780/2021 - Dr Niall Meehan and The Irish Times

By Gabrielle Collins
Monday, 10th May 2021
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(Article published on 2 February 2021) The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint by Dr Niall Meehan that The Irish Times breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.

On 2 February 2021 The Irish Times published an opinion piece under the heading “Impugning the Mother and Baby Commission does not serve victims”.   The writer argued that some of the criticism of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes voiced by commentators and politicians did not serve well those survivors of Mother and Baby Homes.

Dr Niall Meehan complained about the article, which he described as an “inaccurate, misleading and distorted report”.  He said that the writer of the article asserted that critics of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission report promote “alternative facts” and that the article regarded the report as a largely accurate document, but he said that it was not accurate in places.  He cited an example of an inaccuracy contained in the report in the text of a letter which he had submitted to The Irish Times for publication.  The letter for publication referred to a specific account in the Commission report of an unmarried mother. The report referred to a “parish priest’s” involvement in the incident. Whereas the clergyman was actually a Church of Ireland Canon according to Dr Meehan and the social worker referred to in the report came from the Protestant Adoption Society. In the letter he submitted for publication Dr Meehan described this as an “important error” and concluded “Besides the question of factual inaccuracy, the mistake outlined here is symptomatic of a powerful preferred narrative, not limited to those responsible for the mistake above, in which patriarchal controls are construed as a purely Roman Catholic affair”.

 Dr Meehan said that if there was a “failure to rectify the problems outlined” (i.e. that the opinion column treated the Commission report as accurate whereas, in fact, in his opinion, it was “not accurate in places”) a complaint would be made to the Office of the Press Ombudsman on the basis of a breach of Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice.

The editor of The Irish Times defended the opinion piece published on 2 February 2021 and claimed that Principle 1 had not been breached, noting that Dr Meehan “places great emphasis on his view that ‘the commission’s report is not accurate in places’”. The editor said the writer of the opinion column acknowledged in what he wrote that “Commissions are imperfect mechanisms”. The editor also claimed that Dr Meehan had misconstrued the reference in the article to “alternative facts”. This, the editor argued, was a “reference to the broader context of public discourse around the issue”. The editor drew attention to a number of letters which had been published which had taken issue with the writer’s opinion and said that the newspaper received a great many letters for publication and could only find space for a small selection.

Dr Meehan responded to The Irish Times submission stating that the opinion column contained “significant inaccuracies, misleading statements and distorted reports”. He said it “was replete with falsehoods”. He claimed the article had been unfair to critics of the Commission’s report, by “caricaturing and misrepresenting criticism of the official report”. His letter for publication, he said, had only highlighted one error which was “one of a number” he was aware of.

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

In his submissions to the Office of the Press Ombudsman Dr Meehan complained about what he described as the “inaccurate, misleading and distorted claim” in the article with regard to the issue of “alternative facts”, and the consistent promotion of a “distorted and misleading account” of responsibility for running mother and baby institutions.

The subject of this complaint is an opinion column. Readers expect to find in opinion columns the views and perceptions of the column writer.  Dr Meehan fails to identify specific inaccuracies in the column, although he identified what he described as a number of inaccuracies in the Commission’s report.  Therefore I find that the column was not an inaccurate, misleading or distorted report, and did not, therefore, breach Principle 1 of the Code of Practice.

Dr Meehan was unhappy at the failure of The Irish Times to publish a letter he had submitted which drew attention to an error in the Commission’s Report but any decision to publish a letter submitted for publication by a member of the public is entirely at the discretion of editors.

14 April 2021