Ms L Siggins and Village Magazine
The Press Ombudsman has decided to uphold a complaint by Lorna Siggins that an article in the Village magazine was in breach of Principles 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines.
The article was based on a broadcast interview with the complainant on RTE radio about a recently-published report on salmon farming and sea lice. The article, as well as challenging the accuracy of some of the statements she made on air, cited these as the foundation for a number of accusations about her professional ability and competence.
Ms Siggins complained, inter alia, about accusations in the article that she had, in this interview, repeatedly distorted the politics and science of salmon-farming and sea-lice, had “greenwashed” the report she was speaking about, was guilty of “sleight [of hand],” and of “journalistic failure’. It also accused her of “whitewashing” the salmon farming issue generally, of confusing cause and correlation in scientific matters, and of lacking the necessary expertise to report on the scientific matters concerned. It concluded that “when it comes to science and statistics, journalists like Siggins need to tread far more carefully, at least if their agenda is the truth.”
The magazine responded that its allegations were justified by the quotations from the interview which it published and that the complainant did not “share our focus on the hidden truth, something at the core of the Village’s mission, and central to good journalism.”
The principal issue, however, is not about the “hidden truth,” or about the causes of, or remedies for, sea-lice infestation of salmon. This is a controversy about which the publication submitted an enormous volume of documentation, and about which the author of the article has very strong views. It is also one about which journalists may legitimately report without taking sides in a complex scientific dispute. And it is one on which the Press Ombudsman is not required to make a decision, and about which he is unapologetically agnostic.
The publication submitted a tape recording of the programme which demonstrated that the quotations from the complainant in the article were accurate – and indeed the accuracy of these quotations was not contested. However, the recording also disclosed what was, in the opinion of the Press Ombudsman, other significant information about the interview which was not included in the article but was directly relevant to the complaint under Principle 1. This was the request by the presenter – who mentioned that the report would be “controversial” – that the journalist should specifically “focus on what the report actually says.”
The issue, therefore, is not about the scientific accuracy of the report, on the content of which the complainant was reporting, but about whether, in the context outlined above, the article’s omission of the important information about the publicly stated purpose of the interview and the complainant’s role in it was a significant distortion amounting to a breach of Principle 1 of the Code of Practice.
In the opinion of the Press Ombudsman, the inclusion of this significant information would have presented the complainant and her contribution to the programme to readers in a radically different light, and its omission therefore amounted to a significant distortion and, in the circumstances, a breach of Principle 1.
In relation to the complaint under Principle 4 that the accusations in the article affected the complainant’s good name, two issues arise. The first is whether there was a foundation for all of the accusations, and the second is whether, where arguments were advanced in favour of accusations, these were sufficient foundation for the accusations concerned.
No foundation was advanced to support the accusation that the complainant had “whitewashed the salmon farming issue generally”, or for the unmistakeably accusatory inference that she had been untruthful – or, in other words, had fabricated or invented, in order to mislead, some of the material she had published or said on air. These accusations were patently in breach of Principle 4 and the complaint in that respect is upheld.
A number of other accusations require more detailed examination and, in this context, it is reasonable to assume, in the spirit of the Code, that the more serious the accusation, the more substantial the foundation required to defend any accusation made against a complaint that it is a breach of Principle 4. If this were not the case, any and every complaint against a publication under this principle would have to be dismissed where that the publication had advanced any evidence – however flimsy or unconvincing – as a foundation for it.
In the first place, the article based its criticism of the journalist’s competence on a quotation from her to the effect that what the report was saying, “more or less,” was that the impact of sea lice from fish farms on wild salmon was negligible. While the article argued strongly against the methodology of the Report, and therefore against its conclusions and against any inferences that could be drawn from it, the complainant submitted evidence from a print article she had written which cited the Report directly as saying that “There is no relationship between the presence of salmon farms and difficulties with salmon meeting their conservation limits.” The difference between this quotation and her statement, while evidently a potential ground for disagreement, was an inadequate foundation for the article’s accusations about the complainant’s professional competence.
There were two other issues of substance. One was the magazine’s contention that the complainant’s reference, in the course of the interview, to an earlier (1994) report on these issues, had confused correlation with causation when she said that this report had concluded that “there was actually no way of confirming that link [i.e. between salmon farms and salmon mortality from sea lice].” Two major findings of the 1994 report, as the article itself made clear, were: (1) that there was a lack of evidence disclosing a causal relationship between these phenomena, and (2) that there was a “highly significant statistical relationship” between the same phenomena. However, the ambiguity inherent in the complainant’s use of the term “link”, and a related charge that she had in her brief interview “ignored” another aspect of this Report, were also, in the opinion of the Press Ombudsman, quite insufficient as a foundation for the serious accusations about her competence which were based on it.
The accusation that the article itself regarded as most significant was the description by the complainant, in the course of her RTE interview, of proceedings involving the Friends of the Irish Environment, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the Department of Agriculture, and the European Commission, as an “appeal”. The proceedings in fact, as the article clarified, involve “Requests for Redress of Maladministration” made by FIE to the