A Complainant and The Irish Times
The Press Ombudsman has decided that The Irish Times offered to take action which was sufficient to resolve a complaint that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland had been breached in an opinion piece published by the newspaper.
The Irish Times published an opinion piece which was critical of the reported views of a speaker at a conference on the family.
The complainant (the speaker at the conference) wrote to the editor of The Irish Times stating that there was nothing that he had said at the conference which “would remotely support” assertions in the article about the import of his views. He provided the editor with the full text of his comments at the conference. He sought a retraction and an apology
The Irish Times responded by stating that there was a “serious difference of opinion” between the columnist and the complainant and offered to publish a letter in which the complainant could “elaborate on (his) opinion and address the content of (the) article”.
The complainant was not satisfied with this response from The Irish Times and made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman. He provided a link to a video recording of his contribution to the conference, stating that nothing he had said “could reasonably be construed in the way” the columnist had presented it. He stated that Principle I had been breached as the article had made statements about him which were “untruthful and inaccurate” and Principle 4 had been breached as the article contained “malicious misrepresentation” and “unfounded accusation”.
The Irish Times in a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman defended its publication of the article stating that the Code of Practice allows the press to “advocate strongly its own views on topics” and that both the columnist and the complainant were entitled to their opinions. The editor again offered to publish a letter from the complainant but went on to state that the newspaper believed “it is important to offer an opportunity to address his complaint” and therefore offered to also publish an article in which the complainant could elaborate on his position and his disagreement with the opinions expressed in the article.
The complainant did not accept the editor’s offer to publish an article on the basis that he did not believe that his writing an article for The Irish Times “would be an appropriate response”. Rather he asked for an adjudication from the Press Ombudsman on the truth or otherwise of the statements in the article attributed to him.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
This Principle states
1.1 In reporting news and information, the press shall strive at all times for truth and accuracy.
1.2 When a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report or picture has been published, it shall be corrected promptly and with due prominence.
1.3 When appropriate, a retraction, apology, clarification, explanation or response shall be published promptly and with due prominence.
In this complaint there is no ambiguity about what the complainant said at the conference, as he provided both the script of his presentation and a video of the event. However, the interpretation of his words in the article is challenged by him. Where the contentious issue is one of interpretation of words an offer by an editor to publish an article by the complainant in which he could address the meaning of the words attributed to him by the columnist seems to me to be a reasonable way of offering redress to the complainant. Therefore, I judge that the newspaper offered to take action which was sufficient to resolve the complaint under Principle 1.
This Principle states
4.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 complainant asserts that he was the subject of malicious misrepresentation and unfounded accusation. However, the public expect that opinion columns will often include robust criticisms of viewpoints. The columnist’s interpretation of the remarks made by the complainant are challenged by him, but there is no evidence that there was anything malicious in the comments. The best way of dealing with the disagreement between the columnist and the complainant is through the offer of a substantial right of reply to him. The original offer to publish a letter was not in my opinion sufficient to resolve his complaint. However, the subsequent offer to publish an article was sufficient to resolve the complaint under Principle 4 of the Code.
9 October 2018
Note: The complainant has exercised his right under data protection legislation to have the decision reported in an anonymous form.