breach of Clause 5 of the Code, which provides
as follows:

“Intrusion into grief or shock:


In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches
must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled
sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal
proceedings.”

5. The complainant emphasised what she referred to as a ‘threat’ in the article


that its author would be in attendance at the funeral. She says this made her
‘hyper-vigilant’ on the day of the funeral. This seems to be a reference to the
following line in the article:

“I shall go to his funeral on Monday, and I will still be asking myself: who was my
old friend? And why did his life turn out this way?”

6. The remainder of the complaint raises concerns about the RE comments


added in July 2018. She says that by simply highlighting the comments about
women without seeking to correct them, this has added to her grief and
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distress, particularly because it could lead others to – wrongly – assume that
she had been subject of ill treatment or abuse by Sean.

7. The complainant received an automated response. The RE receives a


significant number of complaints not all of which will merit substantive
investigation. It is therefore standard practice for a complainant to receive an
automated response in the event that the RE considers that a complaint is not
suitable for substantive investigation. The Panel notes that the complainant
then sent a further 14 emails prompting the RE to provide a substantive
response on 19 September (having been on leave between 30 August and 17
September). He indicated that “the concerns expressed… were not issues
that can be considered under editorial standards” and the matter was referred
to the managing editor for resolution. Although it is not within the Panel’s remit
to make findings as to the process at RE level, it has – prompted by this
complaint – made enquiries of the Guardian to establish how effectively the
system is working with a view to making the process clearer for complainants
in the future.

8. The complainant continued to email the RE raising a number of additional


matters she said gave rise to breaches of the code. These were focused
largely on disputes of a factual nature and other matters which in the
complainant’s view should have been included in the article about Sean. This
email therefore raised issues relating to Clause 1 of the Code: Accuracy.

Outcome of the complaint to the RE

9. The RE responded by email on 24 September saying that her further emails


“do not indicate a reasonable likelihood of inaccuracies such that the test of
‘significant error’ would be met if the matter were re-opened.” As such he said
it would not be proportionate to take further action. The RE also noticed the
age of the article being now almost a year old and the fact that it had already
been subject to a previous complaint, consideration and published decision
about substantive issues.

10. The Complainant responded on 28 September 2018 noting again the reasons
why it had taken her so long to raise a complaint and expressing distress at
the implication that because her complaint came after others it would not be
considered. She also pointed out that a correction had been made to a
footballer and the team he played for. The RE notes that this had been made
by the RE staff after an error was pointed out by readers immediately
following publication and not as a result of any formal complaint.

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11. There was no further correspondence with the RE. On 11 October 2018, the
Managing Editor provided the complainant with the details of the Review
Panel and the procedure to follow should she remain dissatisfied with the
outcome of her complaint to the RE.

The Complaint to the panel

12. The complainant complained to the Panel on 22 October 2018. She indicates
that she is complaining both about the text of the article and the RE’s
response. She mainly focuses her complaint on Clauses 1 and 5 of the Code
(accuracy and grief). The complainant identifies a number of “inaccuracies”
which she wishes to have corrected. The most significant of these in the
Panel’s view is the contention that contrary to what is alleged in the article,
Sean was not ‘punched in the face’ before a show by Jah Wobble. The
complainant relies on a memoir by Mr Wobble in which he omits any
reference to this when remembering Sean. She says this demonstrates its
inaccuracy. She seeks a correction of this. She also alleges that the
comments about Sean’s relationships with women and that he was “arrogant,
selfish, demanding and sometimes cruel” was inaccurate and misleading. She
says that despite recognising the intrusion into grief and likely distress the
article would have caused, there was insufficient remedy and an absence of
any apology. She says that having published unspecified allegations, the
Guardian should have either included specifics or apologised for publishing
those allegations.

13. In relation to the RE’s response to the previous complaint, the complainant
says that the comments were not “prompt” as required by Clause 1(ii). She
also makes various complaints about the way the process was handled by the
RE and the lack of clarity as to whether he or the Managing Editor was
dealing with her complaint.

14. On 17 November, the complainant sent the Panel a further email expanding
on her complaint. She sets out further inaccuracies in the article and alleges
that the comment in the article which suggested its author would be at the
funeral amounted to harassment. She emphasises that “the totality of factual
errors, omissions, lack of clarity around comment, conjecture or fact, was
avoidable and caused distress at a time of grief.”

15. The complainant indicated that she would like the following action to be taken
in response to her complaint:

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“I would like one factual inaccuracy corrected, Hannah's Norris' name

I would like two factual inaccuracies corrected, the dates of publication


of Sean's novels. I would like a clarification which explains these were
corrected to the first publication date, and the dates previously stated
were the second print run dates.

