MCC and The Sunday Business Post
The Press Ombudsman has decided not to uphold a complaint by Mr Thomas McNally on behalf of MCC that the Sunday Business Post breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
On 28 November 2010 the Sunday Business Post published an article under the heading “African bishop urges Longford brothers to stop trading Mass cards”. The article was about the sale of “pre-signed” Mass cards and reported that a retired Archbishop of Kumasi in Ghana had written a letter to the director of Ireland’s Pontifical Mission Societies requesting Mr McNally and his brother to “stop trading in Mass stipends”. It also reported that a meeting of Irish bishops had called for an end to the practice of selling pre-signed Mass cards in shops.
MCC complained that the article was “riddled with inaccuracies”, “designed to inflict commercial damage on MCC” and was “constructed to financially benefit the Catholic Church”. It alleged that the writer of the report had been inappropriately influenced by his relationship with the Catholic Church and was therefore biased in his reporting. It also called into question the legitimacy of the letter from the retired Archbishop because, it said, the newspaper had not attempted to make personal contact with him. It also queried the interpretation given in the article of a section of the Charities Act 2009.
The editor of the Sunday Business Post stood over the article. He said that correct journalistic procedures had been followed and that the provenance of the letter from the Archbishop of Kumasi had been established. He said that the interpretation of the Charities Act 2009 in the article did not misrepresent Irish law on the sale of Mass cards in any way. Finally he defended the independence of the writer of the article, whom he said was a specialist in legal matters, and said that the contention that his background evidenced some sort of bias was entirely unsustainable and was rejected because there was no evidence of bias in the article. He said that the newspaper had offered the complainant an opportunity “to challenge directly the veracity and validity” of the matters raised in the article prior to publication, but the complainant chose not to avail of this opportunity.
As the complaint could not be resolved through conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
As an appeal had been made by Mr McNally against a High Court decision on the constitutionality of the Charities Act 2009, consideration of his complaint had to be postponed pending the completion or withdrawal of those proceedings. The delay is regrettable but unavoidable.
Having considered the lengthy submissions of both the complainant and the editor I can find no evidence that the article breached Principles 1, 2, 3 or 4 of the Code. The arguments put forward by the complainant are not in any way convincing. MCC complained about the failure of the newspaper to make contact with the retired Archbishop in Ghana to verify the contents of his letter, upon which the article, in part, was based, and that the letter was not available to be scrutinised. The editor said that the journalist had established the provenance of the letter, and had put the concerns raised therein to Mr McNally to give him an opportunity to directly challenge the veracity and validity of its contents. As Press Ombudsman I accept that journalists need to protect their sources and that sometimes elements of what they write have to be taken on trust. I can find nothing in the article that suggests the journalist abused this trust. Mr McNally complained about the interpretation of a section of the Charities Act, 2009. I can find no evidence that this interpretation was inaccurate. He alleged that the writer of the article was compromised by his relationship with the Catholic Church. There is no evidence in the article, and the complainant has produced no evidence, to support this claim.
There was no evidence that the newspaper did not strive at all times for fairness and honesty in the procuring and publishing of the information that was published, or that it did not take reasonable care in checking its facts before publication. Indeed, prior to publication the newspaper offered MCC an opportunity to respond to matters that would be raised in the article. This is the correct journalistic practice when an article addresses contentious issues or raises important matters. Of course a person or an organisation approached in such a manner is fully entitled not to respond. But in this specific instance I find MCC’s reasoning for not responding to be unconvincing.
1 July 2016