Safety Before LNG and the Irish Examiner
The Press Ombudsman upheld a complaint made by an individual on behalf of the Safety Before LNG group that the Irish Examiner breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) of the Press Council’s Code of Practice.
On 8 September 2022 the Irish Examiner carried an online news report about a delayed decision by An Bord Pleanála on an application by a company to set up a gas storage facility and power plant on a site in Co Kerry, with imported liquid natural gas to be shipped to a terminal at the site. The complainant told the newspaper the article breached Principles 1 and 2 of the Code.
After stating that: “Environmental groups … are opposed to the construction amid fears the imported gas will be from fracking in the US” the article continued: “However, the company has assured this will not be the case.” This second sentence was the focus of the complaint. According to the complainant, this was untrue since the company had, in its representations to the planning authorities, given no such assurances, and had, during a consultation, cited advice that it was “neither necessary nor appropriate” to specify the sources from which gas was extracted.
On 18 October the Irish Examiner told the complainant it stood over “the factual basis” of the complained of sentence. It amended the article to include a link to a publicly available report submitted to An Bord Pleanála on the company’s behalf which stated that the proposal did not depend on fracked gas and that it was “confident it can source gas from non-fracked sources”. It said it had seen a letter from the company to local elected representatives which provided “a similar assurance”. The amended article also noted that certain local groups, including Safety Before LNG, “do not accept these assurances”.
The Irish Examiner stated that while it had considered the points raised in the original complaint to be “arguable and selective”, its amendments had remedied any issue that may have arisen and that the basis for any complaint had therefore disappeared. It said Principle 1 was not breached because the complained of sentence was a truthful reference to a company statement. This statement, it argued in correspondence, could, in the context of controversy about fracked gas, be “fairly viewed as an effort by the company to soothe and assure those with concerns.” It said the amended article noted that Safety Before LNG had not accepted “these assurances”. It said Principle 2 was not breached because the complained of sentence was not presented as a statement of the Irish Examiner’s opinion - it was a matter of fact that the company had acted as the newspaper had reported.
The complainant did not accept that the amended article resolved his complaint.
He said that while the company said the proposal was not dependent on fracked gas, and that it was confident it could source non-fracked gas: “saying you can do something is not the same as saying you will do something”. The complainant said the reference to Safety Before LNG added insult to injury in that it implied the group had accepted that assurances were given, which was not the case. He said they had not seen the letter to which the editor had referred so he could not assess any claims contained within it. He said Safety Before LNG’s position remained therefore that they could neither have accepted or rejected assurances that had never been given.
The complaint was referred to the Press Ombudsman.
The Press Ombudsman finds that the complainant is correct in his assertion that the company did not assure that it would not import gas from fracking in the US. The complained of sentence is not, contrary to the assertion made by the Irish Examiner, supported by the extract the newspaper quotes from the report submitted to An Bord Pleanála.
The Press Ombudsman considers that the complained of sentence represents an interpretation of the statements quoted. It is the Irish Examiner’s opinion, based on that interpretation, that the company has assured that fracked gas from the US will not be imported. (This is not to say that the newspaper believed or disbelieved the company.) However, what the newspaper states is not a fact. The Press Ombudsman is unable to comment on the “similar assurance” in the letter to which the newspaper refers as she has not seen it.
The Irish Examiner said that the company’s statement could be fairly viewed as an effort to soothe and assure those with concerns. However, the Press Ombudsman believes that while the company may have sought to convey the extreme unlikelihood that it would use fracked gas, it does not state that it will not import such gas. It leaves that possibility open. It also, as the complainant notes, declines to give details of the sources from which gas will be extracted.
It is therefore inaccurate and misleading to state, as the Irish Examiner continues to do in the amended article, in relation to fears that fracked gas will be imported from the US: “However, the company has assured this will not be the case.”
The Press Ombudsman finds that Principle 1 and Principle 2 of the Code of Practice were breached in the original article and were not remedied by the amendments subsequently made by the Irish Examiner.
11 January 2023