The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in The Daily Telegraph headed “Global Warming Activist Dies from Local Heating” (Online) on 25 April 2022.
The opinion piece commented on a New York Post article concerning the death of a climate activist, who the New York Post reported had died after he set himself on fire outside the United States Supreme Court Building. The opinion piece included excerpts from the New York Post article including: “The incident happened around 6:30 p.m. on the plaza in front of the court building. He was airlifted to a local hospital, where he died”; “This is a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to climate crisis.”; and “David Buckel, 60, left behind a charred corpse and a typed suicide note that said he was burning himself to death using ‘fossil fuel’ to reflect how mankind was likewise killing itself, police sources said.” In commenting on the activist’s death, the opinion piece said “Let’s hope he used carbon offsets”; “Airlifted? Man, this guy went out in a blaze of fossil fuel glory”; and “He also used fossil fuel because solar would have taken too long.”
In response to complaints received, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article breached its Standards of Practice, in particular whether the publication took reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6). As the complaints had also expressed concern that the article trivialises suicide, the Council also asked the publication to comment on whether its Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide were breached.
In response, the publication said it was an opinion article in a blog that is well known for its right-of-centre viewpoint and for taking either a satirical outlook or providing commentary on some issues that are not to every person's taste. It said the opinion blog appears behind an online paywall and consumers must therefore firstly elect to subscribe to the service and then make their own personal decisions to click on to read individual items. It said that it does not contend that the writer’s views or approaches to some matters will be accepted by certain people and the writer makes a point of often presenting arguments in a way that some may find confronting or even offensive based on their own particular individual tastes. The publication said however, that the writer would argue strongly that as part of a democracy a variety of views should be allowed to be expressed, even those that some groups may detest and wish to have censored.
The Council notes the reported death of the activist, which took place on Earth Day outside the United States Supreme Court building, appears to have been a politically motivated act that sought to draw attention to climate change. In this context, the Council considers there is a significant public interest in allowing freedom of expression to comment on politically motivated acts even if that commentary is expressed in provocative terms, as in the case here. The Council considers that to the extent the article did cause substantial offence or distress, it was justified in the public interest. Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of General Principle 6.
The Council acknowledges that while the activist died by suicide, it does not consider the Council’s Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide are applicable in this instance as it was a significant public and politically motivated incident which sought to draw attention to climate change issues. The Council notes that it would have been difficult to report this incident without mentioning the location and method. As previously noted, the Council considers there is a significant public interest in allowing publications the freedom to comment on events that are politically motivated and, in such circumstances, publications should not be constrained from commenting on a cause of a death. Such circumstances are demonstrably different to those involving deaths by suicide of persons not seeking to make a political statement. Accordingly, the Council makes no finding on the Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
Note – “Sufficiently in the public interest”: The necessary level of justification in the public interest is proportionate to the gravity of the potential breach of the Principles. Relevant factors to consider may include, for example, the importance in the public interest of: (a) ensuring everyone has genuine freedom of expression and access to reliable information; (b) protecting and enhancing independent and vigorous media; public safety and health; due administration of justice and government, personal privacy, and national security; (c) exposing or preventing crime, dishonesty and serious misconduct or incompetence (especially by public figures).”
This Adjudication also considered the application of the Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide.