Decision of the Complaints Committee 07356-21 Nelson v Sunday Life
Summary of Complaint
1. Ronnie Nelson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Sunday Life breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Revealed... Rathcoole's riot binlids”, published on 2 May 2021.
2. The article, which appeared on page 23 of the newspaper, claimed that it had identified two individuals “linked to the worst rioting seen in Northern Ireland in years” and that the complainant had “been identified as being involved in three nights of violence”. It further reported that the complainant was “[a]t the centre of the violence” and had been “unmasked” by the publication. The article was accompanied by an image showing two men, wearing balaclavas and holding plastic bins. One of the individuals wearing a balaclava was identified in an inset to the photograph as “Binlid No.2 Ronnie Nelson”; a picture of the complainant accompanied this caption.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1; he had not been involved in the riots and was not the individual referred to as “Binlid No.2”, as claimed by the article. He contacted the newspaper, 2 days after the article’s publication and prior to making a complaint to IPSO, to inform it that he had evidence which demonstrated that he was not present at the riots. He further noted that “Binlid No.2” had a different height and build from himself, which he said acted as further evidence that he was not the pictured rioter. He said that the article had presented allegations against him as fact and it had not taken steps to address the serious inaccuracy arising from his identification as one of the pictured rioters.
4. The complainant suggested the following wording to be published in the newspaper, which he said would address his concerns and resolve his complaint:
On Sunday 2 May we published an article which identified Ronnie Nelson as being a rioter in a balaclava during recent disorder in the Rathcoole area. We now acknowledge that Mr Nelson was not in fact the individual pictured and that he was not involved in the recent disorder. We apologise to Mr Nelson for this error.
5. The publication denied that the article breached the Code. It said that two sources – who it said were familiar with the complainant and had good local knowledge – had identified the complainant as one of the rioters, and had recognised him when he had removed his mask. The publication said that it could not provide the details of the claims made by these sources, nor their identities, where it had a moral obligation – according to the terms of Clause 14 of the Editors’ Code of Practice – to protect the anonymity of confidential sources of information. It also said that it had not contacted the complainant for his comment on the sources’ allegations prior to publication, as journalists working for the newspaper had previously received death threats from an organisation it said the complainant was associated with. The newspaper also noted that the complainant had a relevant previous conviction for rioting, in which he had disguised his face using a mask and denied his involvement in the disorder.
6. The publication said that, while it did not accept that the article breached the Code, it would be content to publish an amended version of the wording suggested by the complainant. Three days after the complainant contacted the newspaper, it offered to publish the following wording, on page 23 of the newspaper or further forward, to resolve the complaint:
On Sunday, May 2 we published an article which identified Ronnie Nelson as being a rioter in a balaclava during recent disorder in the Rathcoole area. Mr Nelson has contacted us through his representative […] to deny that he was the individual pictured in our report and to deny any involvement in the recent disorder. Mr Nelson says he has evidence to show that he was not at the scene. We are happy to publish his denial.
7. The complainant said that the wording proposed by the newspaper would not be sufficient to resolve his complaint, where he said it acted as a reply to allegations rather than a correction. The complainant considered a correction to be the appropriate course of action where he believed the article presented allegations against him as fact.
8. The complainant also denied that he was associated with the organisation which the newspaper said had sent death threats to journalists. He also said that he condemned any and all threats to journalists, regardless of the source of such threats, and that he was fully supportive of the freedom of the press. Nevertheless, the complainant said that the terms of the Code applied regardless of whether the believed him to have links to the organisation, or whether he was a convicted criminal or not.
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.
Clause 14 (Confidential sources)
Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.
Findings of the Committee
9. The Committee understood the constraints placed upon the newspaper by its reliance on anonymous sources, and its concerns over the safety of its journalists. However, the Committee was clear that such constraints do not mean that the Editors’ Code does not apply, and that care should be taken to ensure that information is not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted.
10. The publication had relied on two confidential sources for the information placing the complainant at the scene of the riots and identifying him as the man in the balaclava, and had not taken any further steps to verify this information. While the Committee understood the newspaper’s obligation to protect its confidential sources under Clause 14, it did not consider protection of its sources absolved the publication of its requirement to take care over the accuracy of information included in its articles. In this instance, the publication had not taken any steps whatsoever to verify the information given by the sources – for instance, by contacting the complainant or a representative for comment – and had consequently published uncorroborated information which it was unable to demonstrate was accurate. In addition, the allegations against the complainant had not been attributed to sources throughout the article, and were at times adopted by the publication as fact: for instance, in reporting that the complainant was “[a]t the centre of the violence” and had been unmasked as a “thug behind loyalist violence”. The publication had not been able to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of the article, had presented allegations against the complainant that were significant and uncorroborated as points of fact, and had not provided the complainant with the opportunity to comment on the allegations against him. There was, therefore, a breach of Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (iv).
11. The breaches related to a serious allegation that the complainant had engaged in criminal behaviour and linked him to a serious riot. The Committee, however, was not in a position to say whether the complainant had been present during the rioting: while the complainant categorically denied his involvement, the newspaper considered its witnesses to be entirely reliable. Where the correct position was not clear, the Committee found that the wording proposed by the newspaper – which included the complainant’s denial that he was in the area during the rioting – made clear that there was a dispute over the accuracy of the original article, and put the complainant’s position on the record. The wording had been offered three days after the complainant had contacted the newspaper, and the proposed position of the wording – on the same page as the original article, or further forward – was sufficiently prominent. The remedial action proposed by the publication made clear that the complainant disputed the allegations against him, and was offered promptly and with due prominence. There was no further breach of Clause 1 (ii).
12. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (iv).
Remedial Action Required
13. The clarification which was offered clearly
put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due
prominence, and should now be published.
Date complaint received: 05/07/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 15/11/2021Back to ruling listing