ON July 4, 2011, The Northern Echo published a story on its website (northernecho.co.uk) headlined Lucky escape as glider crashes into field, in which it reported on a glider crash near Appleton Wiske, in North Yorkshire.

Alongside the report, it published a picture supplied by Cleveland Search and Rescue Team that showed the wreck.

The following day, The Northern Echo published a story in print headlined Crash pilot trapped for hour and a half, which was accompanied by another picture, again supplied by the rescue team, that showed the injured pilot receiving medical assistance.

Mrs Leigh Blows, the wife of the pilot, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the two articles published by The Northern Echo had intruded into her husband’s grief and shock in breach of Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The complaint was upheld.

The article reported on the crash-landing of the complainant’s husband’s glider in a local field. He had been trapped in the wreckage for over an hour while the emergency services attempted to locate him. The July 4 report – published on the day of the crash – included a photograph of the site in which the tail number of the glider was visible.

The report on July 5 included a photograph of the complainant’s husband being treated by emergency services.

The complainant said that the July 5 photograph of her husband, who had been left with significant injuries, was extremely intrusive. It had been taken, she said, without consent on private land at a time when her husband had been in severe shock and pain.

Her husband (who had not been named in the story) had been clearly identifiable in the photograph through a combination of his facial features, distinctive clothing and the tail number of his glider. This had led to a number of distressing telephone calls from friends. In addition, the complainant was concerned about the 4 July photograph: by showing the tail number, it had effectively identified her husband on the day of the crash as the victim to those who shared his interest in gliders and who communicated with him using this number.

The newspaper said that significant local resources had been devoted to the search and rescue process, including the police, fire and ambulance services. The published photographs had been taken and supplied to the newspaper by a local search and rescue team, which had been involved in the search for the complainant’s husband: the team had supplied media outlets with pictures from rescue sites for years. Although it had not been aware of this at the time of publication, it also noted that parts of the operation had been filmed by the BBC and subsequently broadcast (with consent) as part of a programme about the work of the emergency services. The newspaper said that, before publication, it had made inquiries with the police and received a detailed account of the victim’s injuries, from which it had determined that they were serious but not life-threatening.

While it understood the complainant’s position that the July 5 photograph had been intrusive, it was satisfied that its publication had not been gratuitous.

The complainant said that the film crew at the scene had specifically obtained her husband’s consent to record the events. It had subsequently taken care to confirm his consent and to ensure that the resulting programme was accurate.

The adjudication is as follows: Clause 5 of the Editors’ Code of Practice states that publication must be “handled sensitively” at times of grief or shock. Although the photographs had been taken by a third party, the newspaper (by publishing them) took responsibility for their content and how they had been obtained.

The Commission noted the complainant’s concerns that the July 4 photograph had effectively identified her husband as the individual concerned with the glider crash to others he knew. However, the image contained no personal information about the complainant’s husband and did not feature him personally.

The Commission did not consider that the publication of a photograph showing the general scene of the crash – which had been the subject of an intensive search by a number of rescue workers – represented a failure to be sensitive on the part of the newspaper.

The Commission did not find a breach of Clause 5 in relation to the July 4 photograph.

However, the July 5 photograph had identified the complainant’s husband and had shown him in a state of shock and upset, receiving medical attention for significant injuries.

The Commission has previously made clear that timing is an important consideration in complaints made under this Clause, because one of its functions is to protect individuals in the period when they are most vulnerable following significant incidents.

There was a difficult balance to strike here, as the Commission had strong regard for the important role of newspapers in informing their readers about significant events in the public interest.

This had clearly been the intention of the newspaper, which was reporting on a matter of clear relevance to its readers. Nonetheless, the Commission was not persuaded that the publication of a revealing photograph of a person receiving medical treatment, published so soon after the accident without consent, could be said reasonably to be sensitive.

The complaint was therefore upheld in relation to the July 5 photograph.