Decision of the Complaints Committee 08064-18 Gordon v Sunday World
Summary of Complaint
1. John Gordon complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday World breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors ‘Code of Practice in an article headlined “HUMILIATED & TERRIFIED” published on 23 December 2018.
2. The article reported on an attack against members of a security firm as they attempted to evict tenants from a farm in the Republic of Ireland. It said that a gang ambushed the men, and the owner of the firm – named as Ian Gordon – had a gun put to his head, as the gang shot his Alsatian security dog. The article said that when a reporter went to Mr Gordon’s house – the driveway of which it described as being “filled with expensive 4x4 vehicles and work vans” – his wife said that her husband would not be coming to the door as “he doesn’t want to talk about it”. The article reported the general geographic area of the complainant’s home. The article then went on to give details of Mr Gordon’s security firm, saying that it carried out work quoted as being work which “nobody else will touch”, including removing material from two unnamed controversial bonfire sites in East Belfast the previous July.
3. The complainant, the man named in the article as Ian Gordon, said that the article contained several inaccuracies. He said that he had not carried out the clearing of bonfire sites in East Belfast, and this was a damaging and contentious claim. During the course of the complaint, the complainant provided two letters from Belfast City Council. The first said that no contract was issued to the complainant’s company to clear bonfire material at a named location in Belfast last July. The second letter said that the complainant’s company had not undertaken any work for Belfast City Council within the last three years.
4. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to report that his dog was an Alsatian, and was shot. He said that the dog was not an Alsatian, and was in fact badly beaten and had to be put down. He said that he could provide an autopsy report from the vet to show this. He said that it was not true that his wife had told the reporter that “he doesn’t want to talk about it”. Instead, he said that she told the reporter “We don’t want to talk to you, please leave”. He also said that it was inaccurate to report neighbours’ claims that he was in “a state of shock” – he had not spoken to any neighbours and he disputed that they would have had any knowledge of his wellbeing. He also said that it was misleading to state that his driveway was “filled with expensive 4x4 vehicles” as some of these belonged to family and workmen.
5. The complainant said that including reporting the general location of his home intruded into his privacy in breach of Clause 2 (Privacy), and added to the threat against him and his family.
6. The publication did not accept that it was significantly misleading to refer to the dog which died as an Alsatian – it said that from the photograph published in the article, the dog looked like an Alsatian, and in any event, the breed was not relevant to the overall story. The publication said that it spoke to three sources who said that the dog had been shot – it was not in dispute that the dog died as result of a brutal attack. However, it accepted that it did not have access to any vet records or an autopsy report, and so was willing to put the complainant’s position on the record on this point. It proposed a correction which read:
“We published an article on 23 December 2018 headlined “HUMILIATED & TERRIFIED” which reported on the recent attack on [name] and Ian Gordon. Our article stated that Mr Gordon’s dog had been shot during the attack – we have now been informed by Mr Gordon that, in fact, his dog was badly beaten and sadly had to be put down following the attack. We apologise to Mr Gordon for any confusion.”
7. The publication did not accept that it was inaccurate to state that the complainant had been involved in clearing bonfire sites in East Belfast the previous July. It said that this information had been provided by a number of reliable and well-informed sources – although it had an obligation to protect these confidential sources, it said that one was from the political sphere, and the other was a former colleague of the complainant. It said that the information included in the first letter provided by the complainant was meaningless as the article did not make any claim as to the complainant’s involvement at the site named in this letter, furthermore, it was possible that the council did not issue formal contracts at all for the bonfire clearing. In response to the second letter, the publication said that it was willing to put the complainant’s position on record. Within 2 weeks of being provided with this letter, it amended its previous offer of correction to read as follows:
“We published an article on 23 December 2018 headlined “HUMILIATED & TERRIFIED” which reported on the recent attack on [name] and Ian Gordon. Our article stated that Mr Gordon’s dog had been shot during the attack – we have now been informed by Mr Gordon that, in fact, his dog was badly beaten and sadly had to be put down following the attack. The article also stated that Mr Gordon had been involved in clearing bonfire sites in East Belfast – we now understand from Belfast City Council that G.S Agencies were not involved in clearing bonfire sites or were contracted by the Council to carry out any work on its behalf within the last 3 years. We are happy to make this clear and apologise to G.S. Agencies for any distress caused”.
The publication recognised the need for due prominence, and offered to print the wording between pages 6-10. It said that pages 1-10 were the most read pages of the publication. It said that the reason for the delay in offering the second correction was due to the dispute over the accuracy of the sources in relation to the bonfire clearing. Once it had the letter from Belfast City Council, it said that it promptly offered to put the complainant’s position on record and amended its offered wording accordingly.
