Mayo County Council and the Sunday Independent
The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint made by Mayo County Council that the Sunday Independent breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
On 16 December 2018 the Sunday Independent published an article under the headline Email allegations ‘never raised with data watchdog’. The article referred to findings of the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) that two councillors had breached the code of ethics for councillors. The article claimed that a “senior figure working at the council wrote to SIPO claiming “sensitive emails” sent by the watchdog to local authority staff had been accessed by individuals other than the intended recipients”. The article questioned if these allegations had been passed on to the Data Protection Commissioner.
Solicitors representing Mayo County Council wrote to the editor of the Sunday Independent challenging the independence of the reporter who had written the article because, they said, his involvement in the SIPO investigation was “considerable”. They also said that a claim in the article that “The council did not respond to requests for comment” was misleading because Council staff, they said, received an email on the afternoon of Saturday 15th December and no response could issue until the offices reopened on Monday 17th.
Solicitors representing the Sunday Independent replied saying that the reporter was “highly respected” and that he had no role in the SIPO investigation. They also outlined how its reporter had endeavoured to contact council staff by email, text message and mobile phone on a number of occasions on the Saturday afternoon.
Mayo County Council made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman claiming that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) of the Code of Practice had been breached.
In its response to the Office of the Press Ombudsman the Sunday Independent reiterated its confidence in the reporter and his independence and said that he had no role whatever in the investigation, that he gave no evidence to it and that he was not questioned. It repeated the efforts the reporter had made to contact council staff prior to publication of the article and its belief that the council therefore had ample opportunity to reply to questions.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliating it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
Mayo County Council’s complaint under Principle 1 was that the reporter did not record his involvement in the SIPO investigation. Having read the relevant parts of the SIPO report I do not believe the reporter needed to refer in the article to references to him in the report. The lack of any acknowledgement or references to the reporter’s involvement or otherwise in the SIPO investigation did not result in a breach of Principle 1 of the Code.
This Principle requires the press to strive at all times for fair procedures and honesty in the procuring and publishing of news and information. It is Mayo County Council’s view that the statement “council did not respond to requests for comments” was misleading. Many public bodies are fully aware that news breaks at times when offices are closed and make appropriate out of office arrangements for journalists. In this instance the reporter asked for a response to information received at lunchtime on a Saturday. Despite several efforts to contact members of staff over several hours by text, email and voicemail messages no response was received. In these circumstances I find there was no breach of Principle 3.
11 February 2019
The complainant appealed the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland on the grounds that there had been an error in the Press Ombudsman's application of the Code of Practice.
At its meeting on 5 April 2019 the Press Council decided that the appeal was not admissible because it amounted to a disagreement with the decision reached by the Ombudsman and did not address the ground cited. The decision of the Press Ombudsman therefore stands.