Decision of the Complaints Committee 20315-17 Hawthorn v The Belfast Telegraph
Summary of Complaint
1. Ronald Hawthorn complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Belfast Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:
· “PSNI ‘would do better to catch killers than investigating leaking of pub massacre file’” published on 4 November 2017.
· “I want to meet men accused of carrying out Loughinisland gun massacre says survivor” published on 4 November 2017.
2. The first article reported that following the release of a documentary examining the historic, unsolved murder of six Catholic men by Loyalist paramilitaries, the families’ of the victims had called for the PSNI to investigate the alleged suspects, named in the documentary. It reported that the complainant had been named for the first time by the documentary as the alleged suspected gunman in the attack and that the complainant had been arrested following the attack, but never charged. The article was also published online in substantially the same format as the print article.
3. The second article reported that a man who had been shot in the incident had made a plea for those suspected of the killings to come forward and meet with him. It went on to report that the complainant had been named for the first time by the recent documentary as the suspected gunman, and had been arrested but never charged. The article also contained a photograph of the complainant. The online article was substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.
4. The complainant said that publishing these unfounded claims was a breach of his privacy and had put his safety at risk. He also said that publishing that he had been arrested but not charged more than 20 years ago, as well as his photograph unjustifiably breached his privacy.
5. He said that it was inaccurate to refer to him as a suspect as this information was came from the recently released documentary, which he said was based on conjecture, hearsay, and leaked sensitive information rather than evidence.
6. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that the documentary referred to in both articles had been widely broadcast and distributed at cinemas throughout the UK and Ireland, and had put all the information contained in the article in the public domain. It said that there was extensive public interest in this unsolved incident from The Troubles, which it said was evident by the amount of media coverage the documentary had received.
7. It said that in these circumstances, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy about any of the information about him contained in the articles, including the fact of his arrest and his appearance. It said that the articles made clear that he had been arrested but never charged and offered the complainant the opportunity to be interviewed and to put forward his response to the allegations made in the film.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. 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
9. The information about the complainant’s historic arrest and the claim that he remained a suspect had come from the documentary, which 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, the Committee 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.
10. 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. It did not show him engaged in any private activity. In these circumstances, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of this. There was no breach of Clause 2.
11. The complainant contested the accuracy of the information included in the documentary. However the newspaper had taken care to make clear that it was reporting on the claims made in the documentary, including the claim the complainant was the alleged gunman, and did not report this statement as fact. The newspaper had accurately reported the claims made in the documentary and there was no breach of Clause 1.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 23/11/2017
Date decision issued: 25/05/2018
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