The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

  • MRS PAMELA SURPHLIS (sworn).

  • Evidence by videolink

  • May I ask you for your full name?

  • Sorry. Your full name, please, Mrs Surphlis.

  • Thank you very much. You've provided us with two documents. First of all a short submission, which is your evidence to the Inquiry; is that right?

  • And secondly, a research report which you referred to, "An exploration of media reporting of victims of murder and manslaughter in Northern Ireland". It was commissioned by you in 2010 and provided by the University of Ulster, is that also right?

  • I'm going to ask you first of all, please, to tell us about your personal experience, and the relationship between that and the setting up of the organisation Support After Murder and Manslaughter Northern Ireland, please.

  • Okay. 19 years ago, my father, who was a retired clergyman, and my sister who murdered ... (break in signal) my son's 10th birthday. My interaction with the media over the subsequent years was very intrusive. It was disrespectful. But I found that there was a newspaper report 17 years after the event still sensationalising their deaths.

    I became extremely angry. I had already ... (break in signal) in 2006. We support families right across Northern Ireland, both inside the conflict and outside the conflict ... (break in signal).

  • Pause a moment, please, because I'm afraid you're breaking up. Not physically, but audibly. All right.

  • I just wonder whether the microphone is close enough to you, Mrs Surphlis. Is it possible to -- I don't quite know how the sound is coming to us, but you are going in and out of audibility.

  • Thank you. I think you were telling us about the foundation of Support After Murder and Manslaughter Northern Ireland in 2006.

  • That's correct.

    We set up primarily as a support group but we were hearing constant themes of challenges to the families that they were finding difficult to deal with on top of the trauma that they were already going through.

    The personal experience of finding a piece of salacious gossip and really nonsense story about my dad and my sister 17 years after the event, I decided when I tried to correct what the editor had put in, I phoned them and I felt I lost my temper and I could see him in my mind's eye just holding the phone and letting me rant. So I looked to the university to see if it would be possible to do a research study on the families that we support. At the time we had 52 families on our database. Each family was contacted and 20 responses came in for the report.

    Now, I passed those details to the university and they then made the contact with the families that were still willing to take part. So that's where the report came from.

  • Thank you very much. When we look at the report itself, on the internal numbering, please, page 7, we can see that the study has investigated two key issues. First of all, it identifies and examines the relationship between newspaper journalists and the victims' families. Secondly, it explores the impact of media reporting on family members of those bereaved through murder and manslaughter in Northern Ireland. And then we can see the key objectives listed, which were consistent with the two key issues, and what the researchers did was to conduct a literature review, to undertake a thematic content analysis of newspaper articles, and then, finally, semi-structured interviews with a sample of the victims' families, and the report is a collation, really, of those three separate sources.

    Can I ask you, please, to look at substantive themes, page 9. I'm just going to pick out the headlines here, Ms Surphlis, not read all of it out. Under the heading "Initial contact the family had with journalists":

    "This theme is concerned with how the journalists initiated contact with the families. Overall the participants felt that the media were intrusive and insensitive in their approach, which exacerbated the trauma felt by the families of losing a loved one. How the journalists made contact with the families was a fundamental issue that emerged from the interview findings and one that each of the families had various experiences of. Some respondents noted that the journalists were extremely persistent; some felt that they had been deceived while other respondents noted the journalists were just ruthless in their approach to them."

    Then in the italicised part lower down the page, we have some quotes, really, from the semi-structured interviews. We can see that. The sort of material we read here, is this consistent with what you have been told by people who have approached you?

  • Yes. Very much so. We've had journalists pretending to be friends of other members of a family just to get in-depth interviews. We've had families who have stated they particularly wanted no press intrusion, that they did not want to give interviews. The press have not obeyed that. They have tried every opportunity to go to the person's place of work, where they use to work, contacted friends and neighbours just to get an inside story.

  • Which is extremely distressing.

  • Then the next page, page 10, there's reference to the PCC guidelines. I'm going to come back to those somewhat later, if you don't mind, Mrs Surphlis. Then the next subheading is "The content of newspaper reports", which subdivides into what they call subthemes. The first of those is "Sensationalism":

    "Many of the families voiced their shock and embarrassment at how the circumstances of such a tragedy could be sensationalised ... the most commonly expressed words were 'salacious' and 'cheap'."

    In the italicised parts we see examples of that. Again, the same general question. Presumably consistent with the sort of things people have told you directly; is that right?

