Ruling

05438-15 Burnett v Kent & Sussex Courier

    • Date complaint received

      5th January 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05438-15 Burnett v Kent & Sussex Courier

Summary of complaint

1. Steve Burnett complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Kent & Sussex Courier breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Revealed…the man behind the mask of the caped crusader”, published on 28 August 2015.

2. The article claimed that the newspaper had “revealed” the complainant to be Ring Pull Man, a local “caped crusader” who dresses in a Batman costume and collects ring pulls. The ring pulls are then sent to the Philippines where they are recycled, and the profit used to support the Philippine Community Fund (PCF) charity. The article included extensive quotations from an interview with Ring Pull Man (attributed to the complainant), as well as a biography of the complainant, with details of his history of drug use.

3. The complainant said that the article’s central claim was inaccurate: he was not Ring Pull Man and had not made the comments attributed to him in the article. He said that the newspaper’s claims were nothing more than guesswork. The complainant said that the newspaper could have contacted him at his place of work in order to verify whether he was Ring Pull Man, but had failed to do so. He was out of the country during the period when Ring Pull Man was reportedly sighted, and the complainant said he had a different height and build to Ring Pull Man, and explained that he has a ginger beard, whereas Ring Pull Man was clean shaven in the published photographs.

4. The complainant said that he had discovered after publication that the true Ring Pull Man was in fact known to him, and Ring Pull Man had told the complainant that he had repeatedly denied to the newspaper that he was Steve Burnett. The complainant said that the inaccuracies had been damaging to him.

5. The complainant said that the information about his history had been taken from a video he had recorded to be shown at a one-off church service. It had been uploaded to the Vimeo website by his church, and he had believed that users would need a password in order to view it, although nobody at the church could confirm this after publication of the article. The complainant was concerned that the information had been presented as if he had voluntarily provided it to the newspaper in an interview. He accepted that he had made some public disclosures about his past: he had spoken about his addiction at six or seven Men’s Breakfasts a few years previously, as well as about twice a year as part of an addition recovery course, which he runs at his church. It has been attended by approximately 150 people over two years. The complainant said that his former addiction was not commonly known in his local community, although it is known in his church community. In particular, he and his wife had not yet informed their children about this aspect of his past. The article was an unjustified intrusion into his private life, which had caused him and his family distress.

6. The newspaper said that the article was published after it had been contacted directly by Ring Pull Man. This conversation was the source of the quotations which were published and attributed to the complainant. The newspaper explained that it was its genuine belief that the complainant was Ring Pull Man: his recycling company collects ring pulls, and he is a trustee of the PCF charity. When it was put to Ring Pull Man that he was Steve Burnett, Ring Pull Man had said “I will deny it”, and that it would be disappointing for his identity to be revealed. As Ring Pull Man declined to deny being the complainant, the newspaper was satisfied, following the conversation, that the complainant was Ring Pull Man.

7. The newspaper then contacted a friend of the complainant, who runs the addiction recovery course with him, in order to corroborate the story. The friend said that he was not aware that the complainant was Ring Pull Man, and that he would contact the complainant to check that he was happy for him to speak to the newspaper. The newspaper said that in the subsequent conversation with the journalist, the complainant’s friend had not denied that the complainant was Ring Pull Man (the complainant’s friend’s recollection of the conversation was that he had either said that the complainant was not Ring Pull Man, or he had said that the complainant had told him that he was not Ring Pull Man). The newspaper said that, if the complainant had been concerned at this stage that the newspaper was going to run inaccurate information about him, then he should have drawn his concerns to the newspaper’s attention.

8. The newspaper said that information about the complainant’s former addiction was available in the public domain following his own disclosures, and had been presented in the article in a wholly positive light. It said that the complainant’s video was freely available on Vimeo, and was easily found by the journalist; it was not password protected. The complainant’s friend had also given details of the complainant’s history to the journalist directly, after the friend had spoken with the complainant.

9. The newspaper accepted, in response to IPSO’s investigation of the complaint, that it should have taken additional steps to verify whether the complainant was Ring Pull Man. It offered to publish a correction and apology on page 3 of a forthcoming edition; the article under complaint had been published on the front page, and continued on page 9. The newspaper offered the following wording:

“On 27 August 2015, the Courier published an article entitled ‘Tunbridge Wells Batman – troubled past that drives him to do good.’ In the article it was stated that the man behind the guise of Ring Pull Man was in fact Steve Burnett, a local businessman. Mr. Burnett says that although he would be proud to be Ring Pull Man and is grateful for his efforts, he is not Ring Pull Man as stated in the article. The Courier apologises for any distress caused to Mr. Burnett and his family.”

