20095-17 Hawthorn v Irish News

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20095-17 Hawthorn v Irish News

Summary of complaint

1. Ronald Hawthorn complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Irish News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:

  • “Suspected Loughinisland massacre gunman named” published on 3 November 2017
  • “Sinn Fein and SDLP call for action after massacre film claims” published on 3 November 2017
  • “Couple at centre of allegations filmed working in Belfast” published on 4 November 2017

2. The first article reported that the complainant had been named in a major documentary as the alleged suspected gunman in the 1994 Loughinisland massacre. It reported that the complainant had been arrested at the time of the incident, but never charged. It went on to report that the complainant could not be reached for comment at his home prior to publication, and included the name of the village where the complainant lived. The article also included a still of the complainant taken from the documentary and a photograph of the exterior of his home. The photograph showed the electronic gate and intercom outside the complainant’s property, with his house in the background. This article was also published online with the same headline and was substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.

3. The second article reported that following the screening of the documentary, local politicians in Northern Ireland had called for the allegations made in the film to be investigated. It reported that the complainant had been identified in the documentary as the alleged gunman and as “Person A” allegedly identified in a Police Ombudsman report into the incident. It also reported that the complainant had been arrested in connection to the incident, but never charged and included a photograph of the complainant.

4. The third article reported that the documentary had secretly filmed the complainant and his wife at work.  It stated that the complainant was claimed to be the chief suspect in the Loughinisland massacre and included a description of the complainant’s home and his business. It also included a photograph of the complainant and one of his home.

5. The complainant said that reporting his arrest represented a breach of his privacy, as he was arrested more than 30 years ago, and had never been charged. He said that he lived in a small village, and therefore publishing a photograph of the exterior of his home and the name of the village had put his personal safety at risk. He said the photograph of his home had been shared on social media and provided examples of comments made by members of the public, which he said showed that publication of this photograph by the newspaper had further endangered his safety.

6. He also said that it was inaccurate for the articles to report the documentary’s claim that he was a suspect in relation to this incident, as he had never been charged with any offence. 

7. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the subject matter of the documentary was at the heart of a wide ranging debate in Northern Ireland relating to legacy cases and unresolved crimes during The Troubles. It said that the photograph of the complainant showed nothing private about him, but simply his appearance, which the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to. It also said that the village where the complainant lives had already been put in the public domain by the documentary. The newspaper believed that there was a strong public interest in publishing the picture of the complainant’s home, as it showed readers that the man who the documentary had named as the suspected gunman, was a successful individual of considerable means. The photograph showed only that the property was a substantial detached property with gates and an intercom, which the newspaper did not accept was private. It also alleged that another publication had also published a photograph of the complainant’s home, and did not accept that it was responsible for any comments made by members of the public on social media, some of which it noted had been posted prior to publication of the article.

8. The newspaper said that its coverage had accurately reported that the complainant had been arrested at the time but never charged. It said that this information was known locally, and had been put in the wider public domain by the documentary. It said that the coverage had not stated as fact that the complainant was responsible for the incident, but had reported on claims made by the documentary makers and others regarding the incident. It believed all the claims had accurately been attributed as such.

9. The newspaper said it had tried to contact the complainant for comment prior to publication but had not been able to reach him. It offered to put the complainant’s position on record in order to resolve his complaint.

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

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.

The public interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.

Findings of the Committee

10. The documentary related to the unsolved, historic murders of several men. The Code recognises the public interest in reporting on, and contributing to, the public debate on such matters, and also recognises the public interest in freedom of expression itself. In these circumstances, the newspaper was entitled to report on the documentary and the Committee considered that there was a strong public interest in doing so. When considering whether the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the documentary’s claims, including details of the complainant’s historic arrest and the claim that he was still a suspect, the Committee also had regard for the extent to which this information was already in the public domain. These claims had been put in the public domain by the documentary, which had been widely circulated. In these circumstances, publication of the claims by the newspaper did not amount to a breach of Clause 2.

11. The Committee also noted that the photograph of the complainant, which appeared to be a still from the documentary, showed only his appearance and likeness in relation to the articles, and did not show him engaged in any private activity. In these circumstances, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to this. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

12. The Committee recognised that, by publishing the name of the complainant’s village and a photograph of his house, some readers may have been able to identify where the complainant lived. However, except in exceptional circumstances, this is not information in respect of which an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy; an individual’s address is often identifiable from information which is publicly available. In this instance, whilst noting the complainant’s concerns, there was not a sufficient basis to find that there were exceptional circumstances which gave rise to a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to information which identified where the complainant lived. In these circumstances, there was no breach of Clause 2.

13. The articles had accurately reported that the complainant had been arrested at the time of the incident, but never charged. The articles did not reported as fact that he had been responsible for the attack, but reported claims made by the documentary and wider comments made by politicians in response to it. It was not in dispute that the complainant had been arrested and released without charge, and that it had been claimed by the documentary that the complainant remained a suspect in the unsolved murders. The newspaper was entitled to report this. Also, all the articles had made clear the nature of these claims, and had accurately attributed them to the sources of the allegations. The articles were not inaccurate and there was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

14.  The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

15. N/A

Date complaint received: 15/11/2017

Date complaint concluded: 25/05/2018 

 

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