I would like two quotes attributed to Sean to either be corrected either


referenced, and if they cannot be referenced/evidenced, then for the
content to be amended to reflect that they were not direct quotes

I would like a right of reply for myself as a former partner, in the form of
an addendum of comments, or, a letter published and the link to that
letter added to the article.

I would like the Guardian to correct/clarify point 18. It is unclear whether


this is comment, conjecture, opinion or fact and each should be
corrected/clarified so the “average reader” able to understand which it
is.

If it is not agreed that there has been a breach of the PCC code, I would
like to take this complaint to the Ombudsman as a breach of the
Guardians editorial guidelines.”

16. The Panel notes that many of the above matters did not form part of her
original complaint to the RE.

17. The RE explains to the Panel that his decision was not to investigate the
substantive complaint on the basis that:
i) The article was a year old;
ii) The complainant’s core objection had already been subject to
investigation, decision, and remedial action;
iii) The complaint was not reasonably amenable to investigation and
decision within the editorial standards because the complainant was
saying that:
i. The complainant was unable to mourn at her ex-partner’s
funeral because the article said its author might attend;
ii. The complainant wanted additional information included in the
article such as his various TV and film credits;
iii. The decision of the RE in relation to the original response to the
former complaint ought to have been expressed differently;

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iv) A number of accuracy issues were raised which, in the RE’s opinion
did not rise to the level of a ‘significant error’ thus requiring
correction or clarification because they were minor in nature.

Relevant aspects of the Code

18. The Panel considers the following aspects of the Code to be of most
relevance to the complaint:

“Accuracy

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or


distorted information, including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once


recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence,
and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving
the Commission, prominence should be agreed with the PCC in
advance.

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly


between comment, conjecture, and fact”

“Intrusion into grief and shock”

“In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and


approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and
publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict
the right to report legal proceedings.”

Discussion

Inaccuracies

19. A number of purported inaccuracies (19 in total) have been identified by the
complainant. These are, in the Panel’s view, either not “significant” within the
meaning of the Code and/or unable to be objectively substantiated because
they are, for example, her view on events which differs from that of the
article’s author. The article itself is an opinion piece. It makes a number of
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assertions which are plainly the view of the author based on his own
experiences as a (former) friend of Sean Hughes. In order for an inaccuracy
to be subject to a correction or a right of reply, it must be “significant”. The
Panel’s view is that the nature of the inaccuracies complained of are either
differences of opinion or so minor that they do not fall within the meaning of
the Code. The points about the lack of clarity between conjecture, opinion,
and fact are also difficult to substantiate. The Panel recognises that the
complainant’s own personal experiences of Sean were very different to those
set out in the article and the very real distress she clearly feels at not having
the opportunity to include additional information about Sean’s life and his
many achievements. However understandable this wish is, it does not give
rise to a breach of the Code on grounds of accuracy. The Panel also notes
that in addition to this, more critical opinion piece, the Guardian had published
a substantial obituary which remains available online. This was also included
in the print edition of the paper.1 That obituary makes reference to Sean’s
very successful career and describes him as “one of the most important
figures in the evolution of modern long-form standup comedy”. The Panel
gives this some weight as it adds to the overall balance of the coverage about
Sean by the Guardian following his death.

20. The Panel notes the complaint that the Article tends to diminish the success
of Sean’s published books. There is some merit in this observation. However,
the Panel is not satisfied that this impression is based on any significant
factual inaccuracy or misleading statement. The focus in the Article is not on
the success or otherwise of the books themselves but rather the opinion
expressed by the author that Sean was unsatisfied or unfulfilled in certain
aspects of his career. The Panel is therefore not satisfied that this meets the
threshold of “significant” inaccuracy.

21. The complainant notes a spelling mistake in Hannah Norris’ name (it should
not as it says in the Article be “Morris”). She is correct – this is clearly a
typographical error rather than a substantive or significant inaccuracy. It does
not amount to a breach of the Code. However, there is no reason why it could
not be easily corrected – it is different in nature from the other “inaccuracies”
and additional information highlighted by the complainant in that it is
objectively and obviously wrong and can be subject to a straightforward
typographical correction.

22. The other corrections sought by the complainant relate to the dates of Sean’s
novels. It appears that the “error” is the reference to a second print date rather
than the date of original publication. Again, the Panel does not consider this to


1
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/oct/16/sean-hughes-obituary
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even arguably breach Clause 1 and certainly not to the extent that a
correction would be warranted.

23. The complainant (at point 18 of her complaint) says that the quote: "Or him
demanding to be set up to deliver a gag, then refusing to tell it. “I’m not going
to do it,” he said, gesturing to his teammates – musicians rather than
professional comedians – “because these fucking useless wankers aren’t
joining in.” He wasn’t joking" is inaccurate and misleading. She says this is
because the incident in question happened 15-21 years earlier and there is no
evidence attributing this direct quote to Sean. However, the Panel has seen
no evidence that this account of what Sean said is in fact inaccurate.

