Mr Finbar O'Rourke and the Sunday World
The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint made by Mr Finbar O’Rourke that the Sunday World breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) and Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
In an article published on 30 October 2016 the Sunday World reported on a family’s reaction to receiving a letter of apology from a man convicted of killing their four-year old son in a traffic accident. The man had pleaded guilty to the offences of dangerous driving causing death and driving over the alcohol limit. The family maintained, according to the article, that the man’s contrition was not genuine and that the letter of apology had only been composed in the hope that it might help him with his appeal. The article stated that the man claimed in his letter to the parents that he had tried to perform CPR on their child in the immediate aftermath of the accident. The family maintained, according to the article, that this wasn’t true.
Solicitors contacted the editor of the Sunday World and stated that their client Mr Finbar O’Rourke was the man referred to in the article. They stated that Mr O’Rourke objected to being described as a “thug” and a “scumbag” in the article. They went on to state that, in their client’s view, the article was “biased and lacked objectivity”. They stated that the letter of apology had been written in advance of sentencing hearing in the Circuit Court and had been intended to be read out in court, but had only been partially read out and was subsequently sent to the family. The solicitors maintained that Mr O’Rourke was “at very least present when efforts were made to resuscitate” the little boy and that he had “tried to render assistance”. The solicitors maintained that the article had breached Principles 1, 2, 3 and 5 of the Code of Practice.
As the editor of the Sunday World did not respond to the solicitors’ letter within two weeks (the timeframe for a response allowed for in the complaints procedures of the Office of the Press Ombudsman) Mr O’Rourke, through his solicitors, complained to the Office of the Press Ombudsman.
The editor of the Sunday World rejected Mr O’Rourke’s complaint, stating that the newspaper stood over the language used to describe Mr O’Rourke as he was “a killer and a convicted criminal”. The editor went on to state that nothing in relation to Mr O’Rourke’s letter of apology had been ignored in the article and that the response of the family of the deceased child to the letter had been reported with “extensive quotes” from the child’s father.
Mr O’Rourke, in a letter to the Office of the Press Ombudsman, responded to the newspaper’s defence of what it had published by stating that the language used to describe him in the article was inaccurate as no evidence had been presented in court that he was a “violent person”. He went on to challenge the accuracy of the claim made in the article that the reading out of his letter of apology had been blocked “from being entered at the request of the state”, that the article was inaccurate in the reporting of the amount of alcohol he had consumed before the accident and that there was no evidence to support the claim in the article that he had written the letter of apology as a ruse to help his appeal. Mr O’Rourke said that the transcripts of the trial, appeal and inquest would support his contentions.
Solicitors representing Mr O’Rourke submitted copies of the Judgments of the Circuit Court and the Court of Appeal and a transcript of the Circuit Court proceedings in support of their client’s complaint.
As it was not possible to resolve this complaint by conciliation it was sent to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
I have read carefully through the article, the complaint, the newspaper’s defence of its publication and the court documentation provided by the complainant. I have found no evidence that the article contained any inaccuracy to justify upholding the claim that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) was breached. The court transcripts provide a harrowing account of the death of a child by a driver who was so intoxicated that he was unable to control his car. The complainant’s claim that the article was inaccurate about the level of alcohol he had consumed and his claimed performance of CPR on the child are not supported by the court records. Indeed, the solicitors representing Mr O’Rourke seem to contradict his claim that he had performed CPR with a claim that he had, “at the very least” offered his assistance and had been present when CPR had been administered. This is a claim disputed by witnesses whose testimony appears in the court records. On the basis of the evidence provided to me I believe the newspaper account is accurate.
No evidence was produced to support Mr O’Rourke’s claim that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) had been breached in the publication of the article.
I can find no evidence that there was any breach of the requirement under Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty). I have some concerns about the language used in the article to describe Mr O’Rourke. The Court documentation suggests that Mr O’Rourke had up to the day of the accident led a blameless life. To use such language in the article as “scumbag” and “thug” in describing Mr O’Rourke, even allowing for the horrendous accident he was entirely responsible for, seems excessive. However, I do not think it was so excessive as to have breached the requirement for the press to “strive at all times for fair procedures and honesty in the procuring and publishing of news and information”.
In regard to the claim of a breach of Principle 5 (Privacy), no plausible argument was presented to me that Mr O’Rourke’s right to privacy had been breached.
31 May 2017
The complainant appealed the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland.
Decision of the Press Council
At its meeting on 8 September 2017, the Press Council considered the grounds for an appeal from Mr O'Rourke regarding the Press Ombudsman's decision. The appeal cited two grounds viz. that there was an error in procedure and that there was an error in the Press Ombudsman's application of the Code of Practice. The Council decided that there was insufficient evidence to support the appeal on either ground and that the decision of the Press Ombudsman therefore stands.