925/2021 - A Complainant and the Sunday Independent

By Gabrielle Collins
Friday, 20th August 2021
Filed under:

The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint that the Sunday Independent breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 4 (Respect for Right) and Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. He has insufficient evidence available to him to decide if Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) had been breached.

The Sunday Independent published an article which was an account of how Sinn Féin had, following an internal review of the party, asked two of its elected representatives in Derry to stand down at the next elections. Included in the article was an extract from a Facebook post which was attributed to an unnamed member of Sinn Féin.

The complainant, who had posted the Facebook comment referred to in the article, wrote to the editor of the Sunday Independent saying that the journalist who wrote the article was “dishonest and misled” her and that the article’s reference to her as a member of Sinn Féin was inaccurate. She said that she had been approached by the journalist seeking an interview. She said she told the journalist that she did not wish to be interviewed and that she did not want him to publish her Facebook post in his article. She said that the journalist “gave me his word that he would not do this”.

The editor of the Sunday Independent responded by saying that the journalist’s recollection was that he told her that he would not be ‘including you’ in anything he wrote – by which he understood he would be referring to her Facebook post but not to her by name. In regard to the claim in the article that the Facebook post came from a member of Sinn Féin the editor acknowledged that this was inaccurate. He said that the journalist had made an assumption that the complainant was a member of Sinn Féin. The editor said that the online article would be amended and corrected, with the changes highlighted in bold and a note at the bottom to state that the original article incorrectly referred to the Facebook post as coming from a Sinn Féin member, rather than a supporter, and that this person was not a source for the article.  

The complainant made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman claiming that the article had breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice. She said that she wished to complain about the manner in which her Facebook post had been obtained by the journalist as she said she had not given permission for her post to be used.

The editor of the Sunday Independent in a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman  said that he had already  acknowledged that the reference to the complainant as a Sinn Féin member was incorrect and that the online version of the article had been amended.   He said the complainant had already acknowledged that the Facebook post had been widely shared. He said that it was clear that the journalist and the complainant had understood their conversation differently. He said the journalist understood that he had assured the complainant that she would not be named, but that the complainant understood that that the Facebook post would not be referred to at all in the article.

In a final submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman the complainant reiterated that the journalist had misled her and that he had breached an agreement.

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

Principle 1

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 article published on 16 May 2021 stated that the author of the Facebook post was a member of Sinn Féin. This was inaccurate. When this inaccuracy was made clear to the Sunday Independent the inaccuracy was corrected online. As the complaint is only about the online edition of the Sunday Independent this response was sufficient to address the matter and therefore there was no breach of Principle 1.

Principle 2

This Principle requires editors to ensure that a distinction is maintained between fact and comment. I can find no breach of this Principle in the article the subject of this complaint.

Principle 3

Principle 3.1 and 3.2 states

3.1 The press shall strive at all times for fair procedures and honesty in the procuring and publishing of news and information.
3.2 The press shall not obtain information, photographs or other material through misrepresentation or subterfuge, unless justified by the public interest.

Two differing accounts of what was agreed between the journalist and the complainant were presented to me. I have insufficient evidence available to me to determine which account is accurate. Therefore I am unable to make a decision as to whether Principle 3 was breached.

Principle 4

Principle 4 states

Everyone has constitutional protection for his or her good name. 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 editor has acknowledged that the attribution of Sinn Féin membership to the complainant was inaccurate and corrected this. An error in something published does not necessarily mean a failure to take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. In this instance I can find no evidence that the journalist failed to take reasonable care in his research for the article. His mistaken attribution of membership of Sinn Féin was not as a result of reliance on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations but on the assumption that the complainant was a member based on her Facebook posting. I therefore find no breach of Principle 4.

Principle 5

Principle 5 protects the privacy of individuals. What has to be considered in determining if the privacy of the complainant was breached is the reference in the article to her Facebook post. The first point to make is that she was not named in the article, therefore for most people her identity would not be revealed by the article. The second point is that her Facebook post  was  a political observation rather than a personal comment of a private nature. Indeed the complainant described what she posted as an “article”. The third point is that social media postings are generally not private communications. Even if they are only sent to a small number of individuals there is always the likelihood that the posts will be forwarded to individuals outside the intended recipients.  For these reasons I find no breach of Principle 5. 

 The complainant is not named in the decision as she has requested anonymity.

5 August 2021