Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry v The Belfast Telegraph

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

Decision of the Complaints Committee Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry v The Belfast Telegraph 

Summary of complaint 

1.  The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Belfast Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Inquiry ignored abuse report on paedophile doctor: claim”, published on 11 February 2017, and an article headlined “Hospital’s paedophile doctor and unanswered questions that won’t go away”, published on 13 February 2017. 

2. The first article reported that Dr Niall Meehan had claimed that the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA Inquiry) had ignored his report which had found that child-psychiatrist, Dr Roderick Morrison Fraser, had abused a 13-year-old boy. It said that his report had exposed “major failings by health boards, medical professionals and the RUC after they failed to stop [Dr Fraser] working within the health service”. The article said that Dr Meehan had contacted the HIA Inquiry with a copy of his evidence, and he was told that the inquiry would consider matters “relevant to its terms and conditions”. It said that the HIA Inquiry had failed to reply to a request for comment. The article was also published in the same form online. 

3. The second article was an opinion piece written by Dr Niall Meehan. In it, he said that the HIA Inquiry should have investigated why Dr Fraser, who had been known to have abused children in 1971, had continued to work as a doctor until 1995. It said that the inquiry had undermined the evidence given by victims, who had not appeared before it, and had accepted testimony from police and intelligence sources without questioning it. Dr Meehan said that he had sent the inquiry a submission and his report on Dr Fraser, but it had ignored them. This piece was also published in the same form online. 

4.  The complainant said that the newspaper had inaccurately asserted that it had “ignored” Dr Meehan’s submission on the allegations concerning Dr Fraser. The piece failed to state that his submissions were referred to in Volume 8 of the inquiry report, and that there was a section dealing specifically with one victim’s allegations about Dr Fraser’s conduct while he was in residential care. Furthermore, both articles made no mention of the fact that there were numerous references to allegations about Dr Fraser at the inquiry’s public hearings. It said that the second article had also failed to state that Dr Meehan had been informed that the inquiry was limited to its Terms of Reference, which did not extend to examining these matters as they did not relate to allegations of abuse in residential homes. 

5. The complainant said that, contrary to the assertion made in the first article, it had not “failed to reply to a request for comment”. It said that the newspaper had emailed the inquiry and it had been sent an out-of-office response. It questioned why the newspaper had made no attempt to contact the inquiry on the telephone number provided in that response. The complainant was also concerned that the newspaper had failed to give it an opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies. 

6. The newspaper said that it had accurately reported that the complainant had “refused to include [Dr Meehan’s] damning report”. It had not been aware that there were references to Dr Meehan’s submissions in the report; the reporter had searched the document for Dr Meehan’s name and nothing had come up. However, it did not consider this to be significantly misleading, as it was correct that the inquiry did not consider or investigate Dr Meehan’s report. Furthermore, the first article had made clear that references were made to Dr Fraser during the inquiry; it stated that “Dr Meehan…said he contacted the HIA with a copy of his evidence after references to Fraser were made in its hearings in April last year”. 

7. The newspaper did not consider that it should have stated in the second article that Dr Meehan had been informed that the inquiry was limited to matters falling within its Terms of Reference. When asked by Dr Meehan for clarification on what fell within its remit, the inquiry had failed to articulate its reasoning. 

8. The newspaper said that the reporter had emailed the complainant for its comment on Dr Meehan’s criticism of the inquiry and its report before publication, but it had failed to respond. It denied that it had received an out-of-office response, as claimed by the complainant. 

9. The complainant contacted the newspaper directly on 13 and 14 February 2017, and the newspaper replied on 16 February 2017, explaining that it did not accept that the articles were inaccurate. IPSO began its investigation on 21 March 2017. The newspaper sent its initial response to IPSO on 25 April, and on 27 April, it offered to publish the following clarification on page five, where the first article appeared, and online: 

In articles published on 11th and 13th February 2017 in relation to the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, we should have made it clear that while a report from Dr Niall Meehan was not referred to in the Inquiry Report, references were made to his submissions and to allegations against Dr Fraser.

10. The complainant said that the newspaper’s admission that it had merely searched the report for Dr Meehan’s name demonstrated that it had failed to take sufficient care over the accuracy of the articles, which had contained serious allegations about the way in which it had carried out its work. It requested the publication of the correction, and an article written by the inquiry based on its press release which was issued in response to the newspaper’s coverage. 

11. The newspaper said that it would be happy to publish the correction and an article from the complainant, but it would not publish the press release provided.  

Relevant Code provisions 

12. 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. 

Findings of the Committee 

13. The newspaper had been entitled to report Dr Meehan’s criticism of the complainant, and his position that it had failed to give proper consideration to his report on Dr Morris Fraser. However, both of the articles under complaint had given the inaccurate impression that Dr Meehan’s submission to the inquiry was “ignored”. While the complainant had not published Dr Meehan’s report, the complainant’s report did refer to his allegations made against Dr Fraser.

