Irish Refugee Council and the Irish Independent

By admin
Thursday, 7th April 2016
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The Press Ombudsman has decided not to uphold a complaint by the Irish Refugee Council.

On 11 January 2016 the Irish Independent published a short article under the headline “When drunk, they get angry and want to show women who’s in charge”.  The article was a follow-up report to previously published reports that women in the German city of Cologne had been subject to assaults by Arab immigrants on New Year’s Eve. The article included comments from one “native of Cologne” that an explanation for the attacks could be found in a culture which is “dominated by men”.  A second person from Cologne was quoted as saying that she was angry about “the violent sexual assaults and about how the right-wing is trying to use this as proof that all refugees are criminals”.  

The Refugee Council wrote to Independent Newspapers claiming that the article was a breach of Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. The Council claimed that the article’s headline was misleading and inaccurate, that it contained xenophobic sentiment, and that the article was prejudicial and stirred up hatred against a particular ethnic group.

The Managing Editor of Independent Newspapers responded rejecting the complaint, stating, in particular, that the headline was a quote from a person interviewed for the article and that including interviewee’s opinions in headlines is standard journalistic practice.

Having received this response from Independent Newspapers the Refugee Council made a formal complaint to the Press Ombudsman’s Office. The Council repeated the claims that Principles 1, 2 and 8 had been breached. In particular, it questioned the decision to use a quotation from a “non-authoritative and non-elite news source” in such a prominent manner in the article.  It described the interviewee’s status as a “public bystander” and that his comments were based on “personal prejudice” and “anecdotal information” that was not corroborated in the rest of the article. The Council also queried the interchangeability of the term “refugee” and men of “Arab or North African origin”.  The Council concluded that the article was “damaging to refugees and asylum seekers seeking protection in Europe”.

In correspondence with the Press Ombudsman’s Office the Irish Independent rejected the claim that the article was xenophobic.  The newspaper claimed that the article contained a range of views and that the Refugee Council was selective in its choice of quotations.

The editor in addressing the concerns of the Refugee Council about terminology used in the article offered to publish the following clarification

In an article published in the Irish Independent on 11 January (“When drunk, they got angry and want to show women who’s in charge”)”), it was stated that the mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve were committed “mostly by refugees”.  We are happy to clarify that most of the suspects identified by police were migrants and not refugees.

The editor further stated that the online version of the article in had already been edited to reflect this change in terminology.

In a letter to the Press Ombudsman’s Office the Refugee Council stated that it did not take the offer of a clarification as an acceptable response to the complaint.

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

The article that led to this complaint was not a substantial article.  This is not a criticism of the article.  Newspapers carry many articles, some of them are substantial, others not. In this instance the article contained two varying views of residents of Cologne about the New Year’s Eve assaults in their city.  The Refugee Council is unhappy at, what it perceives, as the undue emphasis placed on the opinions of a “bystander”.  However the newspaper clearly identified the interviewee as a Cologne “native”.  It made no claim about the status of the interviewee or the accuracy of what he had to say.  I can understand that the Refugee Council might have preferred that a more authoritative person might have been interviewed.  But the inclusion of comments from “bystanders” is often insightful and can contribute to an overall understanding of events in the news.

In regard to Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) there has been a debate about the terminology used to describe people arriving in Europe, fleeing conflict and war in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. “Refugees”, “migrants”, “economic migrants” and “asylum-seekers” are the most used terms. All these terms mean something different.    It is the case that the language used by journalists can have an influence on readers’ perceptions of events and that care should be taken by journalists to avoid language which is prejudicial or misleading.   The newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification in its print edition that most of the suspects identified by police were migrants and not refugees, and the amendment of its online article to reflect this correction, was sufficient remedial action on its part to resolve the complaint made under Principle 1 about the statement in question.   No other issues arise in the article about a possible breach of Principle 1      

I am also of the view that there was no breach of Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment).  The only comments in the article were clearly labelled and identified as comment. 

I can also find no breach of Principle 8 (Prejudice). The article contained no material that was intended to or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against any ethnic group.  The Refugee Council refers to breaches of Principle 8 as being “implicit” in the article where an “in-group, out-group bias” is established where Germany’s new Arab immigration population is depicted as something to be feared.  I am unable to find evidence in the article that would support this viewpoint.

7 April 2016