Following an article published in Sunday Life on 3 February 2015, headlined “Tyrone cleric baffled by false gay rumours”, Rev Peter Thompson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) that Sunday Life had intruded into his private life in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO upheld the complaint and established a breach of the Editors’ Code. IPSO required the Sunday Life to publish this decision by its Complaints Committee as a remedy to the breach.
The article reported that the complainant was “baffled” by “false rumours” that he had been cautioned by police, and also that he was homosexual.
The complainant said that the publication of these rumours, which were personal in nature, was a breach of his privacy. He said that he had confirmed to the newspaper prior to publication that the claims were untrue and unsubstantiated.
The complainant had been contacted for his comment prior to publication, and had contacted the Church of Ireland Press Office to confirm the identity of the journalist before returning her call. The complainant was concerned that the newspaper had sought to use his categorical denial of the allegations in that conversation as justification for circulating them further.
The newspaper had become aware of the rumours after being contacted by an unknown source; it then followed up on the rumours with a person who was familiar with them.
The newspaper said that the article was in the public interest: the complainant was a prominent local figure, and the allegation that he had a police caution was of a very serious nature. With regard to the rumours about the complainant’s sexuality, the newspaper said that the complainant had willingly responded to the journalist’s questions following consultation with the Church of Ireland Press Office, and at no point said that his comments were not for publication.
The newspaper said that the article clearly concerned the complainant’s private life, and that it would not be its usual practice to contact individuals regarding claims about their sexual orientation. However, the complainant was a prominent member of his local community, fulfilling a pastoral role, and it appeared at the time that he was the victim of a campaign. The newspaper believed that it was reasonable to conclude that the complainant wanted to take the opportunity to publicly address the claims about him.
Nonetheless, the newspaper removed the article from its website as a gesture of goodwill. It also said that it had not wished to cause further distress to the complainant, and assured him that it would not report anything further about this matter, unless related criminal proceedings came before the courts.
IPSO’s Complaints Committee made clear that details of an individual’s sexuality form part of private and family life and as such receive protection under the terms of Clause 3 of the Editors’ Code. The complainant had not publicly disclosed the fact that rumours of a personal nature had been circulating about him, and the newspaper had become aware of them only after being contacted by an unknown source. The inclusion in the article of his denial was insufficient to justify the intrusion into the complainant’s private life caused by publication of the claims, regardless of their inaccuracy. Further, the complainant’s rebuttal of the allegations in conversation with the journalist did not constitute consent for publication under Clause 3 (ii). The newspaper breached Clause 3 of the Code.
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