The media cannot ignore tricky questions when someone dies - but it must stick to the facts

The Only Way is Ethics: King Abdullah and Leon Brittan's deaths are prime examples

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Reporting on the death of a person whose reputation has been questioned during their lifetime can be tricky. After all, the end of almost any life will leave some in mourning, so journalists must show sensitivity. Death should not be made light of, nor usually is it appropriate to include gory details.

But should criticism of the deceased – or further investigation into difficult areas – be avoided out of respect for their memory? The answer must clearly be no. Equally, it is important to examine a person’s life in the round: any appraisal must stand up to scrutiny of its factual basis.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who died last Friday, is a relatively straightforward case since the facts of his reign are plain to see. He made his country prosperous and maintained peace within its borders; yet he was an absolute monarch who had absolute disregard for what liberal Westerners would view as basic human rights.

The other high-profile death of last week is more complicated. Leon Brittan was an able politician, a member of a government whose policies divided opinion and, most recently, the subject of speculation about whether he failed in the 1980s to deal properly with allegations of child abuse against prominent people. Media reports this weekend have repeated even more serious claims – that Lord Brittan was himself involved in serious sexual offences.

 

It would be unreal to ignore these speculations and allegations simply because we don’t know for sure whether Lord Brittan acted improperly. On the other hand, it is also crucial that conjecture and claim do not become truth overnight. Libel laws do not apply to the dead – rightly in my view – but requirements on accuracy do.

Some years ago, a newspaper reported on the death of J R R Tolkien’s son, a priest who had been accused – but never convicted – of child sexual abuse. Emboldened perhaps by the knowledge that defamation was no longer in play, the newspaper’s presentation of the abuse allegations left no room for doubt as to their validity.

In a public ruling, the Press Complaints Commission criticised the paper for failing to present matters accurately and said the inadequacies of the coverage were particularly egregious because of the timing of the report, coming immediately after the man’s death. By publishing misleading material, the newspaper had thus also failed in its duty to handle publication sensitively.

Most of us hope that we will be remembered fondly when we are gone. At the least, it ought to be reasonable to expect that the facts of our lives will be recounted accurately and that, where there is a lack of clarity, supposition will not replace further inquiry. That, then, is the media’s primary duty when it comes to passing judgement on those who have passed on.

There is a season to be left alone

An individual recently expressed concern that The Independent had sought to contact them, despite their representative having circulated a note to all media outlets asking that they not be approached. At the time it was made, this request was entirely reasonable, since the person had recently been bereaved and they did not wish to comment on the death of their relative.

However, two years had subsequently gone by and our journalist’s recent approach related to a more general matter.

Everyone has the right to ask journalists to leave them alone. And, unless there is a public interest to justify not doing so, the media must follow such an instruction. But such a request can rarely last for ever.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard Twitter: @willjgore

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