Ruling

04622-15 A woman v Irish News

    • Date complaint received

      24th December 2015

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04622-15 A woman v Irish News

Summary of complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Irish News had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Police officer accused of leaking info to loyalists via social media”, published in print on 17 July 2015, and “Female officer suspended in collusion probe”, published online on 17 July 2015.

2. The article reported that an unnamed Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer based in east Belfast was being investigated for allegedly leaking information to loyalists via social media. It said that the officer in question was “currently suspended” from her post while the investigation took place. The article reported that, having been internally reprimanded for another matter, the officer allegedly responded by revealing privileged case information to loyalists. It included confirmation from the PSNI that the matter was now in the hands of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland (PONI); PONI were quoted confirming that the PNSI had asked the organisation to investigate matters related to the use of social media by one of its officers.

3. The articles were identical in print and online except for the headline.

4. The complainant, the PSNI officer in question, said that that article was inaccurate; she was not under investigation for “collusion”, she had not been internally reprimanded, and she was not suspended from duty, at the time the article was published on Friday 17 July. She said that the newspaper had been fed inaccurate information by “a convicted criminal who had a score to settle”. The complainant said that she was on annual leave when the article was published. She returned to work on Monday 20 July, three days after publication, and was only informed at that stage that she was to face further charges, including a criminal charge of perverting the course of justice; her house was searched later that day. However, she said she was not suspended from duty until Wednesday 22 July, and provided documentary evidence to prove as such.

5. The complainant also provided evidence that she spoke to a PONI investigator on 22 June about an allegation that she had breached the PSNI Code of Ethics by tweeting a loyalist despite being involved in a police investigation that concerned him; however, she denied that this allegation amounted to “collusion”, which she categorised as the criminal charge of perverting the course of justice. The complainant said that the additional allegations made against her, the search of her house by PONI, and her suspension from duty, had all come about as a direct result of the claims in the article.

6. The complainant also said that the newspaper had breached IPSO’s confidentiality policy by informing a loyalist that her house had been searched on 20 July, information that she had disclosed as part of her complaint to IPSO. She said that this information could not have reached the loyalist in question through any other means.

7. The newspaper said that its article of 17 July was substantially accurate. It had been told by a well-placed source that the complainant was to be suspended. It acknowledged the evidence provided by the complainant that she was actually suspended on 22 July, but said that her suspension was an inevitable result of an investigation into a serious breach of the PSNI Code of Ethics, and that because the complainant was on leave at the time of the article, it was likely her suspension had not taken effect until she returned to duty the following week. In any event, the newspaper said that any discrepancy as to whether the suspension began on 17 July or 22 July should be regarded as a minor detail in an otherwise accurate report on a matter of public interest. Nonetheless, the newspaper suggested that it would be willing to publish the following correction:

We reported on July 17 that an unnamed female PSNI officer had been suspended as part of the investigation by the Police Ombudsman into the improper use of social media. We have been asked to point out that she was on leave on July 17 and her suspension did not take effect until July 22.

8. The newspaper highlighted the complainant’s confirmation that she had spoken to a PONI investigator on 22 June about tweeting a loyalist, as well as the confirmation the newspaper had received from PONI pre-publication, as evidence that the complainant was under investigation for passing information to loyalists at the time the article was published. It highlighted that the nature of the tweeting allegation was not in dispute between the parties, and said that it was not inaccurate to refer to this allegation as “collusion” in the headline of the online article.

9. The newspaper denied that the only source for the story, as the complainant alleged, was the person who she was being investigated for passing information to. It also denied passing on information to that same loyalist about the search of her home, and said that that information could have been passed on by friends, colleagues or neighbours of the complainant, who would all have been aware of the investigation.

10. The complainant said that it was conjecture to suggest that the reason she was suspended on 22 July was because she had been on annual leave on 17 July. She denied that it was inevitable she would have been suspended as a result of a Code of Ethics breach; it was an internal, not criminal, matter, and several of her colleagues had not been suspended when subject to such investigations in the past.

Relevant Code Provisions

11. 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.

Findings of the Committee

12. The complainant had not denied she was under investigation by PONI; she disputed that at the time the article was published she was under investigation for “collusion”, which she characterised as the criminal charge of perverting the course of justice. However, the newspaper did not state she was facing a criminal charge; it reported that she was under investigation for “revealing information via social networking which could influence the outcome of criminal proceedings”, which was an accurate description of the allegation that was put to the complainant when she met a PONI investigator on 22 June. To characterise these allegations as “collusion” in the headline of the online article was not inaccurate; there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. The newspaper had acknowledged that it was inaccurate to report that the complainant was suspended on the date the article was published. While the print article contained only a brief mention that the complainant was “currently suspended” and had focused on the investigation, the inaccuracy featured in the headline of the online article. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the inaccuracy had caused her to be charged with additional offences, and to be suspended; however, it had to decide whether it represented a significant inaccuracy to report that she was suspended on 17 July. It took into account that the core of the information included in the article – that the complainant was under investigation for tweeting a loyalist she had been investigating – was accurate. It also noted that the complainant was suspended from duty shortly after publication, and that the complainant had not been named in the article. Overall, the inaccuracy did not create a misleading impression of the complainant's circumstances; it did not represent a significant inaccuracy, and no correction was required under Clause 1(ii). Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the offer of a correction by the newspaper.

14. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s denial that she had ever been internally reprimanded in her role. However, it noted that the article had made clear that the reprimand was an “allegation” and was for “another matter”; it did not relate to the allegation she had been tweeting information to loyalists. In such circumstances, the Committee did not establish any significant inaccuracy; the reference to the alleged earlier reprimand would not have created a misleading impression of the complainant’s current circumstances; there was no breach of Clause 1.

15. The Committee did not consider, given the public nature of the search, that the newspaper would have been the only party who would have been privy to the information that the complainant alleged had been passed to a loyalist during IPSO’s complaint’s process; it also noted the newspaper’s denial of this claim. In these circumstances, it did not consider the matter further.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 18/07/2015
Date decision issued: 09/12/2015