Mr Hugh McGrath and the Clare Champion
The Press Ombudsman has decided not to uphold a complaint by Mr Hugh McGrath, Senior Executive Engineer with Clare County Council, that an article published in the Clare Champion on l9 December 2014 breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fairness and Honesty), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines
The Clare Champion published an article under the headline “Barrier between minister and council” on its front page and continued the article on an inside page. The article was a report on the background to the erection of a safety barrier to protect pedestrians on the approach to O’Briensbridge in County Clare. Mr Hugh McGrath complained that a number of statements in the report attributed to a representative of the objectors were inaccurate, including statements that “…… a claim made by Hugh McGrath senior executive engineer that there had been full consultation and a meeting with the O’Briensbridge Community prior to the erection of this traffic barrier”, and “no correspondence ever existed between Mr McGrath’s office and our group”. Mr McGrath provided the Press Ombudsman’s office with a substantial amount of correspondence and documentation to support his complaint.
The editor of the Clare Champion replied to the complaint and stated that the statements complained about by Mr McGrath had been taken from an affidavit of a named individual and had been attributed correctly and reported accurately. He also said that the newspaper had gone to extensive lengths to ensure the accuracy of the article, including a decision to postpone publication of the article for a number of months pending receipt of further information under Freedom of Information (FOI) and from other sources.
As conciliation did not result in a resolution of this complaint it was referred to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
I will deal with Principle 1 first.
It is clear from a careful reading of the article and the substantial amount of supporting documentation that was submitted from both the complainant and the editor that the statements about Mr McGrath that were the subject of his complaint were statements contained in an affidavit. The article attributed the contents of the affidavit, and the statements in question, to a named individual. It did not state that the statements were accurate.
Mr McGrath also complained that a statement in the article that “The Council declined to comment” on the issue was inaccurate. The editor replied that the newspaper had sent a number of queries to the Council and/or its public relations agent, and submitted to the Office of the Press Ombudsman copies of requests for comments it made via email on 15 July and 12 December (the email of 12 December was re-sent on14 December). With these emails it submitted comprehensive documentation which it had received under FOI and other sources to which it requested the Council’s comments. The email of l5 July was responded to on 22 July by the County Solicitor, whose letter was marked “Strictly Private and Confidential Attention of Addressee Only” and on the same date a letter from a solicitor representing the complainant marked “Private and Confidential” was sent to the newspaper requesting, inter alia, confirmation that the intended article would not be published. Neither of these letters can be deemed to be “comment on the issue” by the Council, and there is therefore no evidence to support Mr McGrath’s complaint that the statement in the article that “The Council declined to comment on this issue ….” was incorrect
Therefore I find no breach of Principle 1.
In regard to Principle 2, I cannot find in the article any failure to distinguish between fact and comment.
In regard to Principle 3, there is no evidence to indicate that either the information published in the article had not been procured in a fair and honest manner or that the information had been procured through misrepresentation or subterfuge.
Principle 4 refers to the protection of a person’s good name. I cannot find anything published in the article that is based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations or that reasonable care had not been taken to check facts before publication. The newspaper postponed publication of the article for several months to use FOI to access additional documents and to consult with relevant elected representatives.
Finally, in regard to Principle 5, I can find no breach of privacy. The complainant is a paid public official. All references to him in the article refer to his work as an engineer with Clare County Council. It is not unreasonable for this work to be scrutinised. However unwelcome the complainant may have found the article there is no intrusion in it into his private life.
26 May 2015
The complainant appealed the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland.
Click here to read the decision of the Press Council of Ireland.