143/2019 - Mr Eddie Sheehy and Village
The Press Ombudsman has upheld a complaint made by Mr Eddie Sheehy that Village magazine breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
In April 2019 Village published an article under the heading “Press Council erred” with a sub-heading that read “Its decision upholding Eddie Sheehy’s appeal cut across a High Court judgment that there was a November 2003 County Manager’s Order”. The article reported on a finding of the Press Council following an appeal by Mr Sheehy of a previous decision of the Press Ombudsman on a complaint about an article published by Village in March 2018.
The April 2019 article stated that during a 2016 defamation case several copies of a 2003 Manager’s Order were presented by the solicitor for the plaintiffs to the Judge in the case. It also reported that the Judge had referred to the significance of the 2003 Manager’s Order in her lengthy and detailed judgment published in 2017.
Mr Sheehy complained that the article was false and misleading in several respects. He said that despite the Press Council’s decision that it was inaccurate for Village to state in its previous article that a 2003 Manager’s Order existed, and the failure of Village to provide a copy of the alleged Order, the magazine repeated the inaccuracy in the April 2019 article. Mr Sheehy also complained about the accuracy of a statement in the article that his previous complaint about references to a 2003 Manager’s Order was rejected by the Press Ombudsman when, he said, the Press Ombudsman found that he had insufficient evidence to make a decision on the matter. He also complained about a statement in the article that the Press Council upheld his complaint that Village failed to contact him in advance of publication of the previous article when, he said, it was the Press Ombudsman who had made that decision.
The editor responded to Mr Sheehy pointing out the article was clearly an opinion piece and that as editor he would defend it as an opinion piece. He said that the High Court judgment “refers on several occasions to a first Manager’s Order of November 2003”. He said that the author of the 2019 article had been “speaking colloquially” when he characterised the outcome of the 2018 complaint as a “rejection”. The editor offered to publish a 700-word piece by Mr Sheehy “repeating your points, in our next edition” which, he said, was “likely to be countered by one from (the journalist) rehearsing his views, supported by new evidence in relation to what was described in the High Court by several witnesses, including those for the County Council, and the Judge, as the 2003 Manager’s Order”.
Mr Sheehy said the offer to contribute an article to Village was not acceptable to him on the grounds proposed and made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman.
The editor of Village in his response reiterated his belief that a 2003 Manager’s Order, or what he said was a document purporting to be a 2003 Manager’s Order, was presented and discussed in the High Court during a lengthy defamation case involving Wicklow County Council and Mr Sheehy. The editor submitted a number of documents and transcripts with his response.
Mr Sheehy responded that none of the documentation submitted by the editor provided any evidence of the existence of a November 2003 Manager’s Order and that the Press Council had already decided that references to such an Order in the March 2018 article were inaccurate. Mr Sheehy submitted a number of documents and transcripts with his response.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
It is a fact that the Press Council, in considering an appeal from a decision of the Press Ombudsman that he had insufficient evidence to make a decision on the accuracy or otherwise of references to a 2003 Manager’s Order in the March 2018 article, decided to uphold the appeal on the grounds that the significant new information provided by Mr Sheehy in his appeal allowed it decide that the statement complained about was inaccurate.. The repetition of the inaccurate statement in the April 2019 article is therefore a breach of Principle 1 of the Code.
In those circumstances, the headline to the article “Press Council erred” and the sub-heading “Its decision upholding Eddie Sheehy’s appeal cut across a High Court judgment that there was a November 2003 County Manager’s Order” is also inaccurate.
The statement in the article that Mr Sheehy’s first complaint to the Press Ombudsman was rejected is also inaccurate because the Press Ombudsman’s decision was that he had insufficient evidence to make a decision in relation to Mr Sheehy’s complaint about the accuracy or otherwise of references in the 2018 article to a 2003 Manager’s Order.
The statement in the article that the Press Council upheld the original complaint under Principle 4 is also inaccurate because it was the Press Ombudsman who decided that Principle 4 had been breached due to the failure of the magazine to contact Mr Sheehy in advance of publishing adverse findings about him.
The offer by the editor to publish a response from Mr Sheehy cannot be regarded as sufficient to resolve Mr Sheehy’s complaint as the offer was qualified by the reference to the likely publication of another article by the same journalist “countering” whatever arguments Mr Sheehy included in his article. In any event, there is an obligation on editors to correct inaccuracies promptly and with due prominence.
Other parts of the complaint were not upheld
Mr Sheehy complained that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) had been breached as the April 2019 article did not disclose that it had been written by the same journalist who had written the March 2018 article. The article contained in a prominent position the by-line of the journalist who had written it. The same by-line was published in the March 2018 article. Whilst the April 2019 article did not inform readers that the writer had also written the March 2018 article his by-line was prominently included on both occasions.
The article published in April 2019 has been found to be inaccurate and in breach of Principle 1. However, no evidence has been presented that the inaccuracies were as a result of malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations. Therefore, I am not upholding the complaint on the basis of a breach of Principle 4. Equally I do not believe that Village needed to contact Mr Sheehy in advance of publication as the article was primarily based on a previous decision of the Press Ombudsman and the findings of the Press Council on an appeal of the Press Ombudsman’s decision.
19 July 2019