The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by material published on The Daily Telegraph's website on 3 February 2014 concerning the death in New York of the actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The material was first published a few hours after the discovery of Mr Hoffman’s death, apparently from a drug overdose. It consisted of a heading, photographs, brief text and a link to an article about his death. The material was changed on a number of occasions in the hours following its first publication. The version of greatest potential concern as a breach of the Council’s Standards was posted some hours after the first version.
This version was headed “KIDS GRIEVE FOR JUNKIE ACTOR DAD” and was accompanied by a photograph of the actor with his three young children, and an inset of the street outside Mr Hoffman’s apartment. Underneath were the words “Philip Seymour Hoffman always kept his children out of the spotlight, but Cooper, Willa and Tallulah, pictured last April, will be struggling to understand how he died in the bathroom of his New York apartment, inset, with a hypodermic needle still in his arm”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice relating to fairness and to the need to “balance the public interest with the sensibilities of readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence”.
The publication said although it did not consider the article breached the Council’s Standards, it had nevertheless responded to complaints from readers on the morning of the publication and had removed the headline within approximately 30 minutes to an hour. The publication acknowledged the word “junkie” did cause offence to some readers but said it was accurate because it simply means an addict to heroin or other hard drugs, which Mr Hoffman had been in an earlier period of his life, and returned to being in the year before his death. It said the majority of its readers would not have been offended and the use of the term was consistent with its long-standing campaign on drug issues. In any event, it said, use of the term and the focus on his children was appropriate because he was due to pick them up but instead decided to inject heroin, and also because they would have felt let down by his actions.
The Council notes the word “junkie” is widely regarded as a broader and more pejorative term than a neutral description of someone who is addicted to heroin or other such illicit drugs. This is reflected in the deep offence at its usage in this material, expressed in many comments posted on the publication’s website and on other websites in Australia and overseas. It also considers the headline was likely to be interpreted by many readers as implying his children would be thinking of him in that way.
The Council has concluded that the combined impact of the references to the children and their alleged feelings, the photograph of them, and the use of the term “junkie” was highly unfair and offensive, especially as the material was published only a few hours after Mr Hoffman’s death. It was entirely justifiable in the public interest to report at that time the known facts of his cause of death and that he had young children. But this did not provide adequate justification for the unfairness and offensiveness of some of the words and one of the photographs used in this instance.
Accordingly, the Council has concluded that publication of the material constituted a serious breach of its Standards of Practice.
The removal of the offending aspects of the material from the publication’s website within an hour was welcome, but they had already been read by many people and circulated on the internet by other means, and were further circulated in unamended form thereafter. As the publication acknowledged, this wider circulation and permanent presence on the internet was inevitable. The full extent of this dissemination may have been largely beyond its control but of course, no such problem would have arisen if it had not posted the offending aspects in the first instance.
The Council emphasises that compliance with its Standards must be ensured before a publication posts material, rather than relying on being able to make changes thereafter. A publication must take account not only of the material being read before any change is made but also of whether the unamended material is likely to remain accessible from other internet sources.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”; and General Principle 7: “Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence."