Ruling

00675-15 Moloney v Irish News

    • Date complaint received

      12th June 2015

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

·  Decision of the Complaints Committee 00675-15 Moloney v Irish News

Summary of complaint 

1. Ed Moloney, acting on his own behalf and on behalf of Winston Rea, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Irish News had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined “Boston Tapes loyalist being investigated over murder” and “Feud-related killing details recorded”, published on 7 February 2015, and “Loyalist Rea secures court order in battle over tapes”, published on 11 February 2015. 

2. The articles published on 7 February reported that Winston Rea, a former loyalist paramilitary leader, had sought to stop police gaining access to interviews he had recorded as part of the Boston College oral history project, in which, the article claimed, he had given details relating to the 1999 murder of fellow loyalist Frankie Curry. The third article, which reported that Mr Rea had secured an order temporarily preventing seizure of the tapes, included a quotation attributed to the complainant stating that Mr Rea had not discussed the death of Mr Curry or indeed mentioned him during his interview. 

3. The complainant said the newspaper had inaccurately reported that Mr Rea had given details relating to the murder of Frankie Curry during his Boston College interview; although he was unable to describe Mr Rea’s testimony he had read the interviews in their entirety and was able to confirm that there was no mention of this murder. He said the reporter had made no attempt to contact him to verify the information before publication. He also noted that no attempt had been made to contact his former colleague, Wilson McArthur, who had conducted the interviews with Mr Rea and had also provided written confirmation that Mr Curry’s murder had not been mentioned in any of the interviews. He said the sources relied upon by the reporter could not have known what was contained on the tapes. 

4. The complainant also expressed concern that the inaccurate articles had been published on the eve of a court hearing in which Mr Rea had sought to challenge the Police Services of Northern Ireland’s claim that seizure of the recordings was justified, and therefore the articles could have influenced the outcome. 

5. The complainant had sent the newspaper a letter for publication in which he had expressed his concerns about the articles, but it had not been published in full. Instead, the newspaper had quoted from the letter at the end of the follow-up piece, but had not published his criticism of the reporter, or his concerns about the potential effect the reporting had had on the court case. 

6. The newspaper said reliable, confidential, sources within the paramilitary organisation of which Mr Rea had been a member had informed its reporter that the murder of Mr Curry had been a topic of discussion, although it noted that Mr Rea may have declined to identify himself or Mr Curry by name during the interview. It disputed the complainant’s position that only three people had known the contents of the tapes. Its confidential sources had indicated that this matter was a subject of acute concern to Mr Rea’s former associates, and had been discussed at meetings of senior-level former paramilitaries. 

7. The newspaper said information it had received from confidential sources had been supported by that provided in Belfast’s High Court by barristers representing the Public Prosecution Service and the PSNI. It said a lawyer, acting on behalf of the PSNI, had told the High Court that the tapes contained “highly specific information in respect of the potential alleged involvement of [Mr Rea] in a series of incidents from the 1970s through to the late 1990s”. The newspaper considered that the reference to the “late 1990s” was crucial. It said Mr Rea had been based in the loyalist Shankill district of Belfast and would have been aware of all UVF activity in the area; the only murder that had taken place in Shankill in the late 1990s had been that of Frankie Curry. It considered that any information implicating others in this crime was of particular concern to Mr Rea and his associates because it had taken place after the Good Friday agreement; therefore anyone convicted in relation to it would have to serve a full jail term, as well as any outstanding terms from previous convictions. 

8. The newspaper provided statements from two other Belfast-based newspapers, which stated that they had independently researched the matter and had separately concluded that the police investigation included the murder of Frankie Curry. This supported its position that its sources were reliable.

9. The newspaper said it had not contacted the complainant before publication because the article had not referred to him.  Furthermore, he had not worked for the Boston College Project for almost ten years, and he was not its spokesperson. As the article had not mentioned the complainant, he was not entitled to a right of reply; instead, the newspaper had chosen to publish his statement regarding the contents of the tapes. It noted that Boston College had not made a complaint about the coverage. 

Relevant Code Provisions

10. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance. 

Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) 

A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for. 

Clause 14 (Confidential sources)

Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information. 

Findings of the Committee

11. The reports centred on the legal challenges brought by Mr Rea to oppose the PSNI’s attempt to gain access to the tapes. They explained that the PSNI had stated that it was seeking access to the tapes in order to investigate crimes, including murder, which had taken place up to the late 1990s. It was apparent from the context of the report that the precise contents of the tapes had not been established. The tapes themselves remained secret, and their contents could not therefore be verified by the newspaper. 

12. The allegation that Mr Rea had referred to the murder of Mr Curry in his interview was presented as the newspaper’s “understanding” of the tape’s contents, based on information from its sources – who it was obliged to protect under the Code. The newspaper believed the information it had been given was supported by its understanding of Mr Rea’s position, and the incidents from the late 1990’s which the police investigation most likely related to. In light of this the newspaper’s reliance on information supplied by confidential sources had not represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the information. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i). 

13. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that Mr Rea had not referred to Frankie Curry’s murder during his interviews. However, due to confidentiality agreements, the complainant had been unable to disclose what Mr Rea had spoken about during the recordings. As it was not possible to confirm what information had been disclosed, the Committee was unable to establish that the newspaper had created a significantly misleading impression of the tapes’ contents. In the absence of any failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, the complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld.  Nevertheless, it welcomed the newspaper’s decision to make the complainant’s position clear in a follow-up article. 

14. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper’s decision not to publish his letter in full represented a breach of Clause 2. However, Clause 2 was designed to afford individuals the opportunity to respond to published inaccuracies when reasonably called for. The Committee had not established the existence of inaccuracies such as to have engaged the terms of the Clause. 

15. Finally, the Committee noted, with some concern, that the newspaper had failed to engage with the complainant after the complaint was referred to it by IPSO. It took the opportunity to remind the publication of its obligation under the Code to co-operate swiftly with the regulator in the resolution of complaints. This includes during the referral period. 

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A 

Date complaint received: 12/02/2015

Date decision issued: 12/06/2015