In an extempore judgment delivered on 22 September 2010 by Mr Justice Weatherup in the High Court in Northern Ireland a claim for harassment against the “Sunday World” newspaper by a former loyalist murder suspect was dismissed. However, the claimant was partially successful in his claim for misuse of private information. The judge ordered an assessment of damages for misuse of private information.
The claimant, Drew King had formerly been charged with murdering a Sunday World journalist, Martin O’Hagan, who was shot dead near his home in Lurgan, County Armagh, in September 2001. The murder charges against him and his co-accused were withdrawn in July 2010. Mr King brought an action against the Sunday World for alleged misuse of private information and harassment. Mr King had received notice of five death threats from loyalist and dissident republican paramilitaries and sought an injunction to prevent publication of his address and other information about his family circumstances.
The newspaper defended the action, with its Northern Editor Jim McDowell claiming in court that Mr King forfeited his right to privacy when he became involved in the murder of Mr O’Hagan. He defended his paper’s stories about Mr King as being in the public interest. He said that he was convinced Mr King had been involved in the murder.
Mr King categorically denied having anything to do with the killing, and rejected the Sunday World’s description of him “as an LVF Godfather”. He told the hearing that he agreed to play the pipes at the funeral of Billy Wright, the loyalist paramilitary leader murdered inside the Maze Prison in 1997, without knowing it would turn into a paramilitary-style procession.
Mr Justice Weatherup said:
“I make no judgement on the truth or otherwise of those allegations which might in other proceedings have to be determined. But I proceed in noting there is an absence of challenge to the allegations that are being made in this particular action.”
He set out the Sunday World’s justification of a strong public interest in the investigation of alleged crime. But based on the threats issued against Mr King, Mr Justice Weatherup ruled that his current or future address could not be published. Although Mr King’s partner could be identified, the judge held there had been a misuse of private information on other “peripheral details” about her place of work and family. He held that there was no justification for the disclosure of other information by the newspaper, the court found.
Dealing with the claim of harassment, the judge said:
“Overall, on the question of whether or not this series of articles constituted reasonable conduct, I am satisfied that they did, and did not amount to harassment.”
Harassment claims against the press are rare and this is, we believe, the first one which has been taken all the way to trial. It appears that the newspaper was relying on the defence that its conduct was “reasonable”. This view was upheld by the Judge.
We understand that transcript of the judgment is being prepared and we will post a copy when it becomes available.