Sky News man ‘devastated’ by suicide of Twitter troll

The Coroner said Mrs Leyland had been 'recently upset by public exposure in the media' but there had been a number of issues surrounding her death

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The Independent Online

For the Sky News television crew it was the “fronting-up” necessary to conclude a journalistic investigation. For Brenda Leyland, it was the beginning of a public exposure for distasteful conduct which she could not endure.

The mother-of-two had for at least four years been posting anonymous tweets about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and for much of that time that the messages had included abuse targeted at the missing child’s parents.

On 30 September last year, Mrs Leyland’s behaviour, which had seen her sending up to 50 “trolling” Twitter messages a day, caught up with her when she was confronted by Sky News’ crime correspondent Martin Brunt at her Leicestershire home.

Mrs Leyland, 63, a divorcee with a history of mental illness, initially appeared defiant, telling Mr Brunt she was “entitled” to use her Twitter account to attack Gerry and Kate McCann. She later told Mr Brunt she had thought of “ending it all” as a result of her exposure.

 

The precise role of the mother-of-two’s public outing as a Twitter troll in a subsequent Sky News report in what happened next cannot be known. But four days after she was doorstepped by the camera crew her body was found in a room in a nearby Marriott Hotel.

In a statement read to the inquest, her younger son Ben said: “My mother had always struggled with depression and was prone to anxiety and physical health issues she had been told were effectively untreatable. There is no doubt in my mind that the Sky News interview was the final straw that pushed her do what she died.”

A coroner today ruled that Mrs Leyland had taken her own life by taking an overdose.

Catherine Mason, the Coroner for South Leicestershire, said Mrs Leyland had been “recently upset by public exposure in the media” but there had been a number of issues surrounding her death. The coroner added: “I am satisfied that no-one could have known what she was going to do and how she was going to do it.”

Mr Brunt, a respected veteran broadcaster, spoke of his personal trauma at the suicide of the subject of one of his reports and said he had considered the comment from Ms Leyland she had considered “ending it all” a throwaway remark.

The journalist told the inquest: “I was devastated, I still am and the enormity of what’s happened will always be with me.”

The hearing was told that the Sky News team had approached Mrs Leyland twice on 30 September last year after Mr Brunt was passed a dossier containing evidence that she was one of a number of trolls targeting the McCanns with unpleasant messages arising from the disappearance of Madeleine in 2007.

In the ten months leading up to her death, Mrs Leyland, from Burton Overy, Leicestershire, sent 400 tweets relating to the couple. One message attributed to her @Sweepyface account read: “Q ‘how long must the Mccanns suffer’ answer ‘for the rest of their miserable lives’.”

Mr Brunt approached her after she emerged from her house to get into a waiting car. The journalist said: “I was rather surprised that she did speak to me and did engage with me. The first question was ‘Why are you using your Twitter account to attack the McCanns?’ She didn’t say much but she did say ‘I am entitled to’.”

The inquest heard that Ms Leyland declined the offer a more considered interview later that day, insisting that her actions were not unlawful. She then contacted Mr Brunt the following day after he had given her his number and asked her to call if she had any concerns.

The journalist said he had explained his plans for his report to her, which showed her face but did not name her or identify her village.

Asked if there was anything in Ms Leyland’s voice which gave rise to “real and immediate” concern for her life, he replied: “No, but when I asked her how she was , she said ‘Oh I have thought about ending it all but I am feeling better - I have had a drink and spoken to my son’.”

Mr Brunt said he had not considered the remark to be serious and had had no idea of Ms Leyland’s history, which included a previous suicide attempt.

Sky News said it had pursued the story which it considered to be in the public interest in a “responsible manner”. A spokesman for the channel said: “Brenda Leyland’s tragic death highlights the unforeseeable human impact that the stories we pursue can have, and Sky News would like to extend its sincere condolences to her family.”

Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, said it had received 171 complaints concerning the original report. It is understood it will now consider those complaints in the light of the coroner’s verdict.