Who was that masked man? A local UK newspaper thought it knew, but unleashed the UK regulator when it identified local businessman, Steve Burnett, as the “caped crusader” known as Ring Pull Man — a local man dressed in a Batman costume collecting ring pulls (the tops of soda cans) for a Philippines charity.
The paper, The Kent & Sussex Courier, published an Aug. 28 front-page story, “Revealed…the man behind the mask of the caped crusader,” identifying Ring Pull Man as “Steve Burnett” and providing personal information about him.
The article even quoted from an interview the reporter conducted with the masked man, and attributed the quotes to Burnett, assuming the two men were the same.
The newspaper’s evidence that Ring Pull Man was Burnett was that the charity that Ring Pull Man collects for is one that Burnett’s company also supports and for which Burnett is a trustee.
But, Burnett isn’t Ring Pull Man, he says. The newspaper never contacted him to fact check, he wasn’t in the country when Ring Pull Man was seen, and he doesn’t look like Ring Pull Man, he said.
Burnett explained the impact of the error and story, telling iMediaEthics by e-mail: “Unfortunately for me, their story detailed every mistake, bad choice and error I ever made for my young and teenage children to read, my staff and clients to read and for the general public at large to read. I certainly would never have chosen to share that information with any of those groups and certainly not via a local newspaper!”
“The Courier could and should have contacted me before publishing 2 pages on me and my past life,” Burnett told iMediaEthics. “They found the company I own, one of my friends but not me….I believe this is because after my friend told them that I was not ‘Ring Pull Man’ they knew they had made a mistake but rather than have to do all their work again and change their compelling, interesting and shocking story, it was easier not to contact me and publish anyway.”
Burnett was upset and complained about the article’s false identification to UK print regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation, IPSO.
IPSO ruled the newspaper was wrong to say Burnett was Ring Pull Man because its story’s claim was “based on limited circumstantial evidence.” And the man who really is Ring Pull Man, who wasn’t identified by IPSO, even told Burnett that when the Courier interviewed him as Ring Pull Man, he flat out said he wasn’t Burnett, telling the paper “I will deny it.”
But the Courier went ahead with its article.
IPSO noted it didn’t determine “conclusively whether or not the complainant was Ring Pull Man,” but that the Courier was “significantly misleading” to state as fact that Burnett was, because it didn’t know that.
After IPSO ruled against the Courier, the newspaper asked Burnett for a photo.
iMediaEthics notes that the side by side photos of Burnett and Ring Pull Man show the two do not look alike. The Courier‘s editor told iMediaEthics, “I requested the photo from Mr Burnett after the ruling was made and he obliged by sending it.” IPSO didn’t require him to post the photo comparison, he said.
The Courier stood by its decision to identify Burnett and listed its so-called evidence:
“The newspaper explained that it was its genuine belief that the complainant was Ring Pull Man: his recycling company collects ring pulls, and he is 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’, and that it would be disappointing for his identity to be revealed. As Ring Pull Man declined to deny being the complainant, the newspaper was satisfied, following the conversation, that the complainant was Ring Pull Man.”
The Courier said it also contacted one of Burnett’s friends who said he didn’t know Ring Pull Man was Burnett and contacted Burnett. The Courier indicated that it thought the burden was on Burnett to then contact the Courier to deny being Ring Pull Man, which IPSO ruled was wrong.
Burnett also criticized IPSO’s process, arguing that he felt the experience of filing a complaint was difficult and frustrating. “While very professional and courteous, the IPSO were hard work and I felt they repeatedly tried to get me to give up, not by saying so directly but by reverting to the Courier again and again with my comments and then coming back to me again and again with their sometimes ridiculous and insulting responses,” Burnett told iMediaEthics.
Was it an Invasion of Privacy too?
Burnett wasn’t just upset about being falsely identified as Ring Pull Man: the Courier‘s story also included private, personal details about his life, some based on a video of him posted on his church’s video-sharing account Vimeo.
IPSO ruled that wasn’t an invasion of privacy since it was available online and his church community knew about it.
iMediaEthics often agrees with IPSO’s ruling but in this case, we disagree that the claims weren’t an invasion of privacy. “I too was surprised that the ruling did not find my privacy had been invaded,” Burnett said to iMediaEthics by e-mail.
In iMediaEthics’s view, it is flawed logic to say that reporting private information isn’t an invasion if the only reason it was published was because of a central error the newspaper made in mis-identifying Burnett. If the newspaper was guilty of the first matter — inaccurate identification that thrust Burnett into the spotlight without contacting him before publication — then it’s clearly a violation of the second, invading his privacy.
Burnett said he made the video for his local church more than three years ago and he thought it was password-protected and therefore not available to anyone in the public. The newspaper said it was publicly available without a password protection and thus fair game.
IPSO ruled that the Courier had to publish IPSO’s ruling on its homepage for 24 hours and in the first nine pages of the print edition.
“I’m disappointed with the ruling particularly as the process was unable to 100 per cent establish that Steve Burnett was not Ring Pull Man,” Courier editor Roger Kasper told iMediaEthics.
Regardless of the ruling, Burnett said he “would be proud to be ring pull man” and has had much positive reaction from readers thinking he was Ring Pull Man. “Whoever ring pull man is, I applaud and thank him for being a superhero and for caring, sharing and daring to make a difference. I also encourage everyone to get behind ring pull man’s mission and become a superhero by collecting ring pulls that our charity PCF (see www.p-c-f.org) will use to help children and families in the UK and around the world escape poverty.”
iMediaEthics has reached out to Ring Pull Man via his website for comment on the Courier‘s story and identification of Burnett.