A Man and Independent.ie
The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint made by a man that Independent.ie 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 of the Press Council of Ireland.
Over five days Independent.ie ran four of articles about an unsuccessful damages claim in the Circuit Court. A man, the complainant, made a personal injuries claim in the Circuit Court for injuries he received in a cycling accident involving a hit-and-run driver. The first article described the complainant’s injuries as allegedly “incapacitating”. His claim was unsuccessful, it was reported, as it was found that “he had given misleading information regarding his previous medical history”. Counsel for the Medical Insurers Bureau of Ireland claimed that the complainant had “misled a doctor about his past medical history”. The Counsel claimed that the complainant had concealed information during an examination by a sports’ injury specialist about a previous €20,000 out of court settlement for a claim for injuries received in a sports centre. It was reported that the Judge dismissed the complainant’s claim stating, “It is compelling me to the conclusion that the plaintiff was misleading … by failing to give … all the relevant details, not because of a misunderstanding but because of a determination not to reveal the Aquatic (previous) accident”. The first three articles subject to complaint were court reports. The fourth article published under the heading was a commentary piece.
The complainant wrote to the editor of Independent.ie stating that the event he had participated in was not a “triathlon”, which typically includes swimming as one of three events. He said the three events were running, cycling and kayaking. He also said that the claim that he was “incapacitated” was “completely” untrue and that all he had intended seeking from the court was the cost of the medical treatment for the injuries he had received (“no more than €3,800”). He said the €60,000 mentioned in the Independent.ie reports referred to the maximum level of damages that could be awarded in the Circuit Court and that he had never sought this amount. He said that he had never set out “to deceive or lie” about his case and the reporting had caused him immense damage. He also objected to the publication of “strategically chosen photos taken from (his) Facebook page” which he claimed “were set out to completely destroy (his) character”. He asked that the online articles be corrected or removed.
The editor of Independent.ie replied to the complainant stating he did not accept that the articles were inaccurate and declined to remove them from Independent.ie.
The complainant made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman claiming that Principles 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the Code of Practice had been breached.
In a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman the editor of Independent.ie stated that the complaint was “groundless”. He went on to state that “The various articles mentioned were clearly in the public interest. They comprised fair and accurate reports of court proceedings and a comment piece by a respected financial journalist on the issue of false personal injury claims”. The editor went on to state that the complainant had “… made a claim for €60,000 damages (this is the jurisdiction in the Circuit Civil Court). This was thrown out after it was ruled that (the complainant) had given misleading evidence”. The editor argued that the use of the term “triathlon” was a fair description of the event that the complainant had participated in.
The complainant responded to the editor’s submission repeating his claim that the event he had participated in had not been a “triathlon” as it hadn’t included swimming and that he had never claimed he was “incapacitated”. He also raised again the issue of the photographs used to illustrate the articles.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
This Principle requires the press to strive at all times for truth and accuracy. The claims by the complainant of inaccuracy in the reports in Independent.ie refer to (1) the use of the term “incapacitating” to describe his alleged injuries, (2) to the use of the term “triathlon” and (3) the claim that he was seeking €60,000 damages.
(1) The expression “incapacitating injuries” is within quotation marks. The complainant says he never claimed to be incapacitated. As neither complainant nor publisher submitted transcripts of the court proceedings I do not have sufficient evidence available to me to decide if the use of the words “incapacitating injuries” in the article breached Principle 1 of the Code of Practice.
(2) The term “triathlon” usually refers to an arduous athletics event that involves swimming as one of three events. However, to use the term when the three events were running, cycling and kayaking was justifiable and not a significant inaccuracy that needed to be corrected.
(3) Many newspaper reports of Circuit Court proceedings where personal injuries damages are being sought refer to the €60,000 upper limit of awards that can be made. The report stated that the complainant was seeking €60,000 in damages might better have read that he was seeking damages in court where the upper limit that could be awarded was €60,000. However, the shorthand use of the upper figure is widely used in circuit court reporting and does not constitute a significant inaccuracy and is therefore not a breach of Principle 1.
This Principle requires the press to distinguish between fact and comment. The first three articles were court reports, the fourth was an opinion column on insurance industry fraud. I can find no examples of any comment, conjecture, rumour or unconfirmed reports being reported as if they were fact in any of the four articles.
This Principle requires the press to strive at all times for fair procedures and honesty in the procuring and publishing of news and information. The Principle goes on to require that photographs should not be obtained by misrepresentation or subterfuge, unless justified by the public interest. The complainant’s complaint refers to the use of his image obtained off his Facebook page. No evidence has been offered to the Office of the Press Ombudsman that this image was obtained through misrepresentation or subterfuge. The photograph published showed the complainant running in the countryside in a t-shirt with the logo of the sports event he had participated in after his accident. Its publication can be justified in the public interest.
This Principle requires the press to not knowingly publish matter based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations. The first three articles are based on court proceedings. There is no evidence that the articles strayed away from reporting what had taken place in court. There is no evidence of any failure to take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. The fourth article, the opinion piece, uses what was stated in court in an article on insurance fraud claims. There is no breach of Principle 4 in this article.
This Principle deals with the right of privacy. Principle 5.2 states that “the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record or in the public interest”. The first three articles were reports of court proceedings and their publication could be justified as being in the public interest. The fourth article used information on the public record for comment purposes and this could be justified as in the public interest.
Note: the complainant has exercised his right under data protection legislation to have the decision reported in an anonymous form.
30 May 2018