Decision of the Complaints Committee 05371-16 Two men v Belfast Telegraph
Summary of Complaint
1. Two men complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Belfast Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Hazel Larkin: ‘My brother told me the rapes were my fault and I should have stopped him’”, published on 25 May 2016.
2. The article reported that an International Human Rights Law student had been “abused by family members” as a child. It named her, described her childhood in a “small Irish town”, and said that “abuse was so normalised” for her that she had “assumed that every girl [she] knew was being sexually abused by her elder brothers”. The article said that she had brought a civil case against her brothers, but they had agreed to settle out of court and to pay “damages”. It said that her brothers had taken the case to the Supreme Court and to the High Court in an effort to prove that the period in which a claim could be made had expired, but “three judges ruled against them”. The article said that in sworn testimony, provided before the “trial”, a nun had stated that a doctor had been made aware of the abuse at the time, and had taken steps to ensure that the girl would not get pregnant because “a scandal like that would be very bad for the town’s image”. The article said that one of the brothers had paid the agreed settlement, and the other had not. The piece included a photograph of the woman; it did not name her brothers.
3. The complainants were the two brothers referred to in the article. They denied the allegations made by their sister and expressed serious concern that the newspaper had published her claims as fact without taking any steps to verify them. They said they had never been “detained, arrested, charged or tried” for these or any charges.
4. The complainants said that the newspaper’s use of the term “trial” had been misleading: their sister had made an unsuccessful attempt to bring civil proceedings against them; the civil injury case was never heard in court; and a judge had never “ruled against them”. They considered that the assertion that they were to pay “damages” to their sister had wrongly suggested that there had been a pronunciation or admission of guilt; no amount of damages had been awarded or was due to their sister.
5. The complainants said that there was no evidence to support the article’s assertion that their sister had been “damaged by the abuse” physically. Furthermore, they considered that a nun had not provided “sworn testimony” asserting that she had known about the abuse at the time; no such evidence had been submitted before the scheduling of the civil injury hearing.
6. The complainants also considered that the inaccurate article was intrusive. They said the false accusations about their sister’s “older brothers”, coupled with a photograph of her, had identified and implicated them. The fact that their sister had adopted another surname did not render her anonymous within their community: neighbours, friends, work colleagues and family had understood that the allegations related to them. They considered that their reputations had been damaged irreparably.
7. The newspaper said that the article had first been published by its sister title, the Dublin-based Sunday Independent, which operated under the Code of Practice for journalists in Ireland. It had republished the piece in good faith.
8. The newspaper said that it had not claimed, as suggested by the complainants, that there had been a pronunciation or admission of guilt; however, their sister had confirmed that a financial settlement had been reached. It noted that the judgment from the High Court hearing, which it provided, clearly stated that one of her brothers had refused to confirm or deny the allegations. In addition, their sister had said that her brother had refused to confirm or deny the allegations during questioning by the police.
9. The newspaper did not consider that the term “trial” had been misplaced: the term was commonly used to describe both civil and criminal legal proceedings, and it provided court judgments to demonstrate that proceedings had taken place.
10. The newspaper was unable to provide the nun’s testimony, which had been referred to in the article. Nevertheless, it considered that this had only represented supporting evidence for the woman’s allegations; it did not consider that its absence had indicated that it had published a “significant inaccuracy”. In light of the concerns raised, however, it offered to publish the following wording on page 24, the page on which the original article had appeared, and beneath the article online:
On 25 May 2016, we reported Hazel Larkin’s claim that she was sexually abused by two of her brothers when she was a child, and received “damages” in an out-of-court settlement. The article also stated that a nun had said in sworn testimony that a priest and doctor had discussed the abuse at the time and had taken steps to avoid it becoming public knowledge. We have been asked to make clear that Ms Larkin’s brothers deny their sister’s allegations; they have never been charged or tried with any crime in relation to the claims or ordered to pay damages; they also consider that no such testimony from a nun has ever existed.
11. The newspaper did not consider that the article had identified the complainants. It had not named them, and their sister had not shared her brothers’ surname for nearly 30 years. The article also included no geographical identifiers, other than that the subject of the article had grown up in a “small Irish town”. It noted that one of the complainants had not lived in Ireland for more than twenty years. It considered that it had been implicit that the abuse had begun in 1980, when the complainants’ sister was six, and had ended when she was 16 in 1990.
12. The complainants considered that the judgments referred to by the newspaper were misleading because they related to motions submitted in the preliminary phase of legal proceedings, before trial, to deal with points of law regarding delay. Their sister had withdrawn the allegations before any hearing had taken place. The complainants also denied the newspaper’s contention that one of them had been questioned by a police officer in relation to the allegations.
13. The complainants said that the suggested correction was far from adequate, and noted that the article remained online.
Relevant Code provisions
14. 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.
Findings of the Committee
15. The newspaper had republished an article that had been produced by its sister publication; nevertheless it was responsible for ensuring that it met the standards required by the Editors’ Code of Practice. The article had contained allegations that a woman had been sexually abused as a child by her two older brothers, the complainants; allegations which they denied. The Committee noted that it was not making a finding as to whether the woman’s account was accurate, but whether the article itself was significantly misleading.
16. The article was a report of the woman’s version of events; the newspaper had been entitled to report her account, including her position that she had been damaged physically by the abuse. However, the newspaper had made no attempt to obtain the complainants’ version of events before publication, or to ascertain whether its sister publication had already done so.
17. The publication of the assertion that a nun’s “sworn testimony” had stated that others had been informed of the abuse at the time seemingly supported the woman’s allegations. However, during IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper had been unable to provide any such testimony.
18. The newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i). Given the seriousness of the allegations, the absence of the complainants’ denials was significantly misleading. A correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).
19. The newspaper had offered to publish a correction, which made clear that the complainants denied their sister’s claims, and stated their position that the testimony provided by a nun had never existed. The Committee considered that the publication of the suggested wording online and on the same page on which the article appeared in print was sufficient to meet the requirement of Clause 1 (ii). There was no further breach of the Code on this point.
20. The Committee noted the complainants’ concern that the article had misleadingly stated that there had been a “trial”, and that the courts had “ruled against them”. However, it was not in dispute that hearings had taken place in relation to the allegations: the newspaper had provided judgments indicating that an appeal against a High Court Order had been dismissed, and that an attempt to have the case dismissed on the grounds of delay had also been refused. It was also not in dispute that a civil injury hearing had been scheduled. In the full context, the term “trials” merely referred to these hearings; the article had not given the significantly misleading impression that the complainants had stood trial and had been found guilty. The piece also made clear that the matter had been settled out of court; it was not significantly misleading to refer to this settlement as “damages”; the reference did not imply that the payment followed a finding of liability by the Court.
21. Although the Committee did not consider that these additional accuracy concerns required correction under the Code, it welcomed the newspaper’s offer to address these points in a published correction.
22. The Committee noted the complainants’ position that the publication of their sister’s claims had been intrusive. Although they were not named in the article, the Committee accepted that they were identifiable to a limited class. However, under the general principle of freedom of expression, their sister had been entitled to tell her story and, under the terms of the Code, the newspaper had been entitled to report it. The newspaper had taken steps to minimise any possible intrusion by not naming the complainants. On balance, the complaint under Clause 2 was not upheld.
23. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.
Remedial action required
24. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.
25. The newspaper had offered to publish a correction in print and online, which identified the inaccuracy and made the correct position clear.
26. The publication of the offered correction was sufficient to remedy the established breach of the Code and, in light of the Committee’s decision, it should now be published.
Date complaint received: 25/05/2016
Date decision issued: 24/10/2016
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