Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01813-20 Lanigan v Sunday Life
Summary of Complaint
1. John and Gail Lanigan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Life breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "Rangers jersey fakers busted” published on 8 March 2020.
2. The article reported that a couple “were facing sentencing after they were convicted of selling dodgy football shirts, allegedly for the west Belfast UDA” (Ulster Defence Association). The article reported the first complainant was convicted on three counts of selling goods with a registered trademark, two of possessing articles which infringed copyright and one of distributing articles which infringed copyright. It reported that the second complainant was convicted of three counts of selling goods with a registered trademark and three of possessing articles which infringed copyright. The article went on to report that “speaking at the time of their arrest, a police spokesperson said the charges relate ‘to a Paramilitary Crime Taskforce investigation into the criminal activities of the West Belfast UDA, including the sale of counterfeit goods’”. The article went on to discuss UDA activity in West Belfast. The article featured a banner at the top of the page, which stated “EXCLUSIVE PAIR ‘SOLD DODGY GOODS FOR UDA”.
3. The complainants said that the article inaccurately affiliated them with the West Belfast UDA and they denied any involvement with any illegal organisation. The complainants said that by reporting that they had “sold dodgy goods for the UDA”, the article had given the inaccurate impression that their supposed links to the organisation, and by association the drug trade, were heard in court, when this information was not mentioned in court and there was no suggestion of paramilitary activity in the case presented by the Public Prosecution Service. The complainants said that the inaccurate impression that they were involved with the UDA was confounded by the articles discussion on recent incidents allegedly involving the UDA, which had no relation to them being on trial for counterfeit goods. The complainants said they were not afforded an opportunity to comment on the article’s allegations prior to publication.
4. The publication denied any breach of the Code and did not accept that it was inaccurate in any way to link the charges the complainants faced to the criminal activities of the West Belfast UDA. The publication noted that at the time of the complainants’ arrest the Police Service of Northern Ireland issued a press release in the following terms:
For Release: Detectives from PSNI’s Paramilitary Crime Task Force have charged a 55 year old man and a 49 year old woman with concealing criminal property, entering into arrangement and possession of criminal property
They are due to appear at Antrim Magistrates Court on 3 December 2019.
As is normal procedure all charges will be reviewed by the PPS.
Guidance: These charges relate to a man and woman who were arrested in the Antrim area on 19 June 2019 in relation to a PCTF investigation into the criminal activities of the West Belfast UDA including the sale of counterfeit goods.
5. Given the content of the press release, which the publication noted was widely reported at the time, the publication said that it was entirely appropriate to reference the link between the sale of the goods and the UDA, and discuss wider UDA activity. Nevertheless, the publication said that the article made clear that this was an allegation as opposed to any finding of the court. As the article was based on the press release and the outcome of court proceedings, the publication did not accept that not contacting the complainants prior to publication represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information.
6. The complainants said that it was misleading for the publication to rely on an historic press release from November 2019, when the article under complaint was published in March 2020, when there had been matters before the court in the interim which did not refer to paramilitary activity.
Relevant Code Provisions
7. 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
8. The article reported that the complainants had “allegedly” sold counterfeit goods for the UDA and the banner at the top of the article featured the allegation in inverted commas; the article did not report categorically that the complainants sold goods for the UDA, that they were members of the UDA, or that this was a finding of the court. The article included an excerpt from the PSNI press release confirming the details of the arrest and summarised the guidance accompanying the press release, in which the PSNI stated that the charges were “in relation to a PCTF investigation into the criminal activities of the West Belfast UDA including the sale of counterfeit goods”. The press release made clear that the complainants were arrested as part of an operation into the activities of the West Belfast UDA, which the publication was entitled to report; the complainants did not dispute the facts of this press release. The article made clear that the court convicted the complainants of selling goods with a registered trademark, and possessing and distributing articles which infringed copyright, and not of any offence in relation to paramilitary activity or membership of an illegal organisation. The publication had taken care to distinguish between comment, conjecture, and fact. The facts being the specific offences the complainants were convicted of, and the conjecture, which comprised of the claim based on the police press release that the goods were sold for the UDA. Where the publication had made clear that these were allegations supported by the police press release, and not findings by the court, and where the article made the offences the complainants were convicted of clear, there was no failure to take over the accuracy of the claim that the complainants had sold goods for the UDA. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
9. The selection of material for publication is a matter of editorial discretion provided the Code is not otherwise breached. In circumstances where there was no failure to take care over the claim concerning the complainants’ alleged involvement with the UDA, including details of wider UDA activity did not render the article significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1.
10. The Code does not stipulate that a right of reply is required. Where the allegations were based on a police press release and the publicly available findings of the court, and where the publication had taken care over the presentation of the claims within the article, not contacting the complainants for comment did not represent a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date received: 16/03/2020
Date concluded by IPSO: 07/08/2020Back to ruling listing