The author’s account of Sean’s experiences with women


24. The general assertion about the negative experiences the author believes
some women had with Sean has been referred to already in this decision.
This assertion was criticised in the note. However, the basis of that criticism is
not that the quote was misleading or inaccurate but that by simply leaving it
there in general terms, so soon after the death, it was likely to cause distress
to his friends and family in a time of grief. The complainant also –
understandably – says that this is not accurate and this was certainly not her
experience with Sean, nor had she heard of others having the type of
negative experience alluded to in the article.

25. The Panel recognises – as the RE did – that the general allegation of the
serious nature made in the article was likely to cause distress to those who
knew Sean. If it is untrue, it would plainly be a significant inaccuracy.
However, the difficulty is that while it was clearly not the experience of the
complainant, the allegation is made in general terms based on what the
author says he knew from discussions with other women. The Panel cannot
therefore be satisfied that the allegation is inaccurate or misleading.

Accuracy: Conclusion
26. Although there are clearly differences of opinion between the complainant and
the author of the article about who Sean was and how certain events took
place and there are some minor inaccuracies (for example the typographical
error) the Panel is not satisfied that the complainant has identified matters
which give rise to an arguable breach of Clause 1. For the avoidance of
doubt, the Panel does not consider that even taken together, there is an
accumulation of inaccuracy such as to amount to a “significant” inaccuracy
amounting to a breach of the Code. It is therefore of the view that the RE’s
decision not to investigate the substance of her complaint was a reasonable
one.

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Intrusion into grief and shock

27. As set out above, it is clear that publishing a general allegation of what is
effectively sexual harassment or mistreatment of women was likely to and did
in fact cause great distress to Sean’s friends and family and to the
complainant. However, this aspect of the complaint was dealt with in detail by
the RE in his response to the article. To the extent the complainant identifies a
breach of the Code, the matter has already been addressed by the RE in his
addendum note to the article. Although the complainant has a slightly different
concern, namely that the allegation about Sean’s conduct towards women
should not have been mentioned at all, the RE has made it clear that the
timing of the article and the way the allegation was expressed was not
appropriate. It was not necessary for the RE to respond to each person who
may have been affected individually, although the Panel recognises that each
person’s own particular grief and distress will be different.

28. This is not intended to diminish the very clear distress that the Article caused
the complainant. However, in reality, the only breach of the Code has already
been dealt with by the RE. The current complaint is therefore academic in that
the Panel would not be able to offer any remedy not already offered by the
Guardian. The only possible further correction would be to make a finding that
the allegation about Sean’s conduct towards women should not have been
made at all given the proximity of the article to his death. However, the Panel
does not find that to be compelling particularly in light of the public interest in
reporting such allegations. The fact that it was not done with greater care or
specificity raised Code issues but to that extent they have already been
adequately addressed by the RE.

29. In relation to the distress caused by the article more generally, the Panel
agrees with the RE that while it is in places critical, it does also include
positive aspects. It is important when considering this aspect of the Code not
to adopt an overly censorious approach in relation to comment – even
negative comment – about those who have recently died. The Panel again
notes the publication of a separate and full obituary and that the Article
therefore does not represent the totality of the coverage by the Guardian
following Sean’s death.

Further Representations and amendments to the Decision


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30. The Panel sent a copy of the Decision to both the Guardian and the
complainant on 22 December 2018 inviting corrections of a typographical
nature or that any obvious factual inaccuracies in the Decision be pointed out.
This is standard practice and done as a matter of fairness to allow both
parties the opportunity to see the Decision prior to publication but it is not an
opportunity for further representations or appeal on points of interpretation or
substance. While the Panel may invite further representations or evidence
from either party prior to issuing a decision, this is a matter entirely within the
Panel’s discretion. In this case, it did not consider it necessary or
proportionate to do so. Notwithstanding this, the Panel met for a second time
to consider the additional matters raised by the Complainant in response to
the Decision and has made some minor amendments of a non-substantive
nature.

Conclusion
31. The Panel recognises of the complainant’s grief and distress following Sean’s
death and the additional distress that the Article has caused her. However, for
the reasons set out above, it is not satisfied that the RE acted unreasonably in
declining to investigate the substance of the complaint on the basis that her
complaint either (a) did not disclose any arguable Code breach; and/or (b) in
relation to the issue of intrusion into grief and shock, had already been
adequately dealt with by the RE in July 2018.

Dated: 10/01/19

Signed:

John Willis, Chair review panel.

Signed:

Elinor Goodman, panel member.

Signed:
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Richard Danbury, panel member

Signed:

Geraldine Proudler, panel member

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Related Interests