Ms Cynthia Owen and the Irish Examiner
The Press Ombudsman has ruled on a complaint made by Ms Cynthia Owen that the Irish Examiner breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. He has decided not to uphold parts of the complaint, that there was insufficient evidence to make a decision on other parts and that sufficient action was offered by the newspaper to resolve two elements of the complaint.
On Saturday 29 July 2017 the Irish Examiner published an article on a recently deceased member of An Garda Siochana who had spent more than ten years of his life trying to clear his name, having been accused of involvement in a number of crimes associated with a paedophile ring that sexually abused a young girl (the complainant) several decades earlier.
Ms Owen complained that the article had breached Principles, 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the Code of Practice. She said that the article was a distorted and misleading report, that it contained a number of unconfirmed reports and malicious information, which she said would lead the reader to believe that she had made false accusations against the late Garda. Ms Owen complained about a number of particular statements in the article which she said were inaccurate or distorted, and complained that some facts about the case were left out of the report.
The editor of the Irish Examiner defended the accuracy of the article stating that part of the difficulty was that the complainant introduced new points which were not germane to the article. He pointed out that the article was not primarily concerned about events of four decades earlier but with “the topical issue of the options open to someone who is subject to a claim of historic child abuse”. He repeated an earlier offer to publish a correction in relation to two particular inaccuracies identified by Ms Owen. He also said that he was prepared to consider mediation, if it assisted in bringing the matter to a conclusion, and said that he might be prepared to offer the complainant an interview.
Ms Owen responded to the editor’s defence of the article stating that her complaint remained that the article was misleading and led the reader to believe that she was making false allegations against the named Garda, and that the article did not go far enough to make it clear that the named Garda was a suspect in a rape and murder case but on the contrary, she said, led the reader to believe that he was innocent.
As the complaint could not be resolved through conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
The article in the Irish Examiner, largely written to describe the cloud that hung over the former Garda in his retirement and the dilemma faced by people accused of crimes where there has been no prosecution, does not at any stage attempt to undermine Ms Owen’s accusations. It is not necessary for me in coming to my decision in this complaint to determine the accuracy of Ms Owen’s accusations or the accuracy of the former Garda’s denials about events which may or may not have happened in the past. My function is to determine if the article breached the Code of Practice.
The editor offered to publish a correction of two inaccuracies highlighted by Ms Owen. Although she did not take up this offer, this was an offer of sufficient remedial action by the editor to resolve the complaint about these two inaccuracies.
It was impossible for me to determine the accuracy or otherwise of other statements complained about, some of which related to incidents that took place many years previously. I have insufficient evidence available to me to make a decision on this part of Ms Owen’s complaint.
Principle 2 requires “comment conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports” not to be reported as fact. The newspaper was careful in its report to give the conflicting recollections of what had occurred without determining the accuracy of the accounts. Therefore, there is no breach of Principle 2.
Principle 3 requires the press to “strive at all times for fair procedure and honesty in the procurement and publication of news and information”. The article highlighted the difficulty in providing evidence that would be conclusive in a court of law about events that had occurred many decades ago. The article pointed out the dilemma for the accuser and the accused in a fair manner. There was no evidence that the newspaper did not strive for fair procedures and honesty in the procuring and publishing of the information, or that the information was obtained through misrepresentation, subterfuge, or harassment, as would be required to support a breach of Principle 3.
There was no evidence that the newspaper knowingly published information based on malicious misrepresentation, or unfounded accusations, or that it did not take reasonable care in checking its facts before publication, which would be required to support a breach of Principle 4
20 October 2017