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:
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:
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
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.
14. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 15/11/2017
Date complaint concluded: 25/05/2018
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