Decision of the Complaints Committee 00613-17 O’Connor v Irish News
Summary of complaint
1. Cara O’Connor complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Irish News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Suspected agent Gareth O’Connor ‘saved multiple lives’, published on 23 January 2017.
2. The article reported that Republican sources had said that “Real IRA agent” Gareth O’Connor, who disappeared in 2003, had been “centrally involved in several planned attacks that were either abandoned or led to the arrests of paramilitary suspects”. It said that Republicans believed that information provided by Mr O’Connor had resulted in security forces disrupting the attacks and “saving multiple lives”. The article stated that Mr O’Connor’s body had been found in 2005 inside a car, which had been dumped in the Newry Canal. It said that while the cause of death had never been established, “informed sources” had said that he had not been shot, but had “died as the result of a severe beating”. The article was accompanied by a photograph of Mr O’Connor’s car being lifted from the canal by a crane.
3. The complainant said that the coroner had concluded that the cause of her brother’s death was inconclusive. She said there was no evidence to support the newspaper’s assertion that he had died of a severe beating, and noted that the autopsy report stated that he had no broken bones.
4. The complainant said that her brother’s children had never been given an explanation of the circumstances surrounding their father’s death. She said reading information that could not be proven had caused unnecessary stress to them and the rest of the family. She considered that the cause of her brother’s death was a private family matter.
5. The complainant also expressed concern that the newspaper had published a photograph of her brother’s car being removed from the canal. She said that his body had been inside the car at the time the image was taken, and it was inconsiderate and disrespectful to print the image. She said this represented an intrusion into the family’s grief and their private home and family life.
6. The newspaper expressed its regret at any upset which may have been caused by its coverage. However, it said that its article had been fair and accurate, and concerned matters which were in the public interest. It said that the story concerned a murder that remained unsolved, and which raised key issues about the continuing activities of illegal paramilitary organisations and the role of their alleged agents.
7. The newspaper said that the article had stated that the cause of Mr O’Connor’s death had never been established, and it considered that the article had made clear that it was a claim that he had been beaten to death. It said that this information had been provided by confidential sources who were credible and reliable, and given the circumstances surrounding Mr O’Connor’s death, putting the information in the public domain had been justified. In addition, it considered that as far as could be established, all the victims to have been abducted and murdered as suspected informers by paramilitary groups had either been badly beaten or shot.
8. The newspaper said that it had considered whether the image would upset the grieving family before proceeding with publication, but given the context and the new developments in the story, it had concluded that its publication was justified. It noted that it had been widely published since 2005, and it had been unaware that the family had any issue with its use. It noted that the image remained on the BBC website as part of an interview that Mr O’Connor’s father had given about his son. In light of the complainant’s concerns, however, it removed the photograph from its online story. It also said it would be happy to publish a statement from the family as a way to resolve the matter.
Relevant Code provisions
9. 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.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
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.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)
In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.
Clause 14 (Confidential sources)
Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.
Findings of the Committee
10. The Committee acknowledged that the article had upset the complainant and her family. However, the newspaper had accurately reported that the cause of Mr O’Connor’s death had never been established. It had also reported that it had been separately informed by confidential sources that he had died as a result of a “severe beating”. The article had made clear that this was a claim made by “sources”; it had not given the significantly misleading impression that it had been established as fact. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.
11. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern regarding the publication of the photograph of Mr O’Connor’s car being lifted from the canal. However, the image had been taken at a distance; it showed the underside of the car as the vehicle was being lifted from canal; and Mr O’Connor was not visible from the image. The image had also been in the public domain since Mr O’Connor’s body was discovered more than ten years ago. The Committee did not consider that using the image in this article, which reported on Mr O’Connor’s possible involvement in disrupting planned IRA attacks, represented an intrusion into the family’s grief or private life. However, it welcomed the newspaper’s decision to remove it from the online article in response to the concerns raised. There was no breach of Clause 4 or Clause 2 on this point.
12. The Committee also considered the complainant’s position that publishing details about the cause of her brother’s death had represented an intrusion into the family’s private life. However, the circumstances in which Mr O’Connor had died was not information about which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Date complaint received: 24/01/2017
Date decision issued: 13/04/2017
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