  • Absolutely. Lots -- in one particular case and something that was printed was a young man who had been murdered at the age of 15(?) was a heroin addict. He wasn't. He was diabetic. He'd been seen injecting himself. Now plastered all over the newspapers in Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland is an extremely small place. Once it goes in, whether right or wrong, it becomes fact.

  • Thank you. The next subheading is "Inaccuracies", or subtheme, page 11:

    "Overall there were some discrepancies between the families on how accurately the media reported on the death of their family member. Generally families either thought that the media reporting was fairly accurate or a completely inaccurate portrayal."

    So you can see the divergence of view there. Again, we have examples of that in the italicised parts. On this occasion there's a degree of inconsistency, but one can see how perceptions might vary. Does it chime with your experience of what people have told you?

  • It seems to depend on the person who has been murdered. In a recent case, a high profile one in Northern Ireland last year, the lady who was murdered was an elderly lady, so she was respected, so the press treated the family with respect.

    Other cases, it's as if the press is trying to find a reason to criticise them, to blame them for being murdered in the first place, and that's what families are telling us. They seem to be extremely judgmental in picking up as to whether the person had an alcohol problem or whether the person was working, and it seems to be more judgmental, which is actually nothing to do with why the person has been murdered. And those sorts of issues for families is deeply, deeply distressing.

  • Thank you. "Images" now, page 12 on the internal numbering:

    "The main areas of contention reported by the family members was the harassment they suffered in the journalists' quest to obtain pictures of the grieving family; the lack of permission to publish pictures, or awareness that the pictures were going to be published in the papers and the upset that this caused."

    And then again some examples are given. One example, the first relates to taking a photograph at the grave. The second:

    "Even whenever the church doors opened there was a mass of snapping went on."

    And then similar examples further on.

    "Experiences", now, page 13:

    "The families reported feeling a variety of emotions stemming from their experiences with the news media. Overall these emotions had quite negative connotations, with the families reporting feel used, powerless, and with some more extreme descriptions of feeling besieged and neglected."

    Again does that chime with your experience?

  • From a personal point of view, this is going back to the images one, families do provide photographs. I provided ones for my father and sister, which were ignored. Every time the case was mentioned or came into the press, it is always a photograph of my sister in her wedding dress, which I find deeply offensive, due to the nature of the domestic abuse that she suffered through the 11 years of her marriage.

    Those sort of photographs are really really nasty.

    From the experiences of the other families, I think a lot of families give interviews in the hope that it will stop the intrusion, but then they're deeply disappointed when they see inaccuracies such as -- it may seem very simple to anybody else about age or where the person worked or various bits and pieces like that, but to families, they're not stars, they're not celebrities, they're ordinary people who have been thrown into the media glare as well as into a very distressing criminal justice process. So anything that adds to the trauma that they're already suffering is extremely negative.

  • Thank you. Then in the University of Ulster's report, there's reference to the Press Complaints Commission guidance. This is the guidance "Media attention following a death", which I think you have a copy of available; is that right?

  • Do you have any observations to make about it?

  • On initial looking at it, it is an improvement from what was nothing before. People in Northern Ireland do not recognise the Press Complaints Authority as standing up for them. We feel very isolated over here. Through my work I will say make a complaint. My initial looking at it is it is not user friendly. It's talking about having the Editors' Code with you to read. Families are in distress. Families don't want to know how to handle the media because they don't want the media in the first place. So it's -- yes, it's an improvement, but it needs to look and have consultations with those who are involved, with organisations, to see what is more relevant for what are the needs of those particular families.

  • Thank you. This leads us now to your submission, at the bottom of the first page of the submission, where you make it clear that your organisation is calling for "a code which will see journalists", and then there are a number of actions or inactions from journalists which you are recommending. Would you like to read those out, please, to the Inquiry?

  • The first one would be to recognise a family's fears that speaking to the media might prejudice a legal case. At the beginning, just after the murder, they are bombarded by journalists wanting to know what happened, and in most cases they're not aware, because that's part of an ongoing investigation, and they are so scared of prejudicing a future criminal case. So they are so ... (break in signal) letting anything slip that they're not supposed to slip, not being told -- and that puts an extra stress and strain on the families.

  • Do you have in Northern Ireland family liaison officers from the police to help you on this?

  • If the press goes through the family liaison officer, yes, it does. To some extent, but not always.

  • Thank you. Your second bullet point now, Mrs Surphlis:

    "Refrain from intrusion at funerals ..."

  • "Refrain from intrusion at funerals, or 'doorstepping' family members for information or interviews."

