Mr Adrian Doyle and the Wexford People
On 22 December 2022, the Press Ombudsman decided not to uphold a complaint by Mr Adrian Doyle about an article published by the Wexford People.
The article, published in July 2022, is a report of a High Court case about disputed property transactions. The front page headlines a claim made by a man that he had been coerced into buying a site by a member of his family. The subheading states “High Court Judge would not draw inferences into truth of claim” and the opening paragraph of the report says the site is at the centre of a High Court action by the man against a developer. There is a photograph of the man who made the claim - who is described in the article as vulnerable - and two smaller photographs, one of his relative - Mr Doyle, and one of the developer.
Mr Doyle stated that he had been a “public person”, having held senior roles in local government for significant periods, before his retirement in 2013. He said the claim that he had coerced his relative was “untrue, unfounded and unsubstantiated.”
Mr Doyle initially complained to the editor about the front-page article. He said the article breached the Press Council’s Code of Practice under Principle 2.2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3.1 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights.) The editor responded, stating that the front-page article was a summary of a public judgement delivered in the High Court, and on the public record. Mr Doyle subsequently extended his complaint to include pages 4 and 5 of the paper which carried a fuller account of the High Court proceedings.
Mr Doyle submitted a formal complaint to the Press Ombudsman’s Office on 23 August claiming the article as a whole breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) , Principle 5 (Privacy) and Principle 7 (Court Reporting).
The newspaper rejected the complaint in its entirety. The editor said it was not the job of a newspaper to investigate claims made in court proceedings - that was the Judge’s job - but rather to report them. He said the article specified that the court proceedings were against the developer’s company, and that it strove to be fair and accurate. He said the front page had summarised the judgement, while the inside pages had followed the order of the judgement.
The complaint could not be considered when it was first made, as there were ongoing court proceedings related to its subject matter. Once it was confirmed that these had concluded, the complaint proceeded in November. As it was not possible to resolve the complaint by conciliation it was referred to the Press Ombudsman on 6 December.
The complaint is summarised below along with the Press Ombudsman’s decision, broken down to cover each Principle. The Press Ombudsman’s decision is based, inter alia, on Mr Doyle’s full complaint and the Wexford People’s responses. The article is taken to include the front page and pages 4 and 5.
Principle 1: Mr Doyle said the paper had made no attempt to investigate the background of his relative’s claim of coercion, or of his vulnerability. He complained that neither he nor his relative had been contacted, that the front-page headline was a “deliberate distortion” of the High Court judgement and that it was “sexed up”. He said that the use of his photograph as a known public figure was meant to create an impression of wrongdoing on his part.
Decision: The Press Ombudsman finds that the role of a newspaper is to report court proceedings fairly and accurately, and not to investigate the veracity or otherwise of claims which form part of the evidence under consideration, in this case by a High Court Judge. The front-page headline on the article reports a claim of coercion which is referred to in evidence. The headline refers to a claim made in court – it does not invite the reader to believe or disbelieve the claim. The subheading and the opening paragraphs of the story clearly set out the context. The Press Ombudsman does not find evidence of any attempt to imply wrongdoing on the part of Mr Doyle. Nor does she find anything inappropriate about the publication of his photograph. It is relevant to the account of the case as it is reported within the paper. The Press Ombudsman finds no breach of Principle 1.
Principle: 2.2: In his original complaint to the newspaper, Mr Doyle complained that the front-page article breached Principle 2.2 of the Code.
Decision: The Press Ombudsman finds no evidence that comment, conjecture, rumour, or unconfirmed reports were reported as if they were fact in the article, which follows the conventions of court reporting. There is no breach of Principle 2.2.
Principle 3: Mr Doyle said the Judge’s statement on not drawing inferences into the truth of the claim of coercion was not given due prominence and that the subheading on Page 1 was “a clumsy attempt at a cover your arse tactic”. He claimed the paper had mixed up comments made by the Judge in a deliberate attempt to mislead, and to “ridicule and dishonour” him.
Decision: The sub-headline in large-font capitals states “High Court Judge would not draw inferences into truth of claim”. It is clear that the claim referred to is the one in the headline. The Judge’s statement in this regard is reiterated in the third paragraph of the front-page story. The Press Ombudsman considers that this constitutes due prominence. The Press Ombudsman disagrees with Mr Doyle’s contention that the newspaper has used quotes from the judgement in a misleading way. Nor does she find evidence of efforts to ridicule or dishonour Mr Doyle. Principle 3 is not breached.
Principle 4: Mr Doyle said the publisher’s failure to contact him disregarded his right to a good name.
Decision: The Press Ombudsman finds that it is not the role of a newspaper to contact parties named in a court hearing, but rather to report the proceedings fairly and accurately. She finds that due care was taken in this regard. Mr Doyle’s good name is not impugned. There is no breach of Principle 4
Principle 5: Mr Doyle argued his photograph should not have been published since the Judge had noted he was not party to the High Court proceedings and she had also said no inferences should be drawn in relation to the allegation of coercion. Mr Doyle said the public interest in the case was the Judge’s decision on the dispute between his relative and the developer and he suggested that it was because of his former status that the paper had instead focused on him.
Decision: The coverage by newspapers of High Court proceedings is entirely in the public interest. The Press Ombudsman finds that the use of the photograph is justified. She accepts the editor’s explanation that the report, which follows the judgement, refers to three named individuals, all of whom are photographed. There is no breach of Mr Doyle’s privacy. There is no implication of any wrongdoing by Mr Doyle. There is no breach of Principle 5.
Principle 7: Mr Doyle said the manner of the reporting of the case was neither fair nor accurate and, in relation to him, did not respect the presumption of innocence as required, and that this was deliberate. He said it was not stated until the bottom of page 5 that he was not a party to the proceedings.
Decision: The Press Ombudsman finds that the report clearly refers both in the front-page summary and in the inside pages to the Judge’s statement that she drew no inference on the allegations of coercion made by Mr Doyle’s relative. It also makes it clear from the start that the party against whom the action has been taken by Mr Doyle’s relative is the developer. The editor states that the report follows the order of the judgement as delivered (a matter of public record). The Press Ombudsman finds no evidence of an attempt to suggest that Mr Doyle is guilty of any wrongdoing or offence. The Press Ombudsman finds no breach of Principle 7.
Mr Doyle complained in addition that the spirit of the Code of Practice had been ignored. The Press Ombudsman does not find this to be the case.
Mr Doyle appealed the decision to the Press Council of Ireland on the following grounds:
- The procedures followed in making the decision were not in accordance with the published procedures for submitting and considering complaints.
- There was an error in the Press Ombudsman’s application of the Principles of the Code of Practice.
The Press Council considered the appeal at its meeting on Wednesday, 1 March 2023.
1. Mr Doyle argued that the procedures followed by the Press Ombudsman in making her decision were not in accordance with the published procedures for submitting and considering complaints. The Press Council rejected Mr Doyle’s appeal on this ground as it found that Mr Doyle presented no evidence to support it.
2. Mr Doyle argued that the Press Ombudsman had erred in her application of Principle 1 of the Code of Practice because the article did not reflect what was contained in the court judgment and that that, together with the publication of his photograph, was neither accurate nor fair. The Press Council rejected this part of the appeal because it agreed with the Press Ombudsman’s decision, which it said was fully-reasoned. It agreed that the article was fair and accurate, as is expected of a newspaper in its reporting of court proceedings.
Mr Doyle argued that the Press Ombudsman had erred in her application of Principle 3 of the Code of Practice because the article was not fair, honest or accurate. The Council rejected this part of the appeal. As set out in its decision regarding Principle 1, it found that the article was fair and accurate. It also observed that, contrary to Mr Doyle’s argument that Principle 3 should be interpreted as relating to the fairness and honesty of the article, it is in fact concerned with how the press procures information, photographs and other material on which its reports are based. The Council noted that the correct title of Principle 3 is “Fair Procedures and Honesty”, and that it was correctly cited in the Ombudsman’s decision.
Mr Doyle argued that the Press Ombudsman had erred in her application of Principle 7 of the Code of Practice because the front page of the newspaper report did not reflect accurately what the judge had said in court. The Press Council rejected this part of the appeal because it found that both the front page and the report inside the newspaper fairly and accurately reported the court proceedings.
Finally, Mr Doyle made reference in his appeal to the Preamble to the Code of Practice, which states that it is the duty of the Press Ombudsman and Press Council to ensure that the Code is honoured in the spirit as well as in the letter. The Press Council was satisfied that the Press Ombudsman had fulfilled this duty.