20/2019 A Man and The Irish Times
The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint that The Irish Times breached Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
The Irish Times publishes a weekly satire column in its Saturday magazine section about a fictional character, Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. The column is a send up of the mores of a privileged individual who demonstrates his prejudices and lack of understanding of the wider community. On Saturday 9 February 2019 the column featured the fictional character attending a rugby international against England with his small sons. The article recounted how the children shouted Anglophobic abuse at English supporters on their way to watch the match.
An English man living in Ireland for more than two decades wrote to The Irish Times saying that he was offended by the article, that it was “insulting, negative and rude”. He concluded suggesting that publishing the article “promoted negative hatred of … the English in general”.
The Irish Times responded saying that it was a “matter of genuine regret that (he) had been offended by the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly column”. The newspaper went on to say that the column was “an exercise in satire that seeks to be entertaining and funny but not to be taken seriously”.
The man made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman. He described the article as “racism”. He claimed the article breached Principle 8 of the Code of Practice which states The Press shall not publish material intended to or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against an individual or group on the basis of … nationality.
The editor of The Irish Times said he genuinely regretted that the complainant did not find the column funny. He said that in regarding the column as racist he had misinterpreted the point of it, and that the author was “one of Ireland’s best-known satirists and comedy-writers”. The editor offered to publish a letter from the complainant which would allow him take issue with the column.
The complainant did not accept the offer to publish a letter as it is The Irish Times policy to publish letter-writers’ names and the complainant wished to remain anonymous. The complainant repeated his view that the article was racist and could incite hatred towards England.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
Satire can be an effective way of interrogating contemporary values and attitudes. Sometimes to achieve that end satire has to stretch the boundaries of what is acceptable and what causes offence.
This is a dilemma that many satire-writers face. Exposing prejudice in satire may run the risk of some people taking offence. Readers of the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly column are not expected to take literally the views of the fictional characters, they are expected to understand that the views are included in order to explore and expose the foolishness and prejudice of the fictional characters. I appreciate that the complainant was offended by the remarks made by the fictional children but feel that there was no intention to cause grave offence or to stir up hatred on the basis of nationality. For these reasons I believe there was no breach of Principle 8.
29 March 2019