919/2021 - A Woman and the Irish Mail on Sunday
The Press Ombudsman has found that the Irish Mail on Sunday offered to take action which would have been sufficient to resolve a complaint that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland had been breached. He has found that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) were not breached.
On 2 May 2021, the Irish Mail on Sunday published an article that made reference to a care home and Covid vaccination. The article named the care home and stated that in the care home “100 admin staff and managers, many working entirely from home, misrepresented themselves as frontline workers to get vaccinated early”.
A member of the administrative staff wrote to the editor of the Irish Mail on Sunday stating that she did not misrepresent herself as a frontline worker at any stage of the vaccination registration process, and that she knew of no other person in the organisation who did. She went on to say that a previous article in the same newspaper (which is the subject of a separate complaint) had hinted at this misrepresentation, but now the misrepresentation was being stated as fact.
The editor responded stating that he stood over the article. The editor stated that the claim that the staff misrepresented their work status in order to get vaccinated early was based on a whistleblower who worked in the home who had “received such an instruction from management”. The editor stated that the CEO of the care home had confirmed to the newspaper that “most of my back office staff are working from home in line with Government Guidelines. Some are going in one day a week. Some are not going in anytime at all, to be frank” . The editor added that it “is difficult, if not impossible, to see how back office staff working from home could fall within the definition” of those categories of workers contained in the Sequencing Guidelines. The editor accepted that the reference to 100 staff was “the total potential number of workers misrepresenting themselves” rather than the actual number and that the newspaper was willing to publish a clarification on this point. The editor also stated that he and the journalist who had written the article were available at any time to discuss any aspects of the complaint and address any further concerns.
The complainant made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stating that the Irish Mail on Sunday had breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. She stated that the newspaper could only state that one member of staff, the whistleblower, had received the instruction from management to misrepresent their status to get vaccinated early and that there was no proof that the other 99 members of staff had received a similar instruction. She also stated that the sequencing guidelines stated that “all staff who attend (their workplace) occasionally must be included”. She noted that the sequencing guidelines that health care workers who placed themselves in the category for early vaccination were “not claiming to be frontline workers (as stated in the article), but claiming that they had the potential to meet patients/service users”. She stated that Principle 1 had been breached as the newspaper had inaccurately stated that 100 staff had misrepresented their status, that Principle 2 had been breached as the newspaper had relied on an unconfirmed report and that Principle 4 had been breached as the article had discredited people’s good names.
In a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman the Irish Mail on Sunday stood over the article and said that it did not accept that it breached the Code of Practice, and that the issues raised were of considerable public interest. The editor said that the newspaper remained open and willing to publish a clarification and to address any outstanding concerns. The editor also reiterated a previous offer to “write a follow up story” revealing the details of the HSE’s direction to staff, if it were provided with the proof to that effect. .The editor attached a lengthy defence of the article from the journalist who had written the article. The journalist stated that he had tried to engage with the complainant in the aftermath of the publication of the article but it was made clear to him that the complainant did not wish to speak to him. He also noted that no complaint had been received from the care home or its CEO. He reiterated his editor’s view that the administrative staff in the care home had put themselves in the wrong category according to sequencing guidelines. He stated that this was in the public interest to report. He stated that the CEO of the home care had provided the figure of 100 back office staff who had been vaccinated six weeks ahead of residents in the home. He pointed out that the whistleblower who had provided much of the information included in the article had stated management wanted all their staff vaccinated as “we had a big outbreak when people died”. He said that “while I cannot say anything that may identify the whistleblower I can confirm that I am 100% satisfied of their legitimacy”. He denied that the claim that the management of the care home instructed staff to misrepresent their status could only apply to the whistleblower. He said that other staff members had “expressed their disquiet to me privately as I was working on the story”.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
The claim in the article that one hundred admin staff and managers had misrepresented themselves to get vaccinated early was an over-statement and therefore a significant inaccuracy and a breach of Principle 1.1. However, Principle 1.2 and 1.3 states
1.2 When a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report or picture has been published, it shall be corrected promptly and with due prominence.
1.3 When appropriate, a retraction, apology, clarification, explanation or response shall be published promptly and with due prominence.
The editor of the Irish Mail on Sunday offered to publish a clarification which would have addressed the over-statement of numbers. The complainant did not accept the editor’s offer. In my view, the offer to publish a clarification and a follow up report that would have included the complainant’s point of view was sufficient to resolve this part of the complaint.
I have no doubt the complainant is a conscientious member of the administrative staff of the care home and was upset when the newspaper reported effectively that all members of the administrative staff had jumped the queue for vaccination. However, the clarification and follow up report which the newspaper proposed to publish would have made it clear that not all staff had taken this course of action.
Principle 2.2 states
2.2 Comment, conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports shall not be reported as if they are fact.
No evidence has been offered to me that suggests the newspaper published rumour or comment as fact. The research for the article fulfilled journalistic requirements. The complainant claimed that the article had been based on one whistleblower’s account. However the journalist in carrying out his research had spoken to the CEO of the service care provider company and other members of staff and had not relied on an unconfirmed report of one whistleblower. There was no breach of Principle 2.
This Principle states
The press shall not knowingly publish matter based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations, and must take reasonable care in checking facts before publication.
No evidence has been presented to me to support a claim that the article was based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations. Equally I have no reason to believe that the newspaper did not take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. The inaccuracy identified in the article was not due to misrepresentation or a failure to take reasonable care.
10 September 2021