Sunday Telegraph’s suggestion child caused mother’s death ‘inaccurate’ and ‘not qualified’

The Press Council has lambasted The Sunday Telegraph for ‘significant inaccuracy’ and ‘unfairness’ for an article which implied a woman’s death was caused by her young son.

On July 30 last year, a story was published in the News Corp owned masthead as ‘Mum died from her toddler’s sickness’ in print, and ‘Dead mum Imogen Petrak may have caught pneumococcal disease from her child’ online.

The Sunday Telegraph has not made changes to the online article

The complainant, Petrak’s sister in law, said the article was completely incorrect, as it insinuated the woman’s ‘unvaccinated toddler’ caused a deadly pneumoccal disease which she later died from.

Petrak’s son was not ill with pneumococcal disease prior to her death and he was not the cause or likely cause of her death, the complainant said.

She added the inaccuracies and misleading nature of the article caused distress to the family, noting Petrak’s son may encounter the article later in life and feel responsible for his mother’s death.

The complainant also said Petrak’s blood test results and son’s vaccination status was published without family consent, deeming it ‘unethical’, ‘insensitive’ and not in the public interest.

Petrak’s sister in law added the circumstances of her death were unusual and did not have the same public interest as common matters of public health and safety.

But The Sunday Telegraph disagreed with the complainant, saying while the print headline may have been ‘misleading’, it was qualified by reference in the opening sentence by use of the article with the word “may”.

The masthead said as health sources confirmed bacteria might present itself in a mild cold, authorities were looking at the possibility Petrak’s son had caused her death.

It told the Council it was under no legal obligation to seek consent of the family to report on the matter, given its senior health source and that it was a matter was of public interest, as it related to serious cases of public safety and health.

The Council did not agree. It decided the headline, ‘ Mum died from her toddler’s sickness’, was not qualified in any way and given the health information was obtained from a single source and was highly speculative, the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure the statement Petrak “may” have caught the disease from her son was accurate.

It also ruled The Sunday Telegraph did not present factual material with ‘reasonable fairness or balance’.

The Council decided reporting Petrak’s death was caused by transmission of a disease from her child was completed without factual basis, particularly in the instance of the print headline.

The ruling appeared on page 20 of The Sunday Telegraph today

Since the ruling, The Sunday Telegraph has not amended or removed the online article or published a print correction. Although The Sunday Telegraph has indicated it might write a follow up, The Council said that would not make up for the significant inaccuracy and unfairness.

Petrak’s family had a reasonable expectation to privacy, the Council added, which The Sunday Telegraph failed to provide.

The Council ruled the relevance in reporting the matter ‘for the public interest’ was less strong, given the unusual circumstances of her death.

“The Council also considers that in suggesting that Imogen’s son was the cause—or the likely cause— of her death, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial distress to the complainant’s family, which for the same reasons was not justified by the public interest,” it added.

However the Council did not find the publication in breach of failing to avoid publishing material gathered by deceptive or unfair means.

The ruling appeared on page 20 on The Sunday Telegraph on May 13.


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