Decision of the Complaints Committee 00209-18 Hawthorn v The Sunday Times
Summary of Complaint
1. Ronald Hawthorn complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Ulster pub massacre families sue amid claims killer was informer,” published on 12 November 2017.
2. The article reported that a recently released documentary examining the unsolved historic murders of six Catholic men by loyalist paramilitaries in Loughinisland had named the complainant as the alleged chief suspect in the case. It reported that no one had ever been prosecuted in relation the incident, but said that family members were now calling for prosecutions to be brought, in light of the information included in the documentary. It reported that the complainant was a former British soldier. The article went on to report information about the incident in 1994 and stated that allegations of state collusion had long been made. The article was also published online, and was substantially the same as the print article.
3. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to refer to him as the alleged “chief suspect” as he had not been charged with any criminal offence in relation to the incident. He said that the information in the documentary that was relied on in the article was inaccurate and unfounded and that the newspaper had inaccurately reported these claims as fact.
4. He also said that it was a long standing practice for journalists not to name suspects until criminal charges had been brought, and therefore he believed that naming him as a “chief suspect” in the absence of any criminal charge, was a breach of his privacy. He also said that this represented a “trial by media” and was concerned about the dangerous precedent such reporting set. He said it was also an intrusion for the article to name his as a former member of the security forces, as a threat from terrorists still exists in Northern Ireland, and this put the safety of him and his family at risk.
5. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that the article had accurately reported the claims made in the documentary referred to in the article and had made clear that the allegations repeated in the article had not been proven as fact. It said that the article was justified by the extremely high public interest in recent developments in one of the most high profile, incidents of The Troubles. It said that substantial legal developments had come to light recently, and had been reported by the newspaper along with the allegations made in the documentary, as the public has a right to know of developments in this significant and unresolved matter.
6. It said that the complainant had been contacted by the film maker prior to publication, but had not wished to comment. The newspaper also said that it had tried to contact him prior to publication but had been unable to reach him. It offered to put his position on record and said it would be happy to consider a letter from the complainant if that would resolve his complaint.
7. The newspaper did not accept that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to any of the information included about him in the article as it said all that information had already been placed in the public domain by the documentary. It said that it was not aware of any common journalistic practice not to name those suspected of crimes relating to The Troubles until charges had been brought. It said that the record across the decades suggested quite the opposite, as suspects of crimes relating to The Troubles had been named by the media whether or not charges were eventually brought.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and- where appropriate- an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
Clause 2 (Privacy) *
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.
The public interest
There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.
1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
· Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
· Protecting public health or safety.
· Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
· Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
· Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
· Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
· Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.
2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.
4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.
5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.
Findings of the Committee
9. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that reporting that he had previously been in the British Army had put his personal safety at risk. However, this information had come from the documentary, which related to the unsolved, historic murders of several men. The Code recognises the public interest in reporting on, and contributing to, the public debate on such matters, and also recognises the public interest in freedom of expression itself. In these circumstances, the newspaper was entitled to report on the documentary and the Committee considered that there was a strong public interest in doing so. When considering whether the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the documentary’s claims, the Committee had regard for the extent to which this information was already in the public domain. This information had been put in the public domain by the documentary, which had been widely circulated. In these circumstances, publication of this information by the newspaper did not amount to a breach of Clause 2.
10. The article had made clear that it was reporting claims made in the documentary, including the claim that the complainant had been named as the alleged “chief suspect”. The article had not reported this statement as fact, but had taken care to ensure this allegation was presented as a claim. There was no breach of Clause 1.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 15/01/2018
Date decision issued: 25/05/2018Back to ruling listing