913/2021 - Mr Ken Byrne and the Irish Examiner
On 20 August 2021, the Press Ombudsman did not uphold a complaint by Mr Ken Byrne that the Irish Examiner breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights), Principle 8 (Prejudice) and Principle 9 (Children) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
On 10 May 2021 the Irish Examiner published a report under the heading “More than 500 people reinfected with Covid since pandemic began”. The report stated “Figures from the Department of Health have shown some reinfections barely three months apart, while January this year, when record numbers of cases of the virus were diagnosed, also saw the highest number of reinfections”
Mr Ken Byrne wrote to the editor of the Irish Examiner stating that the information in the article was “not only wrong but is serious scaremongering and completely false”
The editor replied to Mr Byrne stating that he had seen “the data first-hand and have confirmed that the information used in that article was procured directly from the HSE by our reporter and is factual”.
Mr Byrne replied to the editor noting that RTÉ had reported on 2 June 2021 what a team of clinicians from Beaumont Hospital and a number of other establishments “believed” was the first reinfected case of Covid in Ireland and that a Dutch news agency on 22 April 2021 reported that there were only “72 confirmed documented cases of covid reinfection in the world”.
Mr Byrne made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stating that “there is not a single confirmed documented case of Covid re-infection in Ireland” and that the claim in the Irish Examiner that there had been 514 cases was false. Hr claimed that Principles 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 and 9 of the Code of Practice had been breached
The Irish Examiner in a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stood over the accuracy of the article and included a copy of a response to a media query. The media query response, provided by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, included a table of data showing the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 with reinfections per month from March 2020 to December 2020. In the ten-month period the cumulative figure for reinfections was given as 514.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
I am not upholding this complaint. The article in the Irish Examiner reported figures supplied by the Department of Health and extracted from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre’s Computerised Infectious Disease Reporting System. This information supplied by the Department was reported accurately by the Irish Examiner. The only “evidence” supplied by the complainant that the figures were inaccurate was two media reports which claimed hugely lower reinfection rates. On its own this is not sufficient to substantiate the claim that the article was “false, misleading and scaremongering”. Therefore I find no breach of any Principles of the Code of Practice.
Appeal of decision to Press Council of Ireland
Mr Byrne appealed the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland on the grounds that significant new information was available that could not have been made available to the Press Ombudsman before he made his decision.
In his appeal Mr Byrne submitted links to a number of media reports from early June 2021 that he said reported on what was then believed to be Ireland’s first case of a Covid reinfected person. He also submitted links to a number of media reports on Covid reinfection.
Decision of Press Council on appeal
The Press Council considered the appeal at its meeting on Friday, 1 October 2021 and decided to reject it on the grounds that no significant new information was provided that could not have been made available to the Press Ombudsman before he made his decision.
In coming to its decision the Council noted that the Irish Examiner had published verifiable statistical data provided by a Government Department and that to question the validity of reporting such data could undermine the public interest role of the press as set out in the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.