Decision of the Complaints Committee 05423-19 Murdock v The Irish News
Summary of Complaint
1. Gordon Murdock complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Irish News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) in an article headlined “All victims deserve respect, even those we didn't agree with”, published on 4 July 2019.
2. The article was a comment piece following the death of Willie Frazer, who the article described as a high-profile “loyalist victims campaigner”. It explained that he had been a controversial figure during his lifetime, and caused offence to people he disagreed with. However, the columnist argued that this should not undermine respect for the fact that Mr Frazer and his family had suffered as a result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The article said that “Willie Frazer was a victim. Five members of his family were murdered. That some of those people were linked to the Glenanne Gang has been well-publicised.” The article then went on to argue that the pain caused by sectarian violence should not be the catalyst for further hatred, and the path towards peace involved respect for the grief of others, even for those whose views or actions were fundamentally opposed to their own.
The article appeared online in the same form and on the same day, with the headline “Allison Morris: Even if we disagree with someone, we should respect the grief of relatives”.
3. The complainant, the cousin of Willie Frazer, said that the article was inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1. He said that it was not the case that any of Mr Frazer’s relatives who had been murdered had been publicly linked to the Glenanne Gang. He provided a document from the Historical Enquiries Team in 2012 which stated that it had found no evidence that Willie Frazer’s father was a member of, or otherwise associated with, any paramilitary organisation. He also disputed that Mr Frazer himself had been involved in any paramilitary activity, although he acknowledged that claims to this effect had been published following his death. The complainant said the article’s claim about Mr Frazer’s family, following his recent burial, had caused him and his family much distress, and constituted a breach of Clause 4.
4. The publication apologised for any distress caused, but did not accept that the article was inaccurate. The publication said that in 2017, two Northern Irish publications had reported that Bertie Frazer, Willie Frazer’s father who was murdered, had been involved in the Glennane Gang, based on claims made in a Ministry of Defence document. It provided copies of this coverage. It acknowledged that this link was in dispute, however it was not inaccurate to report that the link had been “well publicised”. It said that when the article referred to “some of those people” being well publicised members of the Glenanne Gang, this included Willie Frazer himself. It said that the Glenanne Gang was essentially the Glenanne section of the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force, which it said Willie Frazer had been linked to in a BBC documentary in October of last year. As such, it said it was not misleading to include him as one of the people with “well publicised” links to the Glenanne Gang.
5. The publication did not accept that there was a failure to handle publication of the article sensitively; the article was sympathetic to Mr Frazer and his family. When the complainant had contacted the publication directly prior to making a complaint to IPSO, the publication said that it had tried to resolve his concerns; the statement under complaint was removed from the online article, and the deputy news editor spoke to him on the phone, and the following clarification was published in the next edition of the newspaper:
“In my column of July 4, I said that the late Willie Frazer was a victim and I also referred to alleged connections between his family and the loyalist group known as the Glenanne gang. I would like to acknowledge that, according to a 2012 Historical Enquiries Team report, there was no evidence to suggest that his father, Bertie Frazer, who was shot dead by the IRA in 1975, was involved in paramilitary activity. I regret any upset caused to the Frazer family.”
Relevant Code Provisions
6. 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.
7. 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.
Findings of the Committee
8. The wording of the article was ambiguous as to who it was referring to as having well publicised links to the Glenanne gang. It was reasonable to interpret the phrase, “some of these people” as a reference to both a member of one of Willie Frazer’s family who was murdered, and/or Willie Frazer himself. Furthermore, the article did not say that these people were members of the gang, or had been involved in any illegal activity, but “that some of those people were linked to the Glenanne Gang has been well publicised”. The Committee was also mindful of the difficulties in showing conclusively, in writing, links between five people who had died and a historical, defunct, paramilitary organisation; in this context, a link to a gang being “well publicised” would not necessarily be understood by readers to refer to news articles or other written allegations. Nevertheless, the publication was able to provide a written basis to show that Bertie Frazer, Willie Frazer’s father who was one of the five family members who was murdered, and Willie Frazer himself, had well publicised links to the Glenanne Gang: Bertie Frazer had been named in two Northern Irish publications following claims made in an MoD document that he had been involved in the Glenanne Gang. Allegations had also been made that Willie Frazer had links to the Glenanne branch of the UVF, which the newspaper argued was reasonable to characterise as the Glenanne Gang. Notwithstanding the family’s position regarding the credibility of these allegations, there was no failure to take care in reporting that some of either Willie Frazer’s family who had been murdered, or Willie Frazer himself, had had “well publicised” links to the Glenanne Gang. In addition, although the document from the Historical Enquiries Team made clear that it had not found any evidence of Bertie Frazer being a member of a paramilitary organisation, this did not contradict the fact that claims had previously been made linking Bertie Frazer to the Glenanne Gang. There was no breach of Clause 1(i), and no requirement to print a correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s prompt clarification putting the finding of the Historical Enquiries Team on the record.
9. The Committee acknowledged that the publication of the article had caused the family distress. However Clause 4 does not prohibit criticism of a person who has recently died, or prevent a publication from reporting on contentious or controversial aspects of their life. In this case, the article referenced information that was already in the public domain, and had been the subject of much discussion and debate both during and after the individual’s lives. Reporting this did not constitute a failure to handle publication sensitively, and there was no breach of Clause 4.
10. The complaint was not upheld
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 19/07/2019
Date complaint concluded: 12/03/2020