    My own experience at the funeral was when I came out of the church door, the road was lined with very, very respectful members of the public, and all you could hear was just the click click click clicking of cameras. Luckily enough the church where the funeral was taking place had banned the press from stepping onto the property, but that doesn't always happen.

    Families are finding journalists at their door. One family, again that young man that was killed that they thought was the heroin addict, after that there happened to be another murder in that area and the journalists called on the mother's doorstep saying, "I was in the area and I thought you might want to give an interview". So these sort of things are not suitable for families.

    One family issued a statement through a solicitor that they were not willing to speak to the press. But that's been ignored.

    I think photographing the families close up, I managed to avoid that by not walking behind the hearse, which I did want to do, but when I saw the long lenses, I couldn't do it and I hid in the car, which I -- it's not what I wanted to do, but I did not want to be -- as the sole surviving member of the family, have my photograph spread all over every newspaper that was there.

    "Be honest and not mislead anyone in pursuit of an interview with a family member."

    This is where we have families who have, as I said earlier, been told that they are friends of the family, trying to pressurise vulnerable members of the family into giving interviews by subterfuge. That's all we can say on that one.

  • "Acknowledge it is not appropriate to attempt direct contact with families, but to use the official intermediaries, such as police Family Liaison Officers."

    We've had families who have been harassed with phone calls, they've had to go ex-directory, they've had to ... (break in signal). In one case, one family had to move house because they were so scared. None of the ... (break in signal) the press.

    I have another lady who will not answer unknown phone numbers on her mobile in case it is the press.

    So going through the family liaison officer as a conduit to the family as being able to pass on their wishes.

  • "Refrain from publishing unsubstantiated rumour and stick to known facts."

    That is, I think, more relevant when interviewing neighbours or trying to get stories from people who really didn't know the person who has gone, but there have always been sort of rumours and gossipmongers, but there's no impetus to check the facts of that, and that is extremely distressing. One of our families, her father was a recovering alcoholic and it was reported in the press that he was a down and out drunk, his home was a drinking den. That's unacceptable as well as inappropriate. It wasn't fact. It was somebody surmising. That's what it was.

    Also, within the criminal trials, allegations can be made that are not substantiated by the defence. In my own personal case, which was very stressing, my father was a healer and the defence suggested he was involved in witchcraft. And you can guess the headlines, huge letters: "Witchcraft clergyman". My children never knew about that. My son is sitting beside me and he did not know all of this.

    Keeping to the facts within newspapers is vital, because young people go to school, other people -- other family members in the neighbourhood can be talking about it. Those children are then saying to my children what they had heard. I hadn't told them because I hadn't known. And this is one of the major, major problems of distressing unsolicited rumours and (inaudible) which causes so much hurt to us.

  • Thank you. Your sixth point I think now, ensure the families have an opportunity?

  • Yeah:

    "If families do grant an interview, ensure that they have an opportunity to see the publication to satisfy themselves only of the factual accuracy, without prejudice to the editorial independence of the publication."

    SAMM now recommends that the family -- what we do, if they can get sight of the copy, that is very -- advantage to them so they can check that it's factually correct.

    In one instance recently in regard to that, a family raised a considerable amount of money for our organisation and a particular newspaper ... (break in signal) wanted to run a story on it. They interviewed myself and two other members. I asked to see the copy. It was sent to me. It was so inaccurate it was unbelievable. I sent back the corrections. That piece of copy went back three times and it still did not go in in an accurate way. It was sensationalised to the point that my father's house burnt down, which was rubbish. So what's the point if when you provide them with the factual evidence, factual information, why is that not accepted? Why has it to be written in such a way that is distressing?

  • The last three points relate to photography, don't they?

  • Yes:

    "Seek approval for the use of all photography relating to the loved one and the circumstances of their death."

    And I go back to the photograph of my sister. And:

    "Not publish distressing photographs, such as the removal of a loved one's remains in a body bag."

    Which has happened here in Northern Ireland. Also the fact that journalists seem obsessed on taking photographs of blood splattered on pavements. That is somebody's blood, it's a loved one has lost their lifeblood, and to see that in newspapers or on television or whatever is also extremely distressing. I think we would all look at 9/11 and the plane going into the towers. We see that as something for us. But for every family that lost somebody there, that's a murder scene.

    "Warn families if there's an intention to run stories or photography relating to the death of their loved one, weeks, months and years later."

    I think making families aware if at all -- I know it's not always going to be possible, but it should make some attempt. When I phoned the editor in regards to the article about my dad and Judith, I was told "I didn't know there was anybody left", and I said, "That is strange, because I did an interview for your paper six months beforehand."

    I think it's important that people are forewarned if something is coming in ... (break in signal) I've just stopped buying papers. Up until 15 December 1992, I believed everything I read in the press. Now I don't. All of our families are in the same boat.

  • Thank you.

    In terms of further recommendations, you suggest more accessible information on handling the media and how to complain be included in bereavement guides given to families after a murder.

  • That's obviously, if I may say so, an extremely clear and sensible recommendation. You express your reasons why.

    Can I ask you about your belief there should be a regional press ombudsman for Northern Ireland. Can you explain the reasons for that, please?

  • People here in Northern Ireland see anything based on the mainland as being "over there". It's to have something that they can relate to here in Northern Ireland that is looking after the issues in a more local way and in the papers here.

    We have always recommended that families do make complaints to the Press Complaints Authority but they don't have the heart, the strength, the emotional whereby -- or sometimes the financial means of fighting. Something more regional I think is -- and independent, I think it's the independence that makes it more appropriate here.

  • Thank you. And you would also welcome ethics training for journalists, which the ombudsman could organise?

  • Yes. I know ethics and this is all dealing with ethics. Some of the experiences our families have met has been unethical, persistent, abusive, bullying and it has to change for them. And for those unfortunately following us who find themselves in our situation.

  • Finally, Mrs Surphlis, you wanted to talk about in general terms the reaction your submission to this Inquiry has excited in Northern Ireland. Do you want to address that.

  • Yes, I do. Because we as an organisation have the audacity, I think, to make this submission on behalf of our families, we have been ridiculed by the press, certain sections of the press, by a particular journalist on the television and then through a blog on the Guardian. I was accused of jumping on the Leveson bandwagon, which I take deep exception to, because I instigated this report in 2010, I was handed the report two days before the hacking scandal broke. I didn't know what to do with the report, and am immensely grateful to the Inquiry being set up, that we at least have a voice somewhere that somebody is prepared to listen to bereaved families.

  • Mrs Surphlis, I wonder whether you could send the Inquiry either copies of the newspaper articles to which you refer or references to the url of any website that criticises your participation in the Inquiry. Could you do that, please?

  • I certainly will. No problem.

  • For the avoidance of all doubt, I entirely welcome your participation in this work. I think that the perspective that you bring is extremely important. Others have criticised the over-emphasis on celebrity. The one word that could not be used to describe you and your group is that. You are victims, pure and simple, and therefore I entirely repudiate any suggestion that this perspective is not extremely important and valuable as providing an insight on the customs, practices and ethics of the press.

    Let me just make it clear that I don't just include Northern Ireland in this. I know of SAMM. I know there's a SAMM in Merseyside.

  • And I'm sure that you have met other support groups around the UK --

  • -- whose members have similar experiences to yours, but let me ask you this: would it be right to say that although you have given me the Northern Irish perspective, what you are saying broadly could be replicated from SAMM groups in other parts of the UK?

  • I can't speak for them, but I know Louise Casey did a report on (inaudible), so at that time families had not had a negative experience with the media. We did. That's not to say I cannot speak for other areas. I have spoken --

  • Yes, I wasn't suggesting that you were speaking for them. I was asking a slightly different question. Is what you have told us similar to experiences that you've been told by people in other parts of the UK?

  • Absolutely. And can I just add that -- can I just add that I have spoken with a victims group in the South of Ireland, and I'm very interested in their perspective from the way the press is regulated down south, which is very positive, extremely positive from them.

  • All right. That is interesting, because I'm looking at the Southern Irish model, so if they've had a positive experience, that's quite valuable. But I'm obviously not expecting you to speak for other victims, but having spoken to them, if you'd had a very different experience, I would have wanted to know, but you say you haven't.

  • Thank you very much, Mrs Surphlis. Thank you.

  • Thank you. Is there anything else that you want to add?

  • No, nothing, thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.

  • That concludes our evidence for today.

    I think there was one statement I needed to read in, but I've lost the yellow tag with the name. Hold on, I have it here. Yes, Mr Francis Fitzgibbon.

  • Thank you very much indeed. Thank you to those who have soldiered through the day and are still with us. Thank you very much.

  • Tomorrow morning is of course 9.30.

  • 9.30 tomorrow morning because of a video-link with Australia. Thank you.

  • (The hearing journalisted until 9.30 am the following day)