Decision of the Complaints Committee 20099-17 Hawthorn v The Impartial Reporter
Summary of Complaint
1. Ronald Hawthorn complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Impartial Reporter breached Clause 1(Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “Decision to name Loughinisland suspects ‘not taken lightly’ by Fermanagh journalist” published on 11 November 2017.
2. The article reported that a new documentary examining the unsolved, historic murders of six Catholic men in Loughinisland by a Loyalist paramilitary group had been released. It stated that the documentary had named a number of individuals as the “chief suspects” in the case, after the documentary makers had gained access to a leaked Police Ombudsman review of the police investigation. It reported that the complainant had been arrested after the attack but never charged.
3. The article was also published online, and was substantially the same as the print article.
4. The complainant said that reporting that he had been arrested but never charged in relation to this matter, more than twenty years ago, was a breach of his privacy. He said that there was a long standing practice that suspects were not named by the media unless charged, and believed that the press coverage relating to him amounted to a “trial by the media.” He said this reporting had put his personal safety at risk.
5. He also said that the article reported claims made in the documentary, namely that he was a suspect in the Loughinisland investigation, which he said was inaccurate and without evidence. He said this allegation was based on highly sensitive and confidential documents that had allegedly been stolen, and that there was now an ongoing police investigation into this.
6. The complainant also raised concern that the article had only named him in relation to this matter, and none of the other alleged suspects named in the documentary. He also provided examples of other articles published by the newspaper which did not name specific individuals when reporting that someone had been arrested on suspicion of a crime.
7. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that there was an overwhelming public interest in examining the unanswered questions behind the atrocities of The Troubles. It said that the documentary was the latest in a long line of journalistic investigations in Northern Ireland that named suspects in high profile terrorist cases and said it was a fundamental aspect of journalism in the region, which had previously led to the trial and conviction of individuals named as suspects in unsolved cases.
8. It said the article was a review of the new documentary referenced in the article, and that the complainant’s name and his arrest in connection to this incident had been put in the public domain by the documentary, which it said had been screened widely in Northern Ireland and mainland UK. It said even if the complainant believed that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to his arrest, the newspaper believed that the public’s right to know details of this historic incident was, in this instance, paramount.
9. It said that the documentary had put a significant amount of information in the public domain about the complainant, and that allegedly, as reported in the documentary, a 2008 Police Ombudsman document had named the complainant as the “main suspect.”
10. The newspaper maintained that the article had accurately reported that although he had been arrested, the complainant had never been charged in relation to this matter. It said producers of the documentary had contacted the complainant for a response to the allegations prior to publication, but had received no response. The newspaper said it was happy to out the complainant’s position in relation to these allegations on record if he wished to do so.
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.
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
12. 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.
13. 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. Where the article had made clear the nature of these claims, and had accurately attributed them to the documentary, the article was not inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
14. The complainant’s concern that the newspaper had not named the other individuals suspected of criminal involvement, was an issue of selection. The selection of material for publication is a matter of editorial discretion, and in this instance, the fact that the newspaper did not routinely name individuals suspected of crimes, and had not named other individuals allegedly identified in the documentary, did not make the article inaccurate. The article also made clear that more than one person had been named by the documentary, and therefore did not create a misleading or inaccurate impression. There was no breach of Clause 1.
15. The complaint was not upheld
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 23/11/2017
Date decision issued: 25/05/2018Back to ruling listing