Mr Kieran Coughlan and the Irish Daily Mail

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Tuesday, 2nd June 2015
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The Press Ombudsman has decided not to uphold a complaint by Mr Kieran Coughlan that an article published in the Irish Daily Mail on 2 December 2014 breached  Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fairness and Honesty) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines.

The Irish Daily Mail published under the headline “The Dáil boss who defended fraudster O’Keeffe” a lengthy account of how former TD Ned O’Keeffe had been convicted of submitting fraudulent expenses claims and how the then Clerk of the Dáil, Kieran Coughlan, had “repeatedly insisted that fraudster O’Keeffe was innocent – despite clear evidence to the contrary”.   

Mr Coughlan complained, through his solicitors, that the claims made in the article about him had been “manifestly false” and “not supported by any of the facts”.  They expressed particular concern about the headline to the article, and asked the newspaper to publish an apology.

The editor of the Irish Daily Mail replied that the newspaper stood over what it had published.  He pointed out that the report had not suggested that Mr Coughlan had been involved in any “criminal activity”, only that he had failed in his statutory duty to respond to complaints regarding Mr O’Keeffe’s expense claims “despite clear and cogent evidence of wrong doing”. Mr Coughlan maintained that he did not have the power to investigate complaints as the procedure in the Dáil for claiming expenses was based on trust.

The complaint entered the conciliation process provided by the Press Ombudsman’s Office.  The editor of the Irish Daily Mail, in a submission to the office, outlined the history of what, in his view, had been the failure of the Clerk of the Dáil to investigate fraud claims relating to expenses claimed by Ned O’Keeffe. In regard to the headline to the article that led to the complaint, the editor stated that the use of the word “defend” in the headline did not mean that Mr Coughlan had “aided and abetted” the fraud or had known about the fraud when it was perpetrated.  The editor offered to publish a clarification which would state this.

Solicitors for Mr Coughlan responded to this offer by saying that the clarification as worded was not acceptable to their client.  They said an unreserved apology was required and that the apology needed to state that the newspaper had been “utterly unfair” to Mr Coughlan and that he had acted with the “utmost integrity and diligence”.

The editor was not prepared to publish the apology suggested by Mr Coughlan and the conciliation concluded without a resolution. At this point the complaint went to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

I believe the offer by the editor to publish a clarification in respect of the headline was sufficient to redress any ambiguity that readers of the article might have had in regard to the meaning of the headline. The request that the clarification should be an unreserved apology was, in my view, not warranted by either the headline or the contents of the article.

I can find no breach of Principle 1 of the Code in the body of the article, because it described accurately the series of events culminating in Mr O’Keeffe’s conviction for fraud.

I can find no failure in the article to distinguish between fact and comment.    There is no evidence that the newspaper did not strive for fairness and honesty in the procuring and publishing of the material in the article, that the material was knowingly published based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusation, or that the newspaper did not take reasonable care in checking its facts before publication.  The complaint made under Principles 2, 3 and 4 of the Code is therefore not upheld.

2 June 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.