8. These offers of correction were declined, and the complainant indicated during the course of the complaint that he did not want his name or details of his complaint republished in a correction. He said that the apology which was offered was not expressed strongly enough as the allegation that he was involved in bonfire clearing led to increased threats against him and caused damage to his personal and professional reputation.
9. The publication did not accept that the article had inaccurately reported the complainant’s wife’s comment. In addition, it noted that the article did not state that Mr Gordon had discussed the attack with his neighbours, but said that it was not in dispute that the journalist had talked to his neighbours, and the article was entitled to report their comments. Similarly, the publication said that it was not in dispute that there had been many large cars in the complainant’s driveway – the article did not make any claim as to who owned the cars.
10. The publication did not accept that the article intruded on the complainant’s privacy. It said that it referenced the complainant’s home in general terms and took care not to publish any images of his home, or identify anyone unconnected to the events.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. 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.
v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.
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. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.
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
12. The publication said that it had relied on two sources when reporting the claim that the complainant had been involved in clearing bonfire material in East Belfast the previous July. The Committee noted that the publication believed that these would have had first-hand knowledge of these specific claims, and the publication was entitled to report these source’s claims. However, the article had presented these claims as points of fact, rather than claims, and in such circumstances there was a requirement to corroborate the information provided by the confidential sources. The publication had not taken any steps to corroborate these claims, and so there was a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article and a breach of Clause 1(i). Where the claims related to contentious and high profile activities allegedly carried out by the complainant and his business, and where the complainant was able to provide a letter from Belfast City Council which confirmed that his company had not undertaken any work on its behalf within the last three years, reporting the claims as fact represented a significant inaccuracy and a correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
13. The article had reported that the complainant’s dog had been shot; the complainant said that the dog’s autopsy report showed that it had to be put down after being badly beaten. The publication said that the claim was provided by sources, however the claim was reported as a point of fact, and so there was a requirement to corroborate this information. The publication did not obtain any corroboration in relation to these claims, and the Committee considered that reporting that the dog had been shot was a significant escalation of the violence used against the dog, and by extension, in the wider attack against the complainant and his employees. As such, there was a failure to take care over the accuracy of the claim, and a breach of 1(ii), and where the inaccuracy was significant, a requirement to correct under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
14. The Committee then considered whether the correction which was offered satisfied the obligations required under Clause 1(ii). The correction which was offered identified the article’s original claim in regards to both the complainant’s involvement in the bonfire clearing, and the circumstances of the attack on his dog. It also clearly set out the complainant’s position on the matter following receipt of a copy of the letter from Belfast City Council, and the findings of the dog’s autopsy. It also apologised to the complainant for the distress caused. The article had appeared on page 6, and so the correction must be published on page 6 as offered by the publication, or further forward. Finally, the Committee considered whether the correction was sufficiently prompt. The correction was offered within two weeks of receipt of a copy of the letter from Belfast City Council, however where the complainant had previously indicated that he was reluctant to have a correction published which named him and referenced the attack, the Committee considered that in these circumstances, 2 weeks was sufficiently prompt whilst it was established whether the complainant was willing to accept an alternative resolution to his complaint. In regard to the apology which was offered, Clause 1(ii) says that it should be published “where appropriate”. The correction apologised for any distress caused in general terms, which was appropriate, and there was no requirement under the Code for this to encompass all of the points which may have caused the complainant concern. For all of these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1(ii).
15. The Committee considered the significance of the remaining alleged inaccuracies. The Committee did not consider any inaccuracy regarding the breed of the dog to be significant to the overall story as to require correction and noted that article included a photograph of the dog. Similarly, any discrepancy between the complainant’s wife’s account of what she told the reporter and what was printed, did not give any significantly misleading impression as to her comments – the report of her comments accurately conveyed that the complainant did not want to speak to the reporter. The Committee noted that a publication can report comments made by a third party with which a person may disagree, as long as these are presented accurately, and attributed to the persons who made them. In this case, the comments had been attributed to the complainant’s neighbours and no complaint had been received challenging their accuracy. Finally, the article did not make any claim as to the ownership of the vehicles outside the complainant’s house; it was not in dispute that the cars were parked there as described. For all of these reasons, these points did not represent significant inaccuracies which would require correction, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
16. The article reported the general location of the complainant’s house and did not disclose its full address, or include details such as a house name or number. Reporting the home’s general location did not reveal anything private about the complainant. Similarly, revealing the existence of or describing the vehicles which were situated in the complainant’s driveway did not reveal anything private about him; it simply reported what was visible to any passer-by. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 2.
17. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).
Remedial action required
18. The correction which was offered was clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.
Date complaint received: 04/04/2019
Date decision issued: 08/10/2019