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Complaint over daily’s coverage of university suicides partially upheld

The press watchdog has partially upheld a university’s complaint against a regional daily over its coverage of a spate of suicides at the institution.

Last November, the Bristol Post published a series of pieces which highlighted concerns over the rate of deaths by suicide at the University of the West of England, which is based in the city.

They included a claim that the university had known that 14 of its students had killed themselves in the past five years and that it had held this information on a central database.

However the UWE disputed the claim and, although the Independent Press Standards Organisation absolved the Post in relation to a series of other complaints, it has now ruled that the newspaper failed to take care over the accuracy of its story on this point.

The student campus at University of the West of England in Bristol

The student campus at University of the West of England in Bristol

As reported by HTFP at the time, the original story, which followed an FoI request submitted by a law student, was published on 23 November last year under the headline “UWE denies withholding records of suicides from concerned students.”

It was followed by two further pieces, one focusing on the axing of a night-time helpline for students, the other a tribute piece written by the mother of a student who had taken his own life.

The UWE claimed that the newspaper had published “misleading and inaccurate information” on a complex and sensitive topic, in breach of Clause 1 of the Editor’s Code, which covers accuracy.

It also expressed concern that a Post journalist had posed as a student in order to use a student helpline service, in breach of Clause 10, which deals with the use of subterfuge and clandestine devices.

In its defence, the newspaper argued that whether or not UWE held the suicide figures “in a database” was a semantic point, and that a report by Public Health England clearly showed that the university had been aware of the names of the students using its Wellbeing Service who had died.

In any event, the newspaper did not accept that the university held no record of any confirmed suicides amongst its students at the time the original FoI was made.

In its ruling, however, IPSO said that the PHE report had not made clear the University had held records of the number of confirmed suicides amongst its student population, contrary to the first article’s claim, and that the newspaper had therefore failed to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

It said: “This was a significant claim, as it supported the core criticism made against the University in the first article, which was that it was withholding information which it had in its possession”

Upholding the complaint in part, IPSO said the newspaper should now publish a correction in print and online which had previously offered to publish as a goodwill gesture.

It found there had been no breach of Clause 10. The ruling can be read in full here.

The UWE has previously issued a full statement on the matter which can be read here.