The newspaper also offered to publish a follow-up story about the charity of which the complainant is a trustee.

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.

iii) The press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 3 (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 individuals’ private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.

The public interest

4. The Regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain, or will become so.

Findings of the Committee

12. The newspaper did not know that the complainant was Ring Pull Man when it had made the decision to publish. Its belief that the complainant had adopted this alter ego was based on limited circumstantial evidence and a telephone conversation with an unidentified individual, who claimed to be Ring Pull Man, and who did not deny being the complainant when asked. The newspaper had not contacted the complainant to seek his comment on the story, and instead relied on a conversation with a friend of the complainant’s – who did not confirm whether the complainant was Ring Pull Man – as corroboration. The newspaper mistakenly believed that it had already spoken to the complainant and proceeded to publish – as fact – that it had solved the “mystery” of Ring Pull Man’s identity.

13. The Committee acknowledged the newspaper’s position that this was intended to be a positive piece about a local celebrity, and it was clear that significant confusion had arisen at the newspaper over Ring Pull Man’s identity; there was no malicious intent in naming the complainant. However, the steps taken by the newspaper to establish the accuracy of its claims were insufficient, and the Committee did not accept the newspaper’s assertion that the burden was on the complainant to proactively contact the newspaper to express concern in advance of publication; the story breached Clause 1 (i).

14. The Committee was not in a position to establish conclusively whether or not the complainant was Ring Pull Man. However, it was significantly misleading for the newspaper to claim that it had established that the complainant was Ring Pull Man when it had not done so. The offer of the correction and apology was therefore necessary in order to comply with the newspaper’s obligations under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code.

15. The Committee understood the complainant’s concern about the publication of details of his former addiction, especially given that the article had inaccurately “revealed” him to have an alter ego which he denied. However, the Committee noted that the complainant’s church had been unable to confirm that the video from which the newspaper had gathered the information had been password-protected at the time of publication, and so it appeared that the information had been easily accessible online at the time. The complainant had shared his story within his church, and it was known to that community; he had also shared it at a series of Men’s Breakfasts a few years previously. He had chosen to share his story with the intention of assisting people who might be facing their own addictions. The article under complaint had presented it in a similar way: it was an optimistic article about the manner in which the complainant had made positive changes in his life. In all the circumstances, the Committee did not consider that publication of this information represented a failure to respect his private life. There was no breach of Clause 3.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

17. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee has the power to require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is to be determined by IPSO. It may also inform the publication that further remedial action is required to ensure that the requirements of the Editors’ Code are met.

18. The Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer of a correction and apology. However, it was concerned by the serious failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, and noted that the article had been the newspaper’s lead front-page story. It had also led to the prominent publication of highly sensitive information about the complainant - although the Committee had found that the publication of this information did not represent a further breach of the Code. For these reasons the Committee decided that the offered apology was not sufficient to remedy the breach of the Editors’ Code; an adjudication was the appropriate remedy. The original article was published on the front page, and continued on page 9. The adjudication should be published in full on page 9, or further forward, and reference to it should be published on the front page. The front-page reference should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, and refer to its subject matter; the headline of the adjudication, and the wording of the front-page reference, must be agreed with IPSO in advance. The adjudication should also be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication appearing on the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived online in the usual way.

19. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows:

Following an article published in the Kent & Sussex Courier on 28 August 2015, headlined “Revealed…the man behind the mask of the caped crusader”, Steve Burnett complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Kent & Sussex Courier had published inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO upheld the complaint and has required the Courier to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.

The article claimed that the newspaper had “revealed” the complainant to be Ring Pull Man, a local “caped crusader” who anonymously collects ring pulls for charity. The article included extensive quotations from an interview with Ring Pull Man, which were attributed to the complainant.

The complainant said that the article’s central claim was inaccurate: he was not Ring Pull Man and had not made the comments attributed to him in the article. He said that the newspaper’s claims were nothing more than guesswork.

The newspaper said that the article was published after it had been contacted directly by Ring Pull Man. The newspaper explained that it was its genuine belief that the complainant was Ring Pull Man, due to circumstantial evidence. It did accept, however, that it should have taken additional steps to verify whether this was the case. It offered to publish a correction and apology in a forthcoming edition.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee said that the newspaper did not know that the complainant was Ring Pull Man when it had made the decision to publish, and it had not contacted the complainant to seek his comment on the story.

The Committee was not in a position to establish conclusively whether or not the complainant was Ring Pull Man. However, it was significantly misleading for the newspaper to claim that it had established that the complainant was Ring Pull Man - and had confirmed this with him - when it had not done so. The story breached Clause 1.

Date complaint received: 02/09/2015
Date decision issued: 05/01/2016