Tolkien v Birmingham Sunday Mercury

Reference: 24/05/2003

Court: Press Complaints Commission

Date of judgment: 24 May 2003

Summary: Press Complaints Commission - Code of Conduct - Privacy - Intrusion into grief - Rights of the dead - Rights of the bereaved

Appearances: Jacob Dean (Claimant) 

Instructing Solicitors: Manches, Oxford.


Days after the death of one of JRR Tolkien’s sons (Father Tolkien) a regional newspaper splashed a story containing serious allegations about his private life, which it had not been prepared to publish during his lifetime. Father Tolkien’s estate, and several of his relatives complained to the PCC that the article was in breach of clauses 1,3 and 5 of the Code.


Was a breach of the Code established?


There had been an unjustifed intrusion into the grief of the surviving relatives which the paper had not taken reasonable care to avoid.


The PCC’s ruling in this case establishes that the dead have no privacy rights under the Code. But the relatives of the deceased were entitled to respect, and by publishing a splash, containing lurid allegations about Father Tolkien, between his death and his funeral, the paper had infringed the Code by intruding into grief. Unusually, the PCC was willing to pass judgment on whether the paper had taken reasonable care in its publication.