Ruling

05858-15 An individual v Irish News

    • Date complaint received

      23rd June 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05858-15 An individual v Irish News

Summary of complaint

1. An individual complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Irish News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Ex-IRA killer is Davison murder suspect”, published on 20 May 2015, and in an article headlined “Former Provos claim witness told them McGuigan was at scene of Davison murder” published on 18 August 2015.

2. The 20 May article reported on the killing of Gerard “Jock” Davison in Belfast. It stated that it was believed that a “former IRA killer” – who was not named – had shot Mr Davison. It included a number of details about how the shooting had been carried out, and said the gunman had “local knowledge”. It also stated that the suspect was “once a high-ranking republican … in his early fifties [who] was jailed for the attempted murder of a soldier during the Troubles”, and that previously, “following an altercation with Davison … he was shot in both legs in a paramilitary-style attack and expelled from the IRA”.

3. The 18 August article reported on the killing of Kevin McGuigan. It stated that Mr McGuigan had been “shot dead by alleged former IRA members after eyewitnesses told republicans he was seen leaving the location of the Gerard … Davison attack”. It explained that Mr McGuigan’s “murder came after he was warned by police that his life was in danger from republicans amid speculation he was involved in the shooting of former IRA commander Davison”. It also noted that “while [Mr McGuigan] was widely named as the leading suspect in the killing, the PSNI said they spoke to him in the wake of the murder of the IRA commander only as a witness”, and that “Mr McGuigan had also denied involvement in the murder”.

4. The complainant said that while the 20 May article had not named Mr McGuigan, it had contained a number of details which had identified him to the local community as the subject of the story. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to suggest that Mr McGuigan had been a suspect. On 29 May, the PSNI had confirmed that he was not considered a suspect, and he was never arrested by the police in connection with the murder. The complainant promptly informed the newspaper of this position, but it had repeated the inaccurate claim in its article of 18 August.

5. In addition, the complainant said that it was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 for the 20 May article to describe Mr McGuigan as a “former IRA killer”, given that he had never been convicted of any killings.

6. The complainant considered that the publication of details that identified Kevin McGuigan had represented an intrusion into his family life and health in breach of Clause 3; the article had put his life in danger and had “ultimately resulted in his death”.

7. The complainant said that on 16 May, the police had visited Mr McGuigan’s address, which was home to two others also named Kevin McGuigan. The police had asked the deceased to pass on a verbal message, which was “republicans believed to be carrying out some form of attack upon Kevin McGuigan of 5 Comber Court”. On 19 May, the police visited again, but made no mention of any threat to Mr McGuigan’s safety. On 25 May, five days after the article’s publication, the police visited again, and this time confirmed that the threat concerned Mr McGuigan Senior, and that republicans intended to take retaliatory action against him.

8. The newspaper said that the 20 May article had not suggested that Mr McGuigan had been officially regarded as a suspect by the police. The article had made clear that Mr McGuigan had previously fallen out of favour with the IRA, and said that he had been subject to a paramilitary-style attack after an altercation with Mr Davison. When considered in this context, the reference to the gunman as a “suspect” related to the threat from the IRA that he would be under following Mr Davison’s death. The newspaper noted that on 29 May, the complainant’s solicitor had informed it that the police had said that Mr McGuigan was not a suspect in Mr Davison’s murder “at this point in time”. It considered that it had never said otherwise, but that the police’s position on this matter had been clearly subject to change.

9. The newspaper also argued that it was not misleading for its 18 August article to suggest that Mr McGuigan had been a suspect in the killing of Mr Davison, particularly given that it had been widely reported by many news outlets that Mr McGuigan had been killed in relation to Mr Davison’s murder.

10. The newspaper said that before it published the 20 May article, it had been informed by reliable sources that the police had warned Mr McGuigan about threats to his life following the murder of Mr Davison. It said it was well known and not disputed that Mr McGuigan had been involved in a long-running dispute with Mr Davison. It said the complainant’s contention that its article had prompted Mr McGuigan’s murder was entirely without foundation. The newspaper noted that it had not named Mr McGuigan in the 20 May coverage in order to avoid putting any lives at risk.

11. The newspaper said that while the article had made reference to the gunman as a “former IRA killer”, it had not stated that he had ever been convicted of murder. It noted that the complainant did not dispute that Mr McGuigan had a long association with the IRA. It said that the terrorist organisation was estimated to have been responsible for around 1,800 killings, and it was accepted that active IRA membership had involved participation in shootings and bombings. In addition, Mr McGuigan had served a significant jail sentence for kidnapping a Territorial Army solider, and was involved in the leadership of the Direct Action Against Drugs group (DAAD), which was responsible for murdering at least 15 alleged drug dealers. The reference to the “former IRA killer” was therefore not misleading.

12. Furthermore, the newspaper argued that reporting on the murders of Mr Davison and Mr McGuigan was in the public interest. It noted that the government of Northern Ireland was still vulnerable to perceived and actual instances of paramilitary activity. In this instance, the deaths of Mr Davison and Mr McGuigan had contributed to the withdrawal of the Ulster Unionist Party from the Northern Ireland Executive.

Relevant Code provisions

13. 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.

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 individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent. Note - Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.                                    

Findings of the Committee

14.  The violent deaths of Mr Davison and Mr McGuigan were matters of important public interest in Northern Ireland, where Mr McGuigan’s death – in particular – had significant political ramifications. These were major news events, and the newspaper was entitled to report developments in the story, as well as reaction to the deaths from within the police and republican community.

15. The 20 May article had not named Mr McGuigan, but it had included details that might have led readers to identify him as the individual to which the coverage related. The Committee proceeded with its consideration of the complaint on that basis.

16. Before the publication of the 20 May article, the newspaper had been informed by confidential sources in the republican community that, following Mr Davison’s murder, republicans had suspected that Mr McGuigan had been involved. In addition, sources had said that the police had warned Mr McGuigan about a possible threat from the republican community. The complainant had also confirmed that on 16 May, the police had visited Mr McGuigan’s home, and had told him that republicans were planning an attack on a man of his name at his address.

17. The 20 May article had not stated that the individual at the centre of its claims was an official police suspect. It had referred to him as a “suspect”, and included details of his dispute with members of the IRA, including Mr Davison. Given the information provided by the newspaper’s sources in the police and in the republican community, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly misleading for the newspaper to refer to him as a “suspect” in the murder investigation. The fact that these allegations were not attributed to any one source did not render them significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. Similarly, the newspaper had not stated that Mr McGuigan had been an official police suspect in its article of 18 August. It had made clear that he had been interviewed by police as a witness, and included his denial of any involvement in Mr Davison’s murder. In the full context, the reference to him as a “suspect” did not breach Clause 1. 

19. It was accepted that Mr McGuigan had not been convicted of any murder. Given the responses provided by the complainant's representative, the Committee also noted that there was a conflict between the parties as to whether claims of his involvement in the leadership of the Direct Action Against Drugs group, a group that had been responsible for a series of murders, had been substantiated. However, it was not in dispute that Mr McGuigan had been a prominent figure within paramilitary organisations, including the IRA, and had been given a lengthy prison sentence for his involvement in the brutal kidnapping of a Territorial Army soldier.  In the context of this conviction and the wider allegations about his activities and associations, it was not significantly misleading for the newspaper to characterise him as “ex-IRA killer”. The article had not stated that he had been convicted of murder. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. While the Committee understood the complainant’s concern that the 20 May article had put Mr McGuigan’s life in danger, Mr McGuigan had been aware of threats to his life before its publication. The publication of the story did not represent a failure to respect his private life in breach of Clause 3.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action

22. NA


Date complaint received: 18 September 2015
Date complaint concluded: 18 April 2016