777/2021 - Dr Christine Gaffney, Ms Rachel Moran, Professor Kathleen Stock and The Irish Times
On 6 August 2021, the Press Ombudsman determined that The Irish Times offered to take sufficient action to resolve a complaint made by Dr Christine Gaffney, Ms Rachel Moran and Professor Kathleen Stock that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland had been breached.
On 12 March 2021 The Irish Times published an opinion piece (OpEd) by an associate professor at a Canadian university. The article was headed “Irish feminists must avoid British trap of transphobia: Trans-exclusionary ideas lack compassion and must be repelled from Ireland”. The article was based on an inaugural conference of a newly formed feminist group, the Irish Women’s Lobby.
Dr Gaffney, Ms Moran and Professor Stock complained to the editor of The Irish Times that the article misrepresented the Irish Women’s Lobby, the conference and everyone connected with the conference. They set out a number of examples of how they believed the article misrepresented and distorted facts contrary to Principles 1 (Truth and Accuracy), 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty), 4 (Respect for Rights) and 8 (Prejudice). They said that the headline to the article was misleading and gave a distorted impression of the Irish Women’s Lobby and the purpose of the conference, in breach of Principle 1 of the Code. They said that the newspaper was not reporting fact but was giving a partial, biased opinion, in breach of Principle 2 of the Code. They said that the newspaper failed to adhere to fair procedures and honesty in publishing the article as it had failed to contact the organisers of the meeting in advance of publication, in breach of Principle 3 of the Code. They said that the article was based on malicious misrepresentation and unfounded accusations and that the newspaper did not take reasonable care in checking facts in advance of publication, in breach of Principle 4 of the Code. Finally, they said that the article was likely to stir up hatred against the organisers of the meeting on the basis of their gender, in breach of Principle 8 of the Code.
The Irish Times, in its response to the complainants, pointed out that the article was an opinion piece and clearly labelled as such. It said that the newspaper is “committed to giving special consideration to the representation of divergent views”. It went on to say that “Readers who disagree with the opinions expressed can submit an opinion piece of their own to be considered for publication.” The newspaper pointed out that it had published a very strongly-worded critique of the article, and a number of letters critical of the article, within days of its publication. It repeated an offer it had previously made to the complainants to submit an opinion piece or letter to the editor to be considered for publication.
At this point the complainants made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stating that they found The Irish Times’ response to their complaint “wholly inadequate” given the seriousness of the misrepresentation of the Irish Women’s Lobby, the conference and the conference speakers. They repeated their claim that the OpEd was a “gross misrepresentation” of their conference. In particular, they said that it was a misrepresentation of their conference to characterise its focus as “trans women”.
The editor of The Irish Times in a formal submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman said that no Principle of the Code of Practice had been breached by the article. He said the author was “exercising her right to comment on newsworthy events and statements and to give her view on a recently-founded organisation and the public event that marked its launch”. The editor repeated a previous offer that had been made to the complainants to submit a substantial letter to the editor for publication or an OpEd of similar length to the article under complaint. He said that if the three complainants wished to split their response between a letter authored by two of them, and an OpEd by the other, or vice versa, it would be prepared to consider publishing both. He said, however, that the newspaper could not accede to a request from the complainants for editorial control, including final pre-print approval, since it needed to ensure that the article was accurate, met editorial standards and was not defamatory.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
Readers of opinion pieces expect to find comments and opinions of contributors. They see opinion pieces as contributing to public knowledge and debate on contemporary issues. There is an expectation that not all readers will agree with the comments and opinions. Debate on these issues can continue in a newspaper by means of the publication of letters and OpEds, offering alternative interpretations and experiences. The publication of an opinion piece and a number of letters commenting on the original article by The Irish Times was part of the process of facilitating public debate. The further proposal to facilitate the publication of a letter and an OpEd by the complainants, the OpEd to be of similar length to the article under complaint, was part of the same process. For these reasons, in my judgment, the newspaper offered to take sufficient action to resolve the complaint.
Appeal of decision to Press Council of Ireland
The complainants appealed the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland on the grounds that the Press Ombudsman had erred in his application of the Code of Practice.
In their appeal the appellants argued that the Press Ombudsman’s decision that the proposed action by the newspaper was sufficient to address their complaint was in error, and that the decision neglected key aspects of the Code of Practice under which their complaint was submitted.
Decision of Press Council on appeal
The Press Council considered the appeal at its meeting on Friday, 1 October 2021 and decided to reject it on the grounds that the Press Ombudsman had not erred in his application of the Code of Practice.
In coming to its decision the Council noted that the article was clearly an opinion piece and that the offer of redress made by the editor provided ample opportunity to the complainants to give a different perspective on the opinions and information presented in the article.