676/2021 - Dr Niall Meehan and The Irish Times
(Articles published in January 2021) The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint made by Dr Niall Meehan that six articles published by The Irish Times in January 2021 breached the Press Council’s Code of Practice. The newspaper was judged to have taken sufficient action to resolve part of the complaint.
Following the publication of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes The Irish Times published a number of articles, commentary pieces and analyses on the Commission’s findings. Six of these were the subject of this complaint by Dr Niall Meehan. The articles under complaint were published on 15 January (two articles in the digital edition), 16 January (two articles in the print edition)18 January (one article in the digital edition) and 19 January (one article in the print edition).
Dr Meehan complained that the articles breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy)
Dr Meehan complained that Principle 1 of the Code was breached as The Irish Times had published on 15 and 16 January the following statement:
President Michael D Higgins has said the State and Catholic Church “bear a heavy responsibility” for the “violation of fundamental rights” of women and children in the mother and baby homes.
Dr Meehan pointed out to The Irish Times that the President had not mentioned the Catholic Church and that The Irish Times had misreported and distorted what the President said “as applying to one church”. He noted that the President had actually referred to “State and Church” and that this referred to “the Christian denominations responsible for running and supporting mother and baby institutions” and not just the Catholic Church.
Dr Meehan complained that although he had alerted the newspaper to the mistake when the Commission’s Report went online and followed up with a reminder within a couple of days, the inaccuracy was not corrected, and he requested the publication of a letter from him as a means of resolving the matter. He also repeated what he described as a long-standing request for the newspaper to publish an opinion piece from him.
The Irish Times acknowledged that Dr Meehan’s email pointing out the error “was missed initially” as the newspaper had received four emails from him within 28 hours and reference to the error had been “in the second paragraph of the fourth of those emails” which had the subject line “Re: Bethany Home letter not published today (day 2)”.
The Irish Times acknowledged that there was an inaccuracy in the first line of the article which summarised the President’s statement and it corrected the online article on 19 January and published a correction in print on 20 January.
In subsequent correspondence with the Office of the Press Ombudsman Dr Meehan complained that his email highlighting the error was never considered by the editor, and that the error was not corrected in a timely manner.
Dr Meehan also complained about what he described as a distortion of a sentence by the newspaper in relation to a statement in the Commission’s Report that read “A dominant influence on the management committee and, consequently, on the ethos of Bethany (particularly in its first decades of existence), were those members who were associated with the Church of Ireland Society of Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics (ICM)”. He said that The Church of Ireland attempted to distance itself from the Irish Church Missions by the inclusion of a “Notes to Editors” accompanying a press release which it issued questioning some of the Commission’s findings. The “Notes to Editors” stated, inter alia, that “The Report more casually describes the ICM as being ‘the Church of Ireland Society’ (Chapter 22, par 22.11). For the reasons above, this is factually inaccurate.” Dr Meehan complained that the newspaper published, verbatim, the details of the Church of Ireland criticisms, but refused to publish evidence supplied by him contradicting the Church of Ireland’s assertions, which he said was a distortion.
In response to Dr Meehan’s complaint that the newspaper did not cite what the Commission’s Report actually said, the editor of The Irish Times responded that the newspaper had correctly quoted from the executive summary of the Commission’s Report in relation to the Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics. He also drew attention to a number of articles published by the newspaper which addressed aspects of the Commission’s Report relating to the Bethany Home and the Commission’s findings on what it described as “…a ‘dominant’ influence on the management and ethos of the home, especially in the decades after foundation, was the Church of Ireland’s Society of Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics …”
Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment)
Dr Meehan complained that Principle 2.3 was breached as The Irish Times did not disclose that the Chairman of The Irish Times in the period 1959-73 had a role in the Bethany Mother and Baby Home. Dr Meehan believed that this role should have been disclosed by The Irish Times.
The Irish Times in response to this part of Dr Meehan’s complaint pointed out that “it is nearly half a century since (the person referred to by Dr Meehan) was chairman of The Irish Times” and that this person had not featured in the Commission’s Report.
Principle 4 (Respect for Rights)
Dr Meehan is his complaint stated that The Irish Times’ “failure to correct its misrepresentation (of the President’s remarks), at least subsequently in the letters page, constitutes failure by the newspaper to uphold Principle 4”.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision
Decision of Press Ombudsman
Principle 1.2 states:
When a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report or picture has been published, it shall be corrected promptly and with due prominence.
The Irish Times corrected the inaccuracy it had published about the President’s statement and this complied with the requirement contained in Principle 1 to correct a significant inaccuracy promptly. It is noted that the article was corrected some days after Dr Meehan drew the newspaper’s attention to it. However, the explanation for the delay in publishing the correction given by the newspaper is accepted.
The Irish Times provided extensive coverage of the findings of the Commission’s Report and reaction to it in the six articles under complaint. The Report itself was over 3,000 pages long, and comments were sought and received from many people, and reported upon in the articles. I have no evidence to suggest that the newspaper’s reporting of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in any of the six articles complained about were distorted or inaccurate by omission or otherwise in breach of Principle 1 of the Code.
Principle 2.3 states:
Readers are entitled to expect that the content of the press reflects the best judgment of editors and writers and has not been inappropriately influenced by undisclosed interests. Wherever relevant, any significant financial interest of an organization should be disclosed.
I do not believe that Principle 2 of the Code was breached in any of the articles that are the subject of this complaint. I am not persuaded by the arguments presented by Dr Meehan that the role of a person who held a position on the Board of The Irish Times so long ago and who had also a role in one Mother and Baby home should have been disclosed. Looking at the six articles under complaint I can find no evidence that the best judgment of editors and writers was inappropriately influenced by undisclosed interests.
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.
The newspaper made an error in attributing to the President the reference to “Catholic Church” when the word the President used was “Church”. This mistake was acknowledged by The Irish Times and corrected. I do not, however, believe that the error was evidence of a failure to check facts before publication, or that the newspaper knowingly published matter based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations.
Dr Meehan’s complaint on the coverage by The Irish Times in six articles published over a short period in January 2021 of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was extensive and detailed. He raised a number of very strongly held views on why he believed the newspaper’s coverage over this period was, by reason of inaccuracy, omission or otherwise, in breach of the Code of Practice, and how the newspaper’s failure to publish evidence supplied by him supported this view. Dr Meehan believed that The Irish Times censored relevant factual information that he brought to its attention. The editor of The Irish Times said that he was influenced by nothing other than a determination to reflect the issues fairly and to report the Commission’s findings in an accurate, proportionate and balanced way. I do not believe that any of the newspaper’s six articles published in January 2021 represented a breach of the Press Council’s Code of Practice.
14 April 2021