Decision of the Complaints Committee – 04851-20 Taylor v Sunday Life
Summary of Complaint
1. Gerard Taylor complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Sunday Life breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “LOYALISTS DENY 'COKE BARON' LINK”, published on 17 May 2020.
2. The article reported on a “suspected coke baron” who the article alleged had been linked to the UVF by the police. It reported that the defendant was “charged with being concerned in the supply of cocaine and possessing the cutting agent benzocaine”. It said that the defendant’s home had been vandalised, and that “a glass panel and handle on the front door were broken, with bootprints clearly visible on the wood”. The article said that the vandalism occurred the day after his case was mentioned in court, and that “security sources” had said the incident was allegedly linked to tensions between the defendant and “loyalist paramilitaries”. The article said that the defendant had welcomed visitors to his house on Wednesday morning, but within 24 hours the damage was visible and “the property appeared abandoned”. The article also reported that the PSNI said no complaint had been made and that there was no investigation underway.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). He said it was inaccurate to report that he was linked to the UVF or “loyalists” as reported in the article. He also said that the damage to the front door had been caused by police on 7 April, and was not the result of an attack on the complainant’s property as the article claimed. The complainant said it was inaccurate to describe the property as “appearing abandoned,” as at the time of the article he was still residing in the property with members of his family. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to describe him as a “coke baron” as “coke baron” gave the impression that the complainant had major cocaine dealings. In fact, the complainant said that he was concerned in the supply of a class A drug, and not dealing, and that the newspaper had not provided evidence to support the term “baron”. The complainant also said referring to “security sources” gave the misleading impression that police, or a similar source had given the attributed quote, which he did not believe to be the case, as the source was not named. The complainant said it was a further breach of Clause 1 that the publication had published the article without his comments on the matter.
4. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the PSNI had issued a statement which reported that the “Paramilitary Crime Task Force last night arrested a 48 year old man in East Belfast” after a “search operation targeted East Belfast UVF’s drug supply network”. It said that this statement, by the PSNI, supported the article’s claim that the complainant had been “linked by police to UVF drug dealing”. It said that the article also made clear that the link had been denied by the UVF in the headline and went on to confirm this by reporting that the UVF were “mystified by the claim” and that “loyalists had never heard of” the complainant, which it said had been confirmed to the reporter by source close to UVF leadership. The publication said that the same source had said that members of the UVF had gone to the complainant’s house and tried to force entry out of anger about the alleged link between the complainant and the UVF. The publication said that a photographer had attended the complainant’s house on 7 May and had not seen damage to the glass panel or handle of the door. It supplied IPSO with images that had been taken that day, however the photos did not show this part of the door. The publication said a reporter had returned to the complainant’s house the following day, and saw that the door had been damaged, and that no one had answered the door. It said that a reporter had gone to the property on three separate occasions and also found it to be empty, which is why the article had referred to the building as having “appeared abandoned”. However, the publication accepted the complainant’s position that he still lived there at the time of publication. The publication had also called the PSNI to ask if the complainant had made a complaint of criminal damage to the property, to which the PNSI responded that he had not. This was included in the article.
5. The newspaper noted that the term “coke baron” was in inverted comments in the headline, and also that the article referred to the complainant as a “suspected coke baron” in the text of the article. It said this made clear that this was an allegation rather than a statement of fact, and where the complainant was facing charges of possessing cocaine and benzocaine with intent to encourage or assist supply, as accurately reported in the article, it did not accept these references were inaccurate.
6. The publication referred to its obligations under Clause 14, and said it could not reveal who the “security sources” were. However, it noted that it had spoken to sources within loyalist paramilitary organisations, security forces, the police, and sources unconnected to either with regards to this article and therefore that it was not misleading to use this term.
7. The publication also noted that it had gone to the complainant’s house on four separate days in order to gain comment from the complainant, but had been unable to make contact. As a gesture of goodwill the publication offered to publish a clarification in direct correspondence with the complainant prior to IPSO’s investigation. The exact wording of the offered correction was given during IPSO’s investigation, and the newspaper offered to publish it on the same page as the article was originally published:
An article stated, incorrectly, that a Belfast man’s home was smashed up by loyalist paramilitaries after he appeared in court on drugs charges (Sunday Life, May 17). Gerard Taylor has asked us to point out that the damage was caused during a PSNI raid on the house, at Chobham Street in the east of the city. The article further stated, again incorrectly, that the property appeared abandoned, when in fact Mr Taylor was still living there.
Relevant Code Provisions
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 had reported that the police had linked the complainant to UVF drug dealing, but that the UVF had denied any links. Where the publication had provided a police press release statement which had said that the complainant had been arrested in a “search operation [which] targeted East Belfast UVF’s drug supply network” it was entitled to characterise the complainant as having been “linked by police to UVF drug dealing” and had taken care to attribute this as a claim by the police The Committee noted that the article had also made readers aware that this link was disputed. On this basis, the publication had not failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
9. There was a disagreement between the complainant and the publication as to who had committed the damage to the property. The publication had provided photographs to demonstrate that it had been at the property the day prior to when it alleged the damage had taken place, which was a month after the complainant had said the police had committed the damage. Whilst the publication said it had not seen any damage to the glass panel and handle of the door at this point, this was not confirmed by the photographs, which did not show this part of the door. The publication had then returned to the complainant’s property the day after it believed that the complainant’s home had been vandalised by the UVF, and had taken photographs to confirm that damage had been done to the door. The publication said that it had also attempted to contact the complainant for his comment on five occasions. Where the publication had taken steps to verify that the complainant’s home had been vandalised, had received information from a source that the UVF was responsible, presented this as speculation and attempted to reach the complainant for his comment prior to publciaiton, it had not failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information and there was no breach of Clause 1(i). However, once the publication was made aware of the complainant’s position on this matter, during the complaints process, it accepted that the terms of Clause 1 (ii) required them to put the complainant’s position on record, and had offered to do so during direct correspondence with the complainant. During IPSO’s investigation it offered specific wording, which was prompt and, as it was offered to be published on the same page as the original article, was prominent, and accurately reflected the complainant’s position. Therefore, the offered correction must now be published to ensure no breach of Clause 1(ii).
10. The publication had gone to the complainant’s house on four separate occasions and received no response. On this basis, it was not significantly misleading to report that the property had “appeared abandoned”, although the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to correct this. The article had referred to the complainant as a “’coke baron’” in inverted commas, and had made clear in the article that the complainant was a “suspected” cocaine baron. In the context of the article which made clear the complainant was “suspected”, had accurately reported the charges faced by the complainant and made clear the status of proceedings against him were ongoing, it was not significantly misleading for the publication to refer to him as a suspected “coke baron”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. In addition, the publication had said that it had spoken to sources from various backgrounds, including the police and loyalist forces which complainant was not in a position to dispute, on this basis the term “security sources” was not misleading.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
12. The correction which was offered clearly put the complainant’s position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.
Date complaint received: 26/05/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 23/12/2020Back to ruling listing