801/2021 - Mrs Margaret McCarthy, Cork Traveller Women’s Network, Irish Traveller Movement and the Sunday World
On 6 July 2021 the Press Ombudsman upheld a complaint that the Sunday World breached Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. Other parts of the complaint were not upheld or it was found that there was insufficient evidence to make a decision.
On 14 February 2021, the Sunday World published an article under the headline “Garda operation in place for ‘King’s’ Covid funeral”. The article outlined how Gardaí had put in place a major operation to stop large crowds gathering at the funeral of Mr Michael McCarthy in Cork city.
The man’s widow, Margaret McCarthy, the Cork Traveller Women’s Network and Irish Traveller Movement complained to the editor of the Sunday World that Mrs McCarthy found the Sunday World’s coverage of her husband’s funeral “heart-breaking and traumatising”. They said that Principle 5 of the Code had been breached in the manner in which Mr McCarthy’s private medical information had been published. They complained about the headline which referred to a “Covid funeral” and a photograph of Mr McCarthy which accompanied the article which had the caption “Michael McCarthy died after contracting Covid19”. The complainants also claimed that the article had breached the requirement found in Principle 5.3 that Sympathy and discretion must be shown at all times in seeking information in situations of personal grief or shock. In publishing such information, the feelings of grieving families should be taken into account. They said the tone of the article was “very unsympathetic and disrespectful” and showed “no regard” for the family.
As the complainants received no response from the editor of the Sunday World they made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman.
In a submission to the Press Ombudsman the editor of the Sunday World defended the newspaper’s coverage of the funeral. Regarding the claim that Principle 5 had been breached the editor stated that the funeral had taken place at the height of Ireland’s efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19, and that large gatherings such as took place at the funeral were expressly prohibited and it was therefore a strong matter of public interest to raise awareness of how Covid-19 regulations “were not being followed”. In regard to Mr McCarthy’s private medical information the editor noted that the cause of Mr McCarthy’s death was made known at the funeral.
I am upholding this complaint as a breach of Principle 5 of the Code. An individual’s medical records are private and should not be published without permission. There is a consideration of the public interest as a justification for breaching privacy in Principle 5. In this instance the newspaper could have reported concerns at Covid-19 restrictions being breached without referring to Mr McCarthy’s cause of death. The fact that Mr McCarthy had Covid-19 was referred to at the funeral is not a justification for inclusion of this information in the article and in particular, in the headline. I am also upholding this complaint on the grounds that the newspaper failed to take account of a grieving family in the manner in which the funeral was reported.
Other parts of the complaint were not upheld, or there was insufficient evidence to make a decision.
A Cork City Councillor was quoted in the article making various comments about the funeral arrangements. The complainants noted that there was no evidence that the newspaper had made any attempt to verify some of the Councillor’s claims. They claimed that this was a breach of Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment). The editor stated that the remarks attributed to the Councillor about the Covid cluster were directed at wider public health concerns and not directly at the McCarthy family. The editor also noted that the Councillor’s remarks were prefaced by “I would imagine” and therefore were clearly a comment rather than a statement of fact. Because the remarks complained about were attributed to the Councillor in question, I can find no failure to distinguish between fact and comment in this part of the complaint and therefore take the view that Principle 2 was not breached.
The complainants outlined how family photographs had been published without permission and that photographs and quotes from social media postings of family members had been used without their permission and presented in a manner suggesting the Sunday World had engaged with the family directly. The complainants stated this had been a breach of Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) of the Code of Practice.
In regard to the alleged breach of Principle 3 the newspaper stated that all the photographs used to accompany the article had been “taken in a public place or published on unrestricted social media platforms where they are still publicly available”.
I am not upholding the complaint under Principle 3. There is a general acceptance that images posted on social media without any privacy restrictions may be used by newspapers unless the images are used in an improper manner. In this instance, the images used were not used improperly.
The complainants stated that the article may have breached Principle 8 (Prejudice) which requires the press not to publish material intended or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against, amongst others, members of the travelling community. The editor rejected the claim that Principle 8 had been breached. He said that the newspaper had on several previous occasions reported on alleged breaches of Covid-19 restrictions by various individuals and groups, and that the reporting of Mr McCarthy’s funeral was no different to other reports of possible breaches and “there is absolutely no basis for a complaint under Principle 8”. I can find nothing in the article which breaches Principle 8 of the Code of Practice.
Insufficient Evidence to make a decision
The complainants stated that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) had been breached in the article as a Cork City Councillor interviewed for the article was quoted as saying that a “procession of cars visited Spring Lane halting site where we know that we had 60 diagnosed cases (of Covid-19) where people were just out of isolation and some still in isolation, I would imagine …” The complainants pointed out that the outbreak of Covid-19 at the halting site had been a month earlier and they could “confirm that all families were well out of the isolation period at the time of Michael’s funeral”. I have insufficient evidence available to me to make a decision on this part of the complaint.
The complainants also objected to the use of the title “King” referring to Mr McCarthy in the headline. They said that this was not a “nickname, or a pet name or even a name he was known as”. They said he had been referred to as “our king” by one of the family in a eulogy at the funeral. The newspaper in its defence said that it took the description “King” from Mr McCarthy’s death notice published in RIP.ie. There is insufficient evidence to decide if the use of the term “King” is a breach of the Code of Practice.