By Jamie Bryson
Today (9th December 2021) an IPSO ruling in a complaint against the Sunday Life (MediaHuis) has been published by the press regulatory body. You can read it HERE
This ruling, which found the Sunday Life had breached Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (iv) of the Editors Code, sets a significant precedent and follows a long line of successful challenges brought by persons from within loyalist communities.
In concluding, the damming IPSO ruling states “the publication had not been able to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of the article, had presented allegations against the complainant which were significant and uncorroborated as points of fact, and had not provided the complainant with the opportunity to comment upon the allegations against him”. (Paragraph 10)
The ruling in favour of the complainant further explicitly rebuked reliance on unnamed sources, finding that “the publication had not taken any steps to verify the information given by the sources- for instance by contacting the complainant or a representative for comment- and had consequently published uncorroborated information which it was unable to demonstrate was accurate”. (Paragraph 10)
In meeting the instant IPSO case, and other cases such as Matthews and Rainey, the Sunday Life and Sunday World effectively adopted a position of stating that given their assertion the complainant was a member of a ‘proscribed organisation’ (something strongly denied), that it followed therefore that they were entitled to rely purely on anonymous sources, and that they would not be going to any persons whom they claimed were members of said organisation for comment.
This ‘defence’ was always unsustainable. As the developing line of regulatory authority (see Matthews and McCann v Sunday World; Edward Rainey and Edward Ewart v Sunday World; Brian Arthurs v Sunday World) makes clear, there is no provision within the IPSO Editors Code which allows its provisions to be disapplied based upon the subjective assessment as to the background of the subject of a story, or at all.
It will be remembered that the judgment in Matthews v Sunday World (which you can read HERE) was the most damming and significant ever issued in Northern Ireland, which led to the Sunday World being referred to IPSO’s professional standards and the first ever front page reference to an adjudication ordered in NI. It also led, according to the Sunday World’s annual IPSO return, to staff being required to undertake both legal and regulatory training in order to understand the basic journalistic requirements of the law and Editors Code.
In the aforementioned annual IPSO return (2019), the Sunday World had further complained that persons who they said (often wrongly) were loyalist paramilitaries were availing of the Code (this premise was therefore that the Code wasn’t available to such persons- who were often wrongly accused). The Sunday World said this:
“We have had to seek guidance from IPSO because of an unusual set of circumstances. We have received a number of complaints issued on behalf of known organised crime figures and paramilitary leaders.
“Our concern is they are using the Code to keep us quiet, to stop us writing about them and investigating their activities. It is a situation that is unique to the North of Ireland (sic), these are individuals we have been
writing about for some years and we feel this is an abuse of the Code.”
The efforts of the publications to create a hierarchy in the Editors Code (under the guise of ‘unusual circumstances’) has rightly been dismissed by IPSO. If we follow the proposed hierarchy to its logical conclusion, it would effectively render the regulatory system a nullity because publications could just take refuge in saying whatever they want, and then escape accountability by making some unsubstantiated allegation which would act as a firewall preventing any scrutiny of their journalism. That unsustainable argument has been resoundingly rejected.
Today’s IPSO ruling emphatically confirms the developing line of authority and makes abundantly clear that notwithstanding the publication’s claims as to the unique nature of Northern Ireland, or claims as to the background of complainants, that “…such constraints do not mean that the Editors Code does not apply”. (Paragraph 9).
The ruling also made clear that in regards the publication IPSO “did not consider protection of its sources absolved the publication of its requirement to take care over the accuracy of information included in its articles”. (Paragraph 10)
In addition, all the false allegations in this instance had been printed as fact and therefore this occasioned a significant breach of Clause 1 (iv) (failing to differentiate between allegations and fact).
This judgment should crystalise for Sunday tabloids in Northern Ireland that which should have always been obvious, and in any event which had already been addressed in the Matthews and Rainey cases. The clear and unambiguous principles can be distilled as follows:
(i) The Editors Code applies equally to all citizens, regardless of alleged (or actual) background. There is no provision for disapplying the IPSO Code.
(ii) Reliance on anonymous sources is insufficient to satisfy requirements as to Clause 1. On the record named sources are required to satisfy Clause 1 and/or (save for exceptional circumstances) every person should be contacted prior to publication of a story and offered an opportunity to comment.
These principles are contained within the MediaHuis Editorial Code itself (published as part of a commitment to transparency). In Section 4 the commitment is clear- “it is a basic tenant of good journalism to put any critical or damaging claim or allegation to the subject before publication” (emphasis added).
The pushback against the obvious requirements of the Code by a minority of the media must now come to an end. In loyalist terms, that means those persons who are subject to regular allegations and/or damaging stories by Sunday tabloids have a right to be contacted in advance- and to avail of this right by providing a comment.
To dismiss another misconception regularly promoted by some sections of the media; a failure to respond to previous requests for comment, or the fact that allegations have been repeated for years without challenge (often because loyalists simply sat back and sucked it up), provides no defence for any publication. They can not take refuge in saying ‘we have said this for years’. The number of times you repeat an inaccuracy offers no defence to the inaccuracy.
All media outlets in Northern Ireland, but specifically Sunday Life/Sunday World, must learn to adapt to the new parameters set out within the clear principles which can now be readily distilled from a series of IPSO judgments (most notably in relation to loyalists) within the past two years.
The publication of the MediaHuis (owners of Sunday World, Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life) Editorial Code, as part of their commitment to transparency and accountability, is a welcome step. It demonstrates the professionalism and commitment of the new owners of these publications to their stated aim of high quality, credible journalism. In order to achieve these aims, the approach of their Sunday publications will clearly need to change.
There are further issues which as yet remain unresolved and which are known to IPSO. These are issues of the utmost gravity, and arguably are even beyond the type of conduct that led to the Leveson inquiry. A lesson from Leveson, and the downfall of the News of The World, must surely be that if unacceptable conduct is identified that it should not be covered up, but rather the disinfectant of sunlight applied. After all, the media’s core purpose is to bring to light that which would otherwise be concealed in the darkness. The challenge to the media is to apply the same standards of scrutiny to unacceptable conduct within their own ranks.
The decades long free run that media outlets (specifically Sunday tabloids) have had to publish false and malicious claims (based on anonymous ‘sources’) about members of the loyalist community is over. There is a now a new reality, ushered in by the ISPO accountability mechanisms.