660/2021 - Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance and the Sunday Independent

By Gabrielle Collins
Thursday, 8th April 2021
Filed under:

The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint made by Ms Breeda Murphy on behalf of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance that the Sunday Independent breached Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights), Principle 5 (Privacy) and Principle 9 (Children) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.

On 10 January 2021 the Sunday Independent published an extensive report on the findings of  a Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. The article reported that the Cabinet was due to approve the Commission’s final report the following Tuesday, and that counselling would be offered to former residents when they were shown the report before publication.  The article reported extensively on the findings of the yet unpublished report.

Ms Breeda Murphy, PRO of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance, wrote to the editor of the Sunday Independent stating that the men and women who had spent their formative years in Mother and Baby Homes had not received a copy of the report and that to read the details of the report first on the front page of the Sunday Independent was “re-traumatising”. She said that the decision of the Sunday Independent to publish the report’s findings “shows a lack of respect for our members and for survivors of institutions throughout Ireland”.

When she did not receive a response from the editor Ms Murphy made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman about the article stating that it breached Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights), Principle 5 (Privacy and Principle 9 (Children).  She said that publishing the article before it was seen by the people about whom it was written treated them as they had been treated in the past – a commodity and a statistic, causing further trauma by forcing them to revisit their early years without signposting or access to support services.  She also complained that that one of the members of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance recognised her “father’s story” in the account published in the newspaper.

The editor of the Sunday Independent responded to the complaint stating that the Sunday Independent “has reported extensively on the issue of Mother and Baby Homes for a considerable period of time” and that the newspaper regarded the treatment of women and children in these homes as “one of the most shameful episodes in  20th century Irish history”. He defended the newspaper’s decision to publish details of the report  because  the newspaper regarded it “as important news that was a matter of considerable public interest”. He went on to say that not to have published details of the report “would have run contrary to the raison d’etre of a news organisation”. He went on to draw attention to the fact that on the following Sunday the newspaper had given over the entire Letters to the Editor page to comment on the Commission’s findings and that many of these letters, including one from Ms Murphy, had been very critical of the decision to publish the January 10 coverage.  In regard to the specific complaint about a daughter recognising her father’s account of his experience in a Mother and Baby home the editor stated “I cannot emphasis strongly enough that we have no desire to exacerbate the suffering of those personally affected by the report. I am obliged to state that I do not believe anybody could have been identifiable from our article other than to people who were already privy to their personal details and experiences in the home”.

In a comprehensive submission on the editor’s  response to her complaint Ms Murphy  noted that the editor had not “apologised to those impacted” by the publication of the details of the report. She went on to say that the article contained information that was not yet with survivors who were central to the process, and if the newspaper “had respect for the survivors” it would not have published the details of the report “knowing it would cause upset to an already overburdened grouping”. She said that taking the narrative  “before it was available to the people engaged with the State and Commission is downright wrong, on a number of levels”. In regard to the newspaper’s response to the specific complaint that a member of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance had recognised her father’s details in the report published in the Sunday Independent Ms Murphy said that the information was placed for all and sundry and to the survivor population before the report was released to them. She went on to say various supports  including counselling were put in place for survivors on publication of the report by the Government, but that they were not in place when the Sunday Independent published the details of the report’s findings

As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

Despite having huge sympathy for the people who had engaged in the painful process of giving information to the Commission on their experiences in Mother and Baby Homes and the obvious discomfort experienced by many in reading details of the Commission’s findings in advance of official publication of the report I am not upholding this complaint. My responsibility is to determine if a member publication has breached one or more of the Principles of the Code of Practice. Other matters are outside my remit.

Principle 2

Principle 2.2 states

Comment, conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports shall not be reported as fact.

The Sunday Independent got access to a report prior to its official publication. An article was published based on information found in the leaked report. No evidence has been produced that the information that was published in the article was based on comment, conjecture, rumour or an unconfirmed report.

Principle 4

Principle 4 states

The press shall not knowingly publish matter based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations, and must take reasonable care in checking facts before publication.

As the report of the details of the Commission’s findings appear to be accurate, I can only assume the newspaper’s account of the report was accurate and that reasonable care was taken to check accuracy before publication. On this basis I can find no breach of Principle 4.

Principle 5

Principle 5 deals with the individual’s right to privacy.  Ms Murphy’s complaint that this Principle was breached was based on a member of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance being able to identify her father from the newspaper report. I recognise that this must have been deeply upsetting for the person involved, but the information was contained in the   report which was official launched some days later and was widely covered by the media.   The publication of this information did not, therefore, breach Principle 5 of the Code.

Principle 9

Principle 9 states that the press should take particular care in seeking and presenting information or comment about a child under the age of l8 years.  While I accept that the article was deeply upsetting for survivors, and while acknowledging that Ms Murphy complained that a daughter recognised her father’s story in the article, none of the survivors of Mother and Baby Homes are children today and the article therefore did not breach Principle 9.

I fully appreciate that for many survivors of Mother and Baby Homes reading details of the official report in a newspaper in advance of being provided with copies of the report must have been upsetting. However, the publication of the report’s findings by the Sunday Independent was not a breach of the Code of Practice. The newspaper itself recognised the upset its reporting of the report caused to many readers by providing a full page of comments from members of the public on the following Sunday in its Letters to Editor page.

23 March 2021