14. The complainant’s report, which was the subject of the criticism, was publicly available at the time the newspaper published the articles. The Committee was therefore concerned that the newspaper had failed to properly check the document before proceeding to publish the articles. In addition, when it did not receive a response to its request for comment, it had failed to take any further steps to contact the complainant. The newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the articles in breach of Clause 1(i). The omission of the fact that references were made to Dr Meehan’s submissions and to allegations against Dr Fraser had given a significantly misleading impression of the contents of the inquiry report; a correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). 

15. The newspaper had offered to publish a correction, which made clear that the complainant’s report did, in fact, contain references to Dr Meehan’s allegations against Dr Fraser. The newspaper had offered to publish this on page five, the page on which the first article had appeared, and 16 pages further forward than the later piece. It had also offered to append this wording to both the online articles. While the Committee considered that the correction addressed the significant points, the offer had been made more than two months after the complainant’s concerns had first been raised. The Committee was also concerned that the newspaper had failed to respond promptly during IPSO’s investigation. The newspaper had failed to correct significantly misleading information promptly in breach of Clause 1(ii). 

16. There was disagreement between the parties as to whether the newspaper had received an out-of-office response to its request for comment, and the Committee could not reconcile the differing positions. Nevertheless, given that an attempt to obtain comment had been made, it was not significantly misleading for the newspaper to have stated in the first article that the complainant had failed to respond to a request for comment. There was no breach of the Code on this point. 

17. The Committee was concerned that the second article had not made clear that Dr Meehan had been informed that his concerns did not fall within its Terms of Reference. Nevertheless, Dr Meehan was still entitled to the view that the reason for this had not been fully explained and it was a “mystery” that the matter had not been investigated further. In the context of this comment piece, the omission of this specific information was not significantly misleading. Furthermore, the earlier news item had made clear the complainant’s position that it had informed Dr Meehan that his concerns fell outside its remit. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

18. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the newspaper had failed to give it an opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies. However, the newspaper had offered to publish a correction to address the misleading information identified by the complaint. It was not obliged to additionally publish the complainant’s reply. There was no breach of Clause 1 (iii). 

Conclusion 

19. The complaint was upheld. 

Remedial action required 

26. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. 

27. The newspaper had published significantly misleading information and it had failed to comply with the obligations of Clause 1(ii) by promptly offering to publish a correction. As such, the Committee required the publication of an adjudication. 

28. As the inaccurate information had first appeared on page five of the print edition, the Committee required the newspaper to publish the adjudication on page five or further forward. 

29. The wording of the headline to the adjudication should be agreed with IPSO in advance, or in the absence of agreement, as determined by the Complaints Committee. It should refer to IPSO, include the title of the newspaper, make clear that the complaint was upheld, and refer to the subject matter. The placement on the page, and the prominence, including font size, of the adjudication must also be agreed with IPSO in advance. 

30. The adjudication should also be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication appearing on the top half of the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. 

31. If the newspaper intends to continue to publish the articles online without amendment to remove the misleading information identified by the Committee, the full text of the adjudication should also be published on the page, beneath the headline. If amended to remove the misleading statements, a link to the adjudication should be published with the articles, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication. 

32. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows: 

Following an article published on 11 February 2017, headlined “Inquiry ignored abuse report on paedophile doctor: claim”, and an article published on 13 February 2017, headlined “Hospital’s paedophile doctor and unanswered questions that won’t go away”, the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Belfast Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO upheld the complaint and has required the Belfast Telegraph to publish this adjudication as a remedy to the breach. 

The first article reported that Dr Niall Meehan had claimed that the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry had “ignored” his report which had found that child-psychiatrist, Dr Roderick Morrison Fraser, had abused a 13-year-old boy. The second article was an opinion piece written by Dr Meehan in which he said that the HIA Inquiry should have investigated why Dr Fraser had continued to work as a doctor until 1995. He said that he had sent the inquiry a submission and his report on Dr Fraser, but it had ignored them. 

The complainant said that the newspaper had inaccurately asserted that it had “ignored” Dr Meehan’s submission on the allegations concerning Dr Fraser. In fact, references had been made to his submissions and allegations in the inquiry report and at the inquiry’s public hearings. 

The newspaper said that it had accurately reported that the complainant had “refused to include [Dr Meehan’s] damning report”. It had not been aware that there were references to his submissions in the report; the reporter had not found his name in the document. 

The Committee was concerned that the newspaper had failed to properly check the complainant’s report, which was publicly available at the time of publication, and as a result it had given a significantly misleading impression of its contents. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the articles in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). A correction was required. 

During IPSO’s investigation of the complaint, the newspaper offered to publish a correction. The Committee considered that the wording offered addressed the misleading information; however, it had been offered more than two months after it had been made aware of the complainant’s concerns. This represented a failure to correct an inaccuracy promptly in breach of Clause 1. The complaint was upheld. 

Date complaint received: 23/02/2017

Date decision issued: 07/08/2017

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