142/2019 - A Student and the University Observer
The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint that the University Observer breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
The University Observer (a student newspaper in University College Dublin) published an article which led to a complaint by a firm of solicitors representing a student who was referred to in the article. The solicitors complained to the editor of the University Observer that the article falsely attributed a number of statements to their client and to others named in the article. They drew attention to a claim in the article attributed to a third party that their client “gets the guillotine first” in the event of the Socialist Workers Student Society taking power. They also stated that a “further indication of disrespect is apparent from the published photograph” (that accompanied the article) because the person in the photograph was not their client, and the publication of the photograph was an attempt to malign and identify their client. They said the matters attributed to their client in the article suggesting corrupt collusion and inappropriate behaviour were untrue, and called upon the editor to publish an apology (the text of which they provided) and to remove the article from social media.
Solicitors representing the University Observer responded that the newspaper comprised a number of different sections such as News, Comment, Features, Science …….. Puzzles. They said The Harpy column, in which the article featured, appears in the “Puzzles” section of the newspaper and the tenor was therefore very clearly set that it appeared in an entertainment section of the newspaper and “could not in any manner be confused with any news, fact or information”. They went on to state that the column “features satirical and humorous articles written under fictitious bye lines” and that the online edition contains the line “Write for the Harpy, UCD’s foremost satirical newspaper”. They argued that Principle 1 could not have been breached as it is understood by all who read it that the contents (of the article) are satirical in nature and accordingly it is not asserted that the contents are true and that “no reasonable person … would believe ... the contents to be true”. In regard to Principle 2 they argued that there could not be a failure to distinguish between fact and comment as the article “was overtly and unmistakeably a piece of satire without any reporting of fact or indeed any comment”. They further argued that Principle 3 could not have been breached because the article did not in any manner purport to be news or information but was a “fictitious literary creation”. Finally, they said that Principle 4 could not have been breached as there were no facts reported in the article and the fictitious literary creation of the satirical column could not have been based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations.
The solicitors representing the complainant reiterated their original complaint and rejected the arguments put forward by the solicitors for the University Observer. As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was referred to the Press Ombudsman.
I am rejecting the complaint that the article breached the Press Council’s Code of Practice. I accept the argument put forward by the solicitors acting for the University Observer that its readers would be aware that The Harpy column is satirical in nature, that it could not be confused with any news, fact or information offering by the newspaper in general, and that its contents are not supposed to be taken literally. This is especially the case in this particular complaint as the activities described in the article are manifestly fictitious.
5 September 2019
Note: The complainant chose to have the decision reported without revealing his identity.