923/2021 - Mr Ciarán Ferrie and The Irish Times

By Gabrielle Collins
Monday, 20th September 2021
Filed under:

The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint by Mr Ciarán Ferrie that The Irish Times breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.

On 16 June 2021, The Irish Times published an article under the heading “What will Irish roads look like in 2030?” The article was published under a caption “Special Report”.

Mr Ciarán Ferrie wrote to the editor of The Irish Times stating that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice had been breached as the article presented as inevitable “the continued focus on road building in Ireland as a response to the country’s transport needs” rather than investment in “sustainable transport modes”. Mr Ferrie also stated that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) had been breached as the article was not clearly presented as an opinion piece. He also stated that Principle 2 had been breached as he believed the article had been funded by an undisclosed third party.

The Irish Times responded to Mr Ferrie stating that the article had been “clearly and prominently flagged as a ‘Special Report’” and that the words “Motors Focus 2021” featured at the top of the piece. The newspaper stated “These indicators would be very visible to any reader when opening the article and they make the nature of the content very clear”.  It also  defended the references in the article to road building as plans for the new roads mentioned in the article were well advanced in terms of planning and public consultation. The newspaper  offered to publish a letter from Mr Ferrie, noting that The Irish Times had previously published a letter from him calling for an end to prioritisation for  private cars and for the reallocation of road space to more sustainable modes of transport, and that it had reported on other statements that he had made.

As Mr Ferrie was not satisfied with the response from The Irish Times he made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman. He stated the article promoted continued and increasing car dependence at a time when we need to try to mitigate the worst effects of the climate emergency.

The editor of The Irish Times in a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman defended the article the subject of the complaint. He said that the article dealt with Ireland’s transition to electric vehicles. He noted that Mr Ferrie had not pointed to any specific inaccuracy in the article but had focussed on a number of angles which  he would have liked to have seen included. The editor pointed out that the issues Mr Ferrie would have wished to have been included in the article had been covered “in depth” previously by The Irish Times. He went on  to note that the Minister for Transport and Climate Action had spoken about a shift in government policy from motorway building to smaller-scale roads. In regard to Principle 2 the editor stated that the article was clearly labelled as a “Special Report” which the newspaper had published “for decades”. He said editorial control remained with the newspaper in special reports and advertisers supported the contents, and he repeated the newspaper’s offer to publish a letter from him.

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

Principle 1

I can find no breach of the requirement for the press to strive for truth and accuracy as found in Principle 1. Mr Ferrie’s concerns are about the focus of the article on road building and electric cars rather than other transport issues which he argues are more important in addressing climate change. No inaccuracy in the article was identified by Mr Ferrie and therefore there is no breach of Principle 1

Principle 2

This Principle requires the press to distinguish between fact and comment. The presentation and the labelling of the article made it clear to readers that the article was an opinion piece by a motoring journalist. It was labelled appropriately for an opinion piece.

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.

Newspapers are increasingly publishing articles and supplements that are funded by commercial interests. The article that led to this particular complaint was described by the editor as “supported” by advertisers. It is important for the maintenance of the integrity of journalism that these articles are clearly signalled to readers as being associated with commercial activity. The manner in which The Irish Times published the article on 16 June met the requirement to inform readers of the commercial relationship of the newspaper and advertising interests. There was no breach of Principle 2.3 of the Code.

2 September 2021