A Mother and the Connacht Tribune
The Press Council of Ireland has decided not to uphold an appeal from a Mother against a decision of the Press Ombudsman.
The Press Ombudsman had decided not to uphold a complaint by a mother that the Connacht Tribune breached Principle 5 (Privacy) and Principle 9 (Children) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
The Connacht Tribune published a photograph of a hurling team visiting a children’s ward in a hospital. The photograph included the complainant, her child and seven players around a hospital bed. The hospital asked the mother to sign a consent form which she signed.
When the mother’s attention was drawn to the publication of the photograph she was very distressed. She understood that the form she had signed consented to the photograph being used within the hospital and not that it might be published in a newspaper. The hospital was unable to produce the consent form the mother had signed, but did provide her with an unsigned copy of the form.
The editor of the Connacht Tribune offered his sincere apologies to the mother. He wrote to the mother saying how sorry he was that the newspaper had added to her pain and that the newspaper “would never set out to cause additional grief or trauma for patients and families”. He explained that his newspaper would never publish such a photograph unless it believed that it had been “acquired in a proper manner”, and that the HSE had “very strict guidelines”.
In correspondence with the Office of the Press Ombudsman the editor again apologised for the hurt caused by the publication of the photograph, but pointed out that the consent form used by the HSE gave permission for the photograph to be used in the print media.
The mother in correspondence with the Office of the Press Ombudsman said that she had not been informed by the hospital that the photograph might be used by the press.
As the complaint could not be resolved through conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
What happened in the hospital and in the publication of the photograph was extremely unfortunate and clearly added to the mother’s distress at a time when she was coping with her child’s severe illness. However, it is hard to see how the newspaper can be blamed for what happened. The photograph had been taken by a freelance photographer and supplied to the newspaper. The hospital believed it had the mother’s consent for the photograph to be published and the newspaper believed, not unreasonably, that this was the case. When the complaint was made known to the editor the only action he could take was to apologise profusely to the mother. The publication could not be undone.
Given the editor’s explanation as to how the photograph was published I can find no evidence that the newspaper breached any Principle of the Code of Practice.
Separately, hospitals might consider their practice of asking distressed parents to sign forms giving consent to their children’s photographs being taken. Parents may not always be able to give informed consent when they are distracted by their children’s suffering. Hospitals may need to explain more carefully the purposes for which photographs are taken.
28 March 2017
The complainant appealed the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland.
Decision of the Press Council
The complainant submitted an appeal on the grounds that all information was not available to the Ombudsman at the time of his decision. The Press Council at its meeting on 21 April 2017 considered the matter and took the view that this was not the case and decided to affirm the decision of the Ombudsman. It also decided to ask the HSE to review the consent form used and, if appropriate, to amend it to remove any ambiguity.