Mr Burnett had complained that an article headlined “Revealed…the man behind the mask of the caped crusader” which appeared on the front page and page 9 of the Courier on August 28 last year breached clauses 1 and 3 of the Editors Code of Practice, covering accuracy and privacy.
The regulator told the newspaper that because of its “serious failure” to take care over the accuracy of the article its offered correction and apology were insufficient, and it should publish an adjudication page 9 of the newspaper, or further forward, with a cross-reference on the front page, where the original offending article had appeared.
The article said the newspaper had “revealed” that Mr Burnett was Ring Pull Man, a local “caped crusader” who dressed in a Batman costume and collected ring pulls, which were then sent to the Philippines where they were recycled, with the profit supporting the Philippine Community Fund (PCF) charity.
The article included extensive quotations from an interview with Ring Pull Man which were attributed to Mr Burnett, and a biography of him, with details of his history of drug use.
Mr Burnett said the article’s central claim was inaccurate: he was not Ring Pull Man and had not made the comments attributed to him in the article.
The newspaper’s claims were nothing more than guesswork – and it could have contacted him at his place of work in order to verify whether he was Ring Pull Man, but had not done so.
He was out of the country during the period when Ring Pull Man was reportedly sighted, was of a different height and build, and had a ginger beard, whereas Ring Pull Man was clean shaven, he said.
Mr Burnett said he discovered after publication that the true Ring Pull Man was in fact known to him – and said that individual had told him that he had repeatedly denied to the newspaper that he was Steve Burnett, adding that the inaccuracies were damaging to him.
On the privacy complaint, Mr Burnett said information about his history was taken from a video he had recorded to be shown at a one-off church service, the church had uploaded it to the Vimeo website, and he believed that users would need a password to view it.
Mr Burnett was concerned that the information was presented as if he voluntarily provided it in an interview.
While he had made some public disclosures about his past, his former addiction was not commonly known in his local community.
In particular, he and his wife had not yet informed their children about this aspect of his past. The article was an unjustified intrusion into his private life, which had caused him and his family distress.
The newspaper said Ring Pull Man had contacted it directly – this conversation was the source of the quotations published and attributed to Mr Burnett.
It was its genuine belief that Mr Burnett was Ring Pull Man: his recycling company collected ring pulls, and he was a trustee of the PCF charity.
When it was put to Ring Pull Man that he was Steve Burnett, Ring Pull Man had said “I will deny it”, adding that it would be disappointing for his identity to be revealed.
As Ring Pull Man declined to deny being Mr Burnett, the newspaper was satisfied, following the conversation, that Mr Burnett was Ring Pull Man.
The newspaper said it had contacted a friend of Mr Burnett, who ran an addiction recovery course with him, so as to corroborate the story.
The friend said he was not aware that Mr Burnett was Ring Pull Man, adding that he would contact Mr Burnett to check that he was happy for the friend to speak to the newspaper.
In the subsequent conversation with the journalist, the friend had not denied that Mr Burnett was Ring Pull Man, the newspaper said – the friend’s recollection of the conversation was that he had either said that Mr Burnett was not Ring Pull Man, or had told him that he was not.
The newspaper said that, if Mr Burnett was concerned at this stage that it was going to run inaccurate information about him, he should have drawn his concerns to its attention.
Information about Mr Burnett’s former addiction was in the public domain following his own disclosures, and was presented in the article in a wholly positive light, it said, adding that Mr Burnett’s video was freely available on Vimeo, was easily found by the journalist, and was not password protected.
Mr Burnett’s friend also gave its journalist details of his history.
The newspaper accepted, in response to Ipso’s investigation, that it should have taken additional steps to verify whether Mr Burnett was Ring Pull Man. It offered to publish a correction and apology on page 3 of a forthcoming edition; the article under complaint had been published on the front page, and continued on page 9, and to publish a follow-up story about the charity of which Mr Burnett is a trustee.
Ipso’s complaints committee said the newspaper did not know that Mr Burnett was Ring Pull Man when it decided to publish.
Its belief that he was was based on limited circumstantial evidence and a telephone conversation with an unidentified individual claiming to be Ring Pull Man, who did not, when asked, deny being Mr Burnett.
The newspaper had not contacted Mr Burnett to seek his comment on the story, and instead relied on a conversation with a friend of his – who did not confirm whether Mr Burnett was Ring Pull Man – as corroboration.
The newspaper mistakenly believed that it had already spoken to Mr Burnett and proceeded to publish – as fact – that it had solved the “mystery” of Ring Pull Man’s identity.
The committee acknowledged the newspaper’s position that this was intended to be a positive piece about a local celebrity.
It was clear that significant confusion arose at the newspaper over Ring Pull Man’s identity; there was no malicious intent in naming Mr Burnett.
But the steps the newspaper took to establish the accuracy of its claims were insufficient, said the committee, adding that it did not accept its assertion that the burden was on Mr Burnett to contact it to express concern in advance of publication.
The story breached Clause 1 (i).
The committee was not in a position to establish conclusively whether Mr Burnett was Ring Pull Man, but it was significantly misleading for the newspaper to claim that it had established that he was when it had not done so.
The committee understood Mr Burnett’s concern about the publication of details of his former addiction, especially given that the article inaccurately “revealed” him to have an alter ego which he denied.
But it noted that Mr Burnett’s church was unable to confirm that the video from which the newspaper gathered information was password-protected at the time of publication, so it appeared that the information was easily accessible online.
Mr Burnett had shared his story within his church, and others, with the intention of helping people who might be facing their own addictions.
The article under complaint had presented it in a similar way: it was an optimistic article about the manner in which he had made positive changes in his life. In all the circumstances, there was no breach of Clause 3.
While welcoming the newspaper’s offer of a correction and apology, the committee said it was concerned by the serious failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, which was its lead front-page story, and had also led to the prominent publication of highly sensitive information about Mr Burnett.
An adjudication was the appropriate remedy. The original article was published on the front page, and continued on page 9. The adjudication, the terms of which Ipso specified, should be published in full on page 9, or further forward, and reference to it should be published on the front page.