Ruling

20096-17 Hawthorn v Sunday Life

    • Date complaint received

      14th June 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20096-17 Hawthorn v Sunday Life 

Summary of Complaint 

1.  Ronald Hawthorn complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Life breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Loughinisland massacre suspect’s silence is deafening” published on 5 November 2017.” 

2.  The article reported that a recently released documentary had named the complainant as the suspected gunman in the 1994 Loughinisland massacre, where Loyalist paramilitaries killed 6 Catholic men. It stated that a journalist from the newspaper had confronted the complainant at his home, with the strapline of the article stating, “We confront businessman over explosive allegations” and the article went on to report that “he stopped talking as soon as our reporter mentioned Loughinisland.” It also included quotations from a former police officer who had allegedly interviewed the complainant at the time of his arrest shortly after the incident. The article also included a photograph of the complainant. 

3.  The complainant said that the article was inaccurate, as he had never been charged or convicted in relation to the attack and therefore it was inaccurate to refer to him as the suspected gunman. He said that this information came from the documentary referred to in the article, which he said was based on leaked security documents, here say and conjecture. He also said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that the journalist had spoken to him at his home, as he said he had not been at home at this time, and had not spoken to any reporter. 

4.  He also said that publishing a photograph of him, and reporting the information from the documentary, particularly the fact of his arrest, represented a breach of his privacy and put his safety at risk. 

5.  The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that the article was a report of the recently released documentary, which it said was accurately reported. It said that all the information included in the article came from the documentary which had been widely broadcast and distributed throughout the UK and Ireland. The newspaper said that the claim that the complainant was the alleged suspected gunman had been put in the public domain by the documentary, which the article had made clear. 

6.  It also said that in these circumstances, all the information contained in the article was already in the public domain and therefore the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation in relation to his arrest and the claims of his alleged involvement. It also maintained that the photograph of the complainant did not show anything private in nature about him, only his likeness in relation to the article. Further, it said that there was extensive public interest in this unsolved incident from The Troubles, which it said was evident by the amount of media coverage the documentary had received in many different publications. 

7.  It also explained why the article had reported that it had spoken to the complainant about the claims made in the documentary. The newspaper said that their journalist had made contact with a man through the intercom at the house, who he believed to be the complainant and provided a recording of the conversation. In the recording, the journalist had asked to speak to the complainant and said that he wanted to discuss the allegations made in the documentary. The man did not confirm who he was and hung up.  The newspaper said that the reporter believed this person to be the complainant as the reporter had seen a man, whom he believed to be the complainant, drive a van past him when he standing outside the house. The journalist had recently watched the documentary and believed the man driving the van looked like the complainant, who had been shown in the film.  The reporter and a photographer alleged that they could then see a man who he believed to be the van driver in the house and rang the intercom. However, when the complainant made clear he had not been home at this time, it offered to publish the following clarification on page four:

“Our article ‘Loughinisland massacre suspect’s silence is deafening’ published on 5 November 2017 reported that we had confronted Ronald Hawthorn at his home and had asked him questions about his possible involvement, which he had refused to answer. While our reporter believed the man at the address to be Mr Hawthorn, he has informed us he was not at home at this time.”

Relevant Code Provisions 

8. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

i)  The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and- where appropriate- an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator. 

Clause 2 (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. 

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 

9.    Shortly after watching the documentary, the reporter had gone to the complainant’s home to attempt to speak to him and get an on the record comment. The journalist had assumed that he was speaking to the complainant as he had seen a man that he believed to be the complainant pass him on the road and the person he had spoken to on the intercom of the complainant’s home had not contradicted his assumption that he was speaking to Mr Hawthorn. In these circumstances, there was no failure by the newspaper to take care over the claim that it had spoken to the complainant, and there was no breach of Clause 1(i). 

10. Regardless, the complainant alleged that he had not been at home at the time, and said the reporter must have spoken to someone else on the intercom. While the complainant was not able to name the individual that had actually spoken to the journalist, reporting that the newspaper had spoken to the complainant, when he denied that this was the case, person represented a significant inaccuracy, as it suggested that the complainant had chosen to avoid answering the journalist’s questions about the allegations made in the documentary. This inaccuracy required correction to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). The newspaper had promptly offered to publish a correction which identified the original inaccuracy, made the correct position clear and was sufficiently prominent. This proposed correction met the newspaper’s obligations under the Code and should now be published. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii) on this point. 

10. The information about the complainant’s historic arrest and the claim that he was the alleged suspected gunman had come from the documentary, which related to the unsolved, historic murders of several men. The Code recognises the public interest in reporting on, and contributing to, the public debate on such matters, and also recognises the public interest in freedom of expression itself. In these circumstances, the newspaper was entitled to report on the documentary and the Committee considered that there was a strong public interest in doing so. When considering whether the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the documentary’s claims, the Committee had regard for the extent to which this information was already in the public domain. These claims had been put in the public domain by the documentary, which had been widely circulated. In these circumstances, publication of the claims by the newspaper did not amount to a breach of Clause 2. 

11. The Committee also noted that the photograph of the complainant, which appeared to be a still from the documentary, showed only his appearance and his likeness in relation to the article and did not show him engaged in any private activity. In these circumstances, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of this. There was no breach of Clause 2. 

12. It was not in dispute that the complainant had been arrested and released without charge, as reported in the article. The article had also made clear that the claim that the complainant was allegedly the suspected gunman was made by the documentary, and had accurately presented this as a claim. There was no breach of Clause 1. 

Conclusions 

11. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial Action Required 

12. N/A

Date complaint received: 23/11/2017

Date decision issued: 25/05/2018