Press Ombudsman upholds Complaint by Mr Kevin Clarke

By admin
Monday, 24th October 2016
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On 23 May 2016 the Press Ombudsman decided to uphold a complaint made by Mr Kevin Clarke against the Sunday Independent.

On 20 March 2016 the Sunday Independent published an article under the headline “Pharmacies a prescription for prices that are far too high”. The thrust of the article was that profits made by retail pharmacies were very high and that consumers were paying too much for medicines. Support for this viewpoint came from comments by an academic expert in a Dublin university.

Mr Kevin Clarke, a pharmacist, wrote to the editor of the Sunday Independent claiming that a number of statements in the article breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. In particular he challenged the claim in the article that

Many pharmacists get almost €1m a year from the State for drugs reimbursed through the medical card and other state schemes.

As Mr Clarke did not receive a response from the Sunday Independent he made a formal complaint to the Press Ombudsman’s Office.

During conciliation the managing editor of Independent News and Media stood over the article, pointing out that it was published as an opinion piece and not as a news article, and offered to resolve the complaint by the publication of a clarification and by publishing a letter from Mr Clarke responding to the column.    The text of the proposed clarification read

In an article published on 20 March 2016 under the headline “Pharmacies a prescription for prices that are far too high”, it was stated that ‘many pharmacies get almost €1m a year from the state for drugs reimbursed’. We are happy to clarify that this should have said ‘some pharmacists’.

The editor also offered to clarify that some of the facts complained about were the views of the academic expert and not those of the author.

Mr Clarke did not accept the wording of the proposed clarification and suggested an alternative wording, which was unacceptable to the newspaper.

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

Mr Clarke submitted a HSE spreadsheet itemising State expenditure on pharmacists resulting from prescribed drugs costs reimbursement schemes in 2014.  This showed the pharmacy on top of the list received €835,910 and the next three pharmacies received between €700,000 and €800,000.     

This undermined the accuracy of the published claim that “many pharmacists get almost €1m a year”. Therefore I am upholding the complaint.  The clarification proposed by the newspaper (“some pharmacists received almost €1m”) did not in my view sufficiently address this inaccuracy.

Mr Clarke also complained that the following claims in the article were in breach of Principle 1 of the Code:

People who do not have a medical card, and are buying medicines privately, are hit with two big charges. The pharmacists charge a €5 dispensing fee when you buy medicine with a prescription. There is also a mark-up on the original ingredient cost of the drug, which is often as high as 50%

These views were attributed to the academic expert and were not presented as fact.  The newspaper offered to publish a clarification that the views were those of the expert and to publish a letter from the complainant where he could have challenged the views, but this offer was not taken up by the complainant.  This offer was sufficient to address this part of Mr Clarke’s complaint.

The newspaper and the complainant each appealed the Press Ombudsman’s decision.

The Sunday Independent appealed the decision on the grounds that (1) there had been an error in the application of the Code by the Press Ombudsman and (2) that there was significant new information available. The appeal was heard by the Press Council at its meeting on 2 September 2016.  The Press Council decided that the Press Ombudsman did not err in his application of the Code and that there was no significant new information available to the Council that had not been available to the Press Ombudsman.

Mr Clarke appealed the decision but the Press Council concluded that the appeal did not contain sufficient grounds to overturn the decision of the Press Ombudsman.