After receiving complaints from readers, the Press Council has considered whether an article, "Scam developer took own life" in The Age on 20 November 2013, breached any of the Council’s Standards of Practice. A longer online version, headed "Death of developer behind Verge apartment project", had been published on the previous day, which was the day of the developer’s funeral.
The article reported the death of Jason van der Slot, whose company had been developing an apartment project. The second sentence of the print version read: “Fairfax Media understands Mr Van Der Slot recently took his own life while facing a Supreme Court lawsuit over allegations he misappropriated more than $8 million from his former employer, prominent developer Mario Salvo of Salvo Property Group.” The third sentence of the online version said he was “believed to have taken his own life” and there was a later reference to the police saying the death was not being treated as suspicious. Both versions provided contact details for appropriate helplines.
The issues considered by the Council related to the Council’s Standards of Practice about respect for privacy and about reporting suicide with sensitivity and moderation. In particular, they concerned the explicit and definite report of suicide in the print headline, especially as the cause of death had not been officially established, the report was published on the day after the funeral, and the deceased left a widow and two school-aged children.
The publication said its references to the cause of death were based on statements to it by two associates of Mr van der Slot who had close links with his family and had independently provided the same description of his death. Police had said the death was not being treated as suspicious, and a request to the family’s solicitors for comment said it was intended to report the death as suicide, but received no reply. The publication said it was in the public interest to report the cause of death because of possible implications for people affected by his business affairs.
The publication said it was unaware the funeral was to be held on the day of online publication and the day before print publication. It acknowledged that this should have been checked before publication and that if it had done so the reports would have been withheld for a day or two.
The Council’s General Principles state: “News and comment should be presented honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy is not to be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest”. The Specific Standards relating to Suicide state: “Reports should not be given undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images. Great care should be taken to avoid unnecessary harm or hurt to people who have attempted suicide or to relatives and other people who have been affected by a suicide or attempted suicide. This requires special sensitivity and moderation in both gathering and reporting news.”
The Council considered that reporting the cause of death in this case, where adequately established, was in the public interest. However, especially where suspected suicide is involved, the cause should not be stated with certainty unless it has been conclusively confirmed with official, medical or other appropriate sources. The text complied with this approach but the print headline unequivocally stated the cause as suicide. The Council concluded that this unequivocal and prominent headline, together with the fact that the funeral had taken place on the preceding day, meant that The Age did not take sufficient care to avoid unnecessary hurt to Mr van der Slot's family.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies part of General Principle 4: “News and comment should be presented honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy is not to be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest. Rumour and unconfirmed reports should be identified as such”; and Standard 7 of the Specific Standards relating to Suicide: “Reports should not be given undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images. Great care should be taken to avoid causing unnecessary harm or hurt to people who have attempted suicide or to relatives and other people who have been affected by a suicide or attempted suicide. This requires special sensitivity and moderation in both gathering and reporting news.”