17/2019 A Mother and Extra.ie
The Press Ombudsman has upheld a complaint made by a mother that Extra.ie breached Principle 4 (Respect for Rights), Principle 5 (Privacy) and Principle 9 (Children) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
Extra.ie published an article on an Irish father’s concern that his child might end up living with a convicted murderer as his former partner and mother of his child had married a man serving a life sentence for murder in an American prison. The father expressed his concern that the convicted man might move to where the child’s mother lived upon his release. The article named the father and mother of the child and gave the boy’s age.
The mother wrote to the editor of Extra.ie claiming that the article breached Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) which states that the press shall not knowingly publish matter based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations, and must take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. The mother said that the article labelled her “as a bad mother”. She also claimed that Principle 5 (Privacy) was breached. The mother claimed that there was no public interest in people in Ireland having any private information about her husband, herself or her son. She also claimed that Principle 9 (Children) was breached. She said her son was “an innocent little boy” and that his father was “an absent neglectful father” who had “peddled disgraceful lies about (her) son’s life”. Principle 9 requires the press to take particular care in seeking and presenting information or comment about a child under the age of 16 … and to … have regard for the vulnerability of children.
Extra.ie in its response to the complaint made the point that the “article complained of would have made no sense if there was no reference to (the complainant’s) son”. Extra.ie pointed out that they had not named or published a photograph of the son, that it “had provided as few identifying factors as possible as was consistent with (its) responsibility to publish”.
The mother made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman. In her submission she made the point that by the time her husband might be released from prison in the United States her child would be an adult. She also stated that “several actual experts in the field of psychology and human behaviours have confirmed and testified to the fact that (her) husband is not a danger to anyone”.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
The article was based almost exclusively on the comments of the father of the child. Extra.ie did make an effort to get the mother to respond to her former partner’s comments. However, the mother declined to comment. Extra.ie also attempted to get information from social services, which declined to comment. These efforts were not an adequate attempt to take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter Extra.ie was, in my opinion, obliged to make more of an effort to balance the article and provide readers with some understanding of the mother’s position. When a disputed family matter is the subject of an article there is a considerable onus on a publication to present more than one side of a dispute. This did not happen in this case and Principle 4 was breached.
Extra.ie justified its report by saying that the issue at stake was important and that it was in the public interest to report the matter. Given that the husband of the mother is serving a prison sentence which will continue well past the child reaching adulthood I am not persuaded by the public interest argument put forward by Extra.ie. There appears to be no imminent or even long-term threat to the child’s well-being. Even if the article could be judged to be in the public interest the issue could have been reported without breaching the privacy of the mother. The complaint under Principle 5 is therefore upheld.
The article published by Extra.ie showed no particular care in presenting information about a child. The article implied that the child’s welfare could be at risk, yet the publication did not appear to take much account of the vulnerability of the individual child. In its submission Extra.ie defended the article on the basis of its responsibility to report incidents of possible risk to children without adequate consideration of the individual child’s well-being. I think there is a clear breach of Principle 9 in the publication of the degree of information contained about the child in the report.
Other parts of the mother’s complaint were not upheld
The mother had also claimed that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 7 (Court Reporting) had been breached.
Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy). This requires in reporting news and information, the press shall strive at all times for truth and accuracy. The mother claimed the article contained “blatant lies”. Extra.ie responded to the mother offering to publish a clarification in regard to when the father of the child ceased to have access to his son if the child’s mother provided evidence. In regard to the public interest in publishing the article Extra.ie said “The question of whether someone convicted of very serious violent offences should live with and have access to a child who is not his own, because that child’s mother chose to marry him while imprisoned, is an important one”. Extra.ie stated that it had “moral obligation to report upon such issues”. The mother did not accept Extra.ie’s offer to publish a clarification in regard to what level of access the father of her child had during the first few years of the child’s upbringing. She argued that this offer only addressed one inaccuracy of many in the article.
She also claimed that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) had been breached . This Principle requires that Comments, conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports shall not be reported as facts. The mother further claimed that many “inaccurate statements” were presented “as facts”.
She also claimed that Principle 7 Court Reporting had been breached as in a court transfer hearing in the United States where her husband was “fighting, not only for his freedom, but for justice and his chance of a fair trial” the Extra.ie article “was used” by the prosecution.
As the article presented the information as the comments of the father and did not claim the comments were necessarily accurate there is no breach of Principles 1 or 2. There is also no breach of court reporting requirements as found in Principle 7. Extra.ie stated that its reporting of the legal proceedings in the United States had been “fair and accurate” and did not have “any impact of the sort described upon the sentence imposed on (the complainant’s) husband”. No evidence was presented by the complainant that any court reporting in the article was inaccurate. The fact that the article had been referred to by counsel in court is not relevant in this instance.
21 March 2019