Ruling

08062-18 Gordon v Sunday Life

    • Date complaint received

      18th April 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaint Committee 08062-18 Gordon v Sunday Life

Summary of complaint

1. John Gordon complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Life breached Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in conduct relating to an article headlined “Eviction Row boss provides security for Feile”, published on 23 December 2018.

2. The complainant is the owner of a Northern Irish private security company. In December 2018, the company carried out a controversial eviction in Roscommon, Republic of Ireland. Following the eviction of the tenants, the complainant and his staff were reportedly attacked by 20 armed persons in an attempt to reclaim the property. Several employees and their dogs were allegedly beaten and hospitalised following the attack, and their vehicles were destroyed. This story was widely reported in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and footage of the incident was widely circulated.

3. The complainant contacted IPSO, as he said he did not want to comment to the media about the incident. A private advisory notice was circulated on his behalf. This notice stated that the complainant and his family did not intend to make any comment about the recent Roscommon eviction, and requested that journalists desist from contacting them or attending at their home. The day after this notice was issued, the complainant received an email to his business address from a journalist acting on behalf of the publication. The complainant said that this behaviour was in breach of his request to desist, and thus amounted to harassment as defined by the terms of Clause 3.

4. This email related to the article headlined above, which reported that the complainant’s company had been subcontracted to provide security for several high profile events in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, whilst also being involved in controversial evictions, the most recent of which had prompted an inquiry by the Republic of Ireland’s Private Security Authority (PSA). The email asked the complainant for his confirmation that he had been subcontracted to work at the events, and whether he had made the companies which employed his firm aware that it was now being investigated by the PSA as a result of the incident in Roscommon. The email acknowledged the existence of the recent IPSO Private Advisory Notice, and said that given the nature of the story, there was a public interest in giving the complainant the opportunity to respond.

5. The publication accepted that it had engaged in contact which engaged the terms of Clause 3(ii) but denied that there was any breach of the Code. It said that as the incident in Roscommon had been widely reported and was a matter of public debate, there was therefore a public interest in reporting the fact that the complainant’s business, which was now also under investigation by authorities in the Republic of Ireland and is the subject of various other serious concerns about its conduct, had also provided security for high-profile public events and had links to other well-known companies. These points had not previously been reported on or addressed by the complainant, and as such, the publication said that it was appropriate and diligent to give the complainant a right of reply to the claims. It also noted that the Private Advisory Notice only referred to contacts regarding the Roscommon eviction incident, not contacts regarding all future stories about the complainant.

6. The publication said that it gave careful consideration to the obligations of the Editors’ Code, and had called IPSO to ask for advice on the matter before deciding to contact the complainant. It noted that, while IPSO cannot advise a specific course of action, the publication had been reminded of its obligations under the Code. This advice was taken into account. It said that the action taken by the journalist was proportionate to the public interest in contacting the complainant. It noted that it had not telephoned or visited the home of the complainant, but had instead sent an email to the complainant’s publicly available business email. It said that this was not intimidating or persistent. It said that it was necessary to offer the complainant the opportunity to comment, and this comment could not have been obtained by any other means apart from contacting the complainant; the complainant had not made any public statement on the new claims, and his views on the subject were unknown at the time of publication.  It said that going to a subject for comment was a pillar of responsible journalism, and in this case, was consistent with good journalistic practice.

Relevant Code Provisions

7. Clause 3 (Harassment)*

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii)  Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

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

8. Private advisory notices act as a general request to desist, notifying several publication at once that an individual does not wish to be contacted by the media in relation to a particular story. An approach by a journalist after such a notice has been issued may constitute a failure to respect a request to desist, in breach of Clause 3. However, the notices do not act as blanket bans on all contact from journalists, or prohibit the printing of future stories about a subject

9. In assessing whether there had been a breach of the Code in this case, the Committee considered the terms of the advisory notice, the nature of the approach, and the public interest.

10. The request for comment related to new, distinct claims. The publication had not asked the complainant for comment on the eviction incident and the journalist was seeking the complainant’s response to serious claims. It was enquiring whether those who contracted his services knew that his company provided security to high profile public events whilst also being allegedly involved in controversial evictions, one of which had resulted in an investigation by the PSA. It was important that the complainant was given the opportunity to respond to these claims, in line with the publication’s obligations to take care over the accuracy of published material under the terms of 1(i).

11. The publication had clearly considered the public interest in making the approach, prior to publication, and the justification for the approach was set out in the email seeking comment. The approach took the form of a polite email about the complainant’s business, sent to his professional email address. Any intrusion from such an approach was limited, and the approach was justified by the public interest identified by the publication. In the full circumstances, there was no breach of Clause 3.

Conclusion

24. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

25. N/A

Date complaint received: 27/12/2018

Date decision issued: 29/03/2019