Decision of the Complaints Committee 14380-16 Easton v Sunday Life
Summary of Complaint
1. Alex Easton complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Life breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in relation to a number of articles, headlined:
1. “UDA boss Dee Stitt's charity given £900,000 to build sports facility in Bangor”, published on 8 March 2016 (online);
2. “DUP man hails UDA gunman as 'outstanding' in leaked letter” published on 7 June 2016 (online);
3. “UDA BOSS STITT'S 1.7M REASONS TO BE HAPPY” published 2 October 2016 (print);
4. “UDA'S PEACE OF ACTION” published 9 October 2016 (print);
5. “Loyalist boss faces calls to quit charity” published 23 October 2016 (print);
6. “STITT'S CV 'LIES' OUTED BY HIS FIRM” published 27 November 2016 (print).
2. The articles reported on a public grant that a charity had received for the building of a new sports facility. They reported that a named individual, Dee Stitt, was involved in the charity and that he was alleged to be a former leader of the north Down Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. The articles reported that the complainant, who is a Northern Ireland Unionist politician, had written Mr Stitt a reference, in support of his application to be a member of a South Eastern Steering Group.
3. Adopting the numbering above, the first article reported on the grant which Mr Stitt had received. It said that “the funding has also been endorsed by DUP North Down MLA Alex Easton…but who has told Sunday Life he did not know Dee Stitt is a UDA boss”.
4. The second article reported that the complainant had provided a reference to Mr Stitt, in support of his application for a position on a South-Eastern Steering Group. The article quoted the reference the complainant had written in 2012: “I believe that David would be an outstanding member of the steering group if selected”. It said “a self-confessed UDA boss was described as ‘outstanding’ by a DUP politician in a letter to senior civil servants. North Down MLA Alex Easton’s gushing praise for David ‘Dee’ Stitt was contained in a reference that accompanied the convicted terrorist gunman’s application for a position on the Social Investment Fund’s (SIF) South-Eastern Steering Group.”
5. It continued by reporting that “well placed sources told Sunday Life that Alex Easton’s reference was “key” to Stitt winning a seat on the eight-strong SIF steering group”. The article also said that “when Sunday Life challenged Mr Easton about his links to Dee Stitt earlier this year he said he did not know he was a paramilitary”. It also included a photograph of the complainant, making a gesture with his thumb up.
6. The third article reported that Mr Stitt had “secured his position on the powerful quango after producing a reference from DUP MLA Alex Easton, who described the UDA boss as “outstanding”.
7. The fourth article reported that the complainant “wrote a reference for feared Bangor UDA leader Dee Stitt in support of his application to join the SIF south-east steering group. The Politician described the convicted gunman, who leads a gang of drug dealers and racketeers, as “outstanding”, although he later said he knew nothing of his paramilitary background”.
8. The fifth article reported that “the party’s MLA Alex Easton wrote a reference describing [Mr Stitt] as “outstanding’”.
9. The sixth article reported “The UDA chief- who served a five-year prison sentence for robbery and possessing firearms- backs up his South-Eastern steering group application with numerous references. As Sunday Life revealed last June, one of them is from DUP North Down MLA Alex Easton who described Stitt as “outstanding”. The politician later denied knowing the 45-year old was a paramilitary leader at the time he wrote the endorsement”. It also included a photograph of the complainant, making a gesture with his thumb up.
10. The complainant expressed concern that by reporting the word “outstanding” in isolation, without the context of the sentence from the reference in which it appeared, the articles were misleading in their portrayal of his views on Mr Stitt. He said the use of the word “outstanding” in the reference, meant only that he considered that if appointed, Mr Stitt would make an outstanding contribution to the work of the SE Area Steering Group, because of his work in community development and transformation.
11. The complainant said that he had been approached by the newspaper for comment on his knowledge of Mr Stitt’s past. He said that he had told the newspaper that he was unable to comment, because he had not heard the radio interview in which Mr Stitt had allegedly confessed to being a UDA member. The complainant said the first, fourth and sixth articles inaccurately reported what he had told the newspaper, because they did not make clear that he was unaware of Mr Stitt’s past, because he had not heard the radio interview.
12. The complainant said that he did not play a role in appointing Mr Stitt to the Steering Group, therefore the third article inaccurately reported that Mr Stitt’s position on the group was “secured” following the submission of the reference. He also said that the second article inaccurately reported that the reference he wrote had been “key” to his appointment. He relied on a statement from the Special Adviser in the Office of the First Minister, at the time the SIF Steering Groups were established, which stated: “the reference from Mr Alex Easton did not play any significant role in the decision to appoint Mr Stitt to the steering group”.
13. The complainant said that by including an image of him with his thumbs up, alongside an article which criticised the activities of Mr Stitt, the second and sixth articles were misleading because they suggested that he endorsed Mr Stitt’s activities.
14. The newspaper did not accept any breach of the Code. It did not accept the complainant’s position that he had said that Mr Stitt would make an “outstanding contribution” to the Steering Group. It said that the reference, a copy of which was provided to IPSO, had said that the complainant was a “proactive member” of the community and “his work on the ground means he is well known and highly regarded right across all community sectors”, before going on to say that Mr Stitt would be an “outstanding member” of the Group. In those circumstances the newspaper said that the complainant had given Mr Stitt a “ringing endorsement” and the use of the word “outstanding” in isolation, was not misleading.
15. The newspaper said that the first, fourth and sixth articles reported that the complainant was unaware of Mr Stitt’s UDA past. This accurately reflected the complainant’s position on the matter.
16. It said that it was not misleading to use an image of the complainant, gesturing with his thumbs up, given the newspaper’s position that the reference had been a ringing endorsement of Mr Stitt.
17. The newspaper said that given that Mr Stitt had required references for his application, it was not inaccurate for the articles to suggest that Mr Stitt had secured his application after the reference was supplied. The newspaper noted that there was a difference between the statement from the Special Advisor, and what a source had claimed. The newspaper offered to publish a clarification on this point which would include the statement from the Special Advisor.
Relevant Code Provisions
Clause 1 (Accuracy)
18. 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.
Findings of the Committee
19. The complainant had provided a reference which stated that Mr Stitt would be an outstanding member of the South-Eastern Steering Group if appointed. Although this was specifically with reference to the role, it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading for the articles to report that the complainant had described the applicant as “outstanding”. The Committee did not consider that the reporting of the word “outstanding” in isolation, inaccurately reflected the supportive reference that the complainant had provided. The Committee further noted that the second article, which focused predominantly on the reference the complainant had written, had included the full quotation.
20. In those circumstances the inclusion of an image of the complainant, in the second and sixth article, gesturing with his thumbs up, was not misleading.
21. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that he had not heard the radio interview in which Mr Stitt had allegedly confessed to being a UDA member, and therefore he had been unaware of Mr Stitt’s past when the newspaper had approached him for comment. In circumstances where the first and sixth articles reported that the complainant had said that he did not know that Mr Stitt was allegedly a former UDA boss, the Committee did not consider that the articles inaccurately reflected the complainant’s position.
22. Any inaccuracy relating to whether the reference was “key” to the appointment, was not significant, in circumstances where the complainant had provided a supportive reference which recommended Mr Stitt’s appointment, and the submission of the reference formed part of the application process. It was not inaccurate to report that Mr Stitt’s appointment had been secured following its submission. There was no breach of Clause 1.
23. The complaint was not upheld.
Date complaint received: 28/12/2016
Date decision issued: 10/05/2017
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