Picture caption error costs the Sunday World £20,000 in libel damages

The Sunday World has agreed to pay the nephew of a senior UVF figure £20,000 in damages after he was wrongly named in a story in connection with his uncle.

The High Court in Belfast ruled that Glenn Irvine had been libelled by the newspaper following an article in the Sunday World on 28 October 2012.

The newspaper also agreed to pay Irvine’s legal costs.

The Sunday World published a photograph accompanying the article identifying a ‘Glen Irvine’, Irvine’s uncle Winston ‘Winky’ Irvine, Mark Vinton and a fourth, unidentified man.

Irvine’s legal team said any reasonable reader would be led to believe that the ‘Glen Irvine’ in the photograph was the nephew of ‘Winky’ Irvine.

The person captioned as ‘Glen Irvine’ could not be clearly seen in the photograph.

The story criticised the Northern Irish justice Minister David Ford for appointing ‘Winky’ Irvine and Vinton to the local district policing board because both men were alleged to have been long-term members of the Ulster Volunteer Force – an illegal organisation.

The story claimed that the men on the balcony were “monitoring” a Republican parade and this had caused several nights of rioting with “scores of police officers injured”.

Glenn Irvine’s legal team claimed that their client had been defamed by the picture caption even though he was not photographed. The court heard that Irvine resembled the man in the photograph which could lead people to wrongly believe that he was standing next to his uncle. 

The Sunday World said that the name in the article was Glen and not Glenn Irvine and the photograph was not that of the plaintiff.

Each of the men in the photograph had their head circled in a different coloured ink which was captioned “Muppet Show”.

Glenn Irvine’s legal team argued that a right-minded person would think that he was a member of the illegal UVF.

Mr Justice Gillen said: “By itself if there was nothing else to the article, the use of the plaintiff's name alone would not be enough to found liability. In most instances journalists who make a simple unwitting error in nomenclature will not incur any liability particularly where, as in this case, there are at least eight people with an identical name in the Belfast area as evidenced by the researches in 192.com.

“Thus if his uncle had not been present or named in the article or photograph I doubt whether this case would have got off the ground.

“Were it to be otherwise, cases such as this would provide a charter for vigilant zealots to sue unwary journalists and the right of freedom of expression for the press enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights And Fundamental Freedoms would be fatally flawed.

“However the context in which the name appears is crucial. In the instant case the plaintiff's name is set in the context of him being cited, circled and allegedly located in close proximity to his uncle Winston 'Winky' Irvine.

“How likely is it that those who were acquainted with the plaintiff and were casually reading the article would countenance the possibility of another person with the same name as his nephew being positioned close beside Winston Winky Irvine on this occasion?

“The ordinary reader imbued with a certain amount of loose thinking forming no more than a general impression of the article would likely, indeed in my view almost inevitably, conclude that this reference to Glen Irvine is a reference to the plaintiff.”

As a result, Gillen ruled: “I am satisfied that the meanings that I have determined in this case are defamatory of the plaintiff. To openly associate with and to take part in monitoring a parade (which subsequently sparked off three nights of orchestrated UVF violence) conducted by members of an unlawful organisation namely the UVF would lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right thinking people nowadays throughout Northern Ireland.”

Speaking after the case, Jim McDowell, Northern editor of the Sunday World, said: “It’s a bad day for the press and investigative journalism when what was accepted was an innocent mistake in a picture caption ends like this.

“We accepted from the start that the plaintiff Glenn Irvine was not in the photograph published.

“But today’s judgment won’t stop the Sunday World continuing to expose terrorists, paramilitaries and gangsters.”

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