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Russian spy scientist’s family lose complaint over daily’s inquest report

LitvinenkoThe wife of a scientist who helped investigate a Russian spy’s murder has lost her complaint about a regional daily’s reporting of an inquest into her husband’s death.

Dr Matthew Puncher, who had discovered the amount of polonium inside murdered Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, pictured left, was found dead in his home with “wounds from two kitchen knives”.

But the family of Dr Puncher, who was a scientist responsible for measuring radiation in workers involved with the former USSR nuclear weapons programme, objected to the Oxford Mail’s reporting of the inquest.

The Mail reported the location of his wounds, and noted that a pathologist had stated that while he could not “entirely exclude” third party involvement, he was satisfied that the wounds were self-inflicted.

The newspaper also quoted the detective investigating the death who had said that the injuries were “so extensive” that she had initially questioned how Dr Puncher could have remained conscious to inflict them, but that there was “no evidence of a disturbance or a struggle, and no evidence of anyone else’s blood”.

But Eugene Smyth, acting on behalf of his daughter Kathryn Puncher, Dr Puncher’s widow, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Oxford Mail breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 5 (Reporting Suicide) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the piece.

While accepting the Mail’s right to report on the inquest, Mr Smyth objected to to the inclusion of details of Dr Puncher’s injuries, which they considered to be graphic and excessive, and therefore an intrusion into the family’s grief.

Mr Smyth said that the family had sought to protect Dr Puncher’s children from the details of their father’s death, but the report had made this impossible.

He also claimed the Mail had not approached the family before proceeding with publication, and that the article represented a failure to act with any sympathy or discretion at a time of grief – further contending that the details included could encourage simulative acts of suicide.

The Mail, which claimed it had notified Dr Puncher’s family at the inquest that a story would be run, responded that it carefully considered the level of detail it had reported regarding the method of suicide, and was not of the view that it had been excessive.

It added nature of Dr Puncher’s wounds, and where they appeared on his body, were important factors for the coroner in deciding whether he could have inflicted them on himself, or whether someone else was involved.

The Mail said the details given in the article were necessary, given the need to accurately explain the unusual circumstances of Dr Puncher’s death, and the reasons for the coroner’s eventual conclusion that Dr Puncher had taken his own life.

IPSO found the details had been presented in a factual and non-sensational way, there was a justification for the inclusion of the details in the article.

The complaint was not upheld, and the full adjudication can be read here.

Other recent IPSO cases involving regional newspapers include:

Bournemouth Council v Bournemouth Echo

Bournemouth Council complained that the Bournemouth Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) in articles which claimed that the authority “admitted it used the wrong materials” in the building of a ‘shared space’ road, and included comment from a council representative that “the blocks there haven’t acted in the way we thought”.

The council denied its representative had said this, but the Echo said that it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading to characterise his comments in this way.

The Echo offered to publish a clarification, which the council accepted, before IPSo made an adjudication.

The resolution statement can be read here.

A person v Worcester News

A person who was the victim in a sexual offences case complained that the Worcester News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) in its reporting of the perpetrator’s sentencing.

The complainant said the details in the article had made them identifiable and was also concerned more generally at the level of detail included the article, and the reporting of the defendant’s mitigation.

The News responded that the details included in the article were essential to show the nature of the offences, adding that the defendant could have come into contact with a large number of individuals who fitted the article’s description of the complainant.

The complaint was not upheld, and the full adjudication can be read here.

Ayub v Bradford Telegraph & Argus

Mohammed Ayub complained that the Telegraph and Argus breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) in its reporting of his conviction for fraud, claiming the £600,000 figure quoted by the newspaper was inaccurate.

The T&A said the article was based on statements made by the prosecution throughout the trial, during which the figure was mentioned.

The complaint was not upheld, and the full adjudication can be read here.

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