4021/2019 - A Complainant and The Irish Times
The Press Ombudsman has decided that action offered and taken by The Irish Times was sufficient to resolve a complaint that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland had been breached. A complaint that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) was breached was not upheld.
The Irish Times published an article on the construction of temporary log cabins in back gardens for people to live in as the housing crisis continued. The article provided an example of one couple who had built a log cabin in the garden of parents.
A man complained to the editor of The Irish Times stating the article was false and misleading. He said the cabin in question was larger than stated in the article, that the couple before they erected the cabin knew that they needed planning permission for it, that the couple had failed to consult neighbours before erecting the cabin and that the article was in other ways misleading as it omitted pertinent information. The complainant also said that the writer of the article had a conflict of interest.
The Irish Times replied that “the point of the article was to raise awareness, as accurately as possible, of the issue of log cabins and other temporary structures as a response to the housing crisis” and that the reporter “had reported the assertions of the persons living in the cabin in good faith” and had tried unsuccessfully to contact the complainant. In regard to the size of the cabin the newspaper said that the reporter had taken the figures published from the planning file, but accepted that the planning inspector subsequently found “the actual dimensions to be significantly larger”. The newspaper said that the writer of the article had no conflict of interest. It offered to meet with the complainant to discuss the matter, and also invited him to submit a letter for publication.
The complainant was not satisfied with the response of The Irish Times and made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman claiming that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) had been breached. The complainant stated that Principle 1 had been breached as the cabin was larger than stated in the article, that it was misleading to state that retention permission was granted for two years, after which the cabin would have to come down or permission could be extended following a review, and that the couple who erected the cabin were told they would not need planning permission as long as neighbours had no objections. In regard to the claimed breach of Principle 2 the complainant stated that the reporter did not fact check any of the comments that were quoted from the family who constructed the log cabin, and that the writer of the article had a conflict of interest.
The editor of The Irish Times made a formal submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman defending the article but reiterated the offer to meet with the complainant and to publish a right-of-reply in the form of a letter. He further offered as an alternative “the publication of a feature on the broad issue of habitation of log cabins that would reflect the interests of all interested parties” including the complainant’s. The editor concluded by stating that the online article had been amended with a clarification that stated that the planning permission sought was not for dwelling purposes, that a Bord Pleanala report estimated the size of the cabin at 57 sq. metres with accompanying veranda and that there was no evidence that planning permission would not be required. The Irish Times print edition also published similar information in its “Corrections & Clarifications” section.
The complainant rejected the editor’s offer to publish a letter or article, the former as “not appropriate” and the latter as “far too late”. He also said he believed the publication of the corrections was an attempt to dismiss many aspects of his complaint and to minimise the correct course of action (by the paper) which, he said, was to confirm that the article breached the Principles of the Code cited by him.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
I believe some information published in the article required clarification. The action taken by the newspaper in publishing a clarification in print and online and the offer to publish a letter from the complainant or an article that would reflect the interests of the complainant was sufficient to resolve this part of the complaint.
In regard to the claim that Principle 2 had been breached, nothing has been submitted to convince me that the writer of the article had “been inappropriately influenced by undisclosed interests”.
16 July 2019
NOTE: The complainant chose to have the complaint reported without revealing his identity.