Lack of transparency adding more pain to Fenton family
The news business is, by necessity, often full of tragic events. But even by the grim standards of our trade, the story of James Fenton, a 22-year-old from Bangor, is a particularly distressing one.
James, who suffered from severe depression, disappeared from the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald, on July 2, 2010, just hours after being admitted. He was rated as being of high suicide risk.
James' body was found 10 weeks later. It was not possible to establish the cause of his death. But the location of his body, when revealed to his family, was a hammer-blow: it was only 40 metres (120ft) away from the very spot where he was last seen alive. James' remains were in a fenced-off wooded area within the hospital grounds on the other side of a fence from his ward. The Fenton family had been told the area had been searched – it turned out that search was inadequate. And no one had checked CCTV cameras.
To the family's horror, a Police Ombudsman investigation uncovered a litany of other serious defects in the PSNI's investigation. The police have apologised and conceded that the entire affair was a "human tragedy".
All of this is bad enough. And yet the story of poor James Fenton continues to shock. There are many reasons for this, but I would like to comment on two, because they relate to the media.
Firstly, the PSNI declined and didn't pass on media requests from journalists to interview the Fenton family, in spite of the family's desire to make public appeals through the media.
It is hard to understand the thinking behind this kind of decision. A family desperate to do everything to find a missing son. And yet, as it must have appeared to them, the media has no interest.
Nothing was further from the truth; the Belfast Telegraph and I'm sure any local newspaper would have been glad to publicise their plight.
The second issue is a lack of transparency. Three constables, four sergeants and six inspectors/chief inspectors were disciplined over the botched investigation into James' disappearance (one officer has since had the disciplining overturned on appeal).
But we are not allowed to know what sanctions were applied.
Neither the PSNI nor the Ombudsman will give this information to the media, or the public. Apparently, it's 'personal data'.
We have a right to know what these disciplinary actions were, not least on grounds of public confidence in policing.
To continue to refuse to disclose this information is, in my opinion, another injustice to the Fenton family.