Mr Richard Bath and the Sunday Independent
The Press Ombudsman has decided that the Sunday Independent offered to take sufficient remedial action to address a breach of Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland in response to a complaint by Mr Richard Bath.
The Sunday Independent publishes a weekly opinion column under the banner “First Person”. On 20 March 2016 the column’s headline was “Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but as (the author) finds, it’s better than being English”. The column included such comments as “I’m talking about the real, authentic English. The lumpy, lumpen ranks of indigenous oxygen-wasters, with their red faces, wobbly bellies, and the arses that stretch across three neighbouring postcodes. The article also ridiculed regional accents in England. Of the West Country accent the column asked “How can speaking like the serial killer Fred West, who hailed from the West Country vicinity, ever be considered even remotely alluring?”
The complainant, Mr Richard Bath, wrote to the editor of the Sunday Independent informing him that he had been in Dublin at the weekend of the publication of the article reporting on a rugby international match for the Daily Telegraph. He wrote that the column was in breach of Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice. Principle 8 states
The press shall not publish material intended to or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against an individual or group on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, membership of the travelling community, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age.
Mr Bath requested that an apology be published.
Mr Bath received a phone call from the Sunday Independent in which the editor of the section of the newspaper that carried the opinion column described the column as ““contrarian” and not “real” racism”. The editor suggested that Mr Bath could write a letter to the newspaper. This offer was declined as there was “no guarantee that the letter would be published, or that it would be published without being edited”.
As Mr Bath did not receive any further response to his complaint from the Sunday Independent he made a formal complaint to the Press Ombudsman’s Office that Principle 8 of the Code had been breached.
During conciliation the managing editor of Independent News and Media offered Mr Bath “the opportunity to write a platform article for publication in the Sunday Independent of approximately 600 words in length”. The editor added “… this article would be subject to the usual legal and other checks before publication”. Mr Bath queried where his article would be published in the Sunday Independent, as the original article had been published in the Life magazine section of the newspaper. The managing editor said that Mr Bath’s article would not sit comfortably in the Life magazine, but said that the article would be published in the main section of the newspaper which Mr Bath was informed would be more prominent than anything published in the Life magazine.
Mr Bath submitted an article to the Sunday Independent. In an email accompanying the article he stated among other things that the column he had submitted should not be edited or changed in any way and if the headline and or introductory summary downplayed the thrust of his article he would be able to change them.
On receipt of the article the managing editor stated that publication of the article was subject to normal editorial and legal checks and that the newspaper could not agree to publish the article as it stood without editing where he deemed it necessary. Mr Bath asked to see the version of his article which the newspaper intended to publish. An edited version of the article was sent to the Press Ombudsman’s Office which forwarded it to Mr Bath. Upon receipt of the article Mr Bath stated that he was not prepared “to go ahead on the basis of those changes, which neuter the thrust of the column. The rewriting of the last paragraph in particular is totally unacceptable.”
As the complaint could not be conciliated it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
The preamble in the Code of Practice states that
The freedom to publish is vital to the rights of the people to be informed. This freedom includes the right of the press to publish what it considers to be news, without fear or favour, and the right to comment upon it.
The freedom to publish commentary is an important consideration in any decision taken by the Press Ombudsman. In coming to a decision as to whether or not something has breached Principle 8 of the Code there is a fair degree of licence given to opinion column writers. This is to allow commentary to be provocative and challenging. It is also to allow the use of irony and satire in a commentary. This licence, though wide, does have boundaries. In the column published on 20 March I believe the boundary of what is reasonable was breached and that some of the remarks in the column were ill-judged and likely to cause grave offence on the basis of nationality and therefore in breach of Principle 8. There is no evidence that this offence was intentional but more likely was as a result of an unsuccessful attempt at humorous writing. But even allowing for this, I believe that in this instance the column over-stepped the boundaries of what is acceptable and therefore Principle 8 was breached.
However, by offering a right-of-reply the newspaper seemed to be tacitly accepting that the article had been composed in such a manner as to make appropriate a right-of-reply. The complainant submitted his strongly worded right-of-reply article. The newspaper argued that it could not publish this article as submitted and suggested a number of edits or changes. An offer to a complainant of the publication of a right-of-reply article clearly does not mean that the exact text submitted by a complainant may be published. Editors have to take into consideration issues such as defamation, personalised comments, ad homine arguments, unacceptable language, etc. However any changes proposed by an editor should not negate or distort the intention of the right-of-reply author. In this instance the suggested edits were not unreasonable. I have looked at the two texts, the one submitted by Mr Bath and the one that the newspaper said it was willing to publish. I believe that the editor did not act unreasonably in the changes he suggested and that the complainant missed an opportunity to publish an article which would have challenged and rebutted the opinions expressed in the original article.
I have therefore concluded that the newspaper offered to take sufficient remedial action to address the breach of Principle 8 of the Code.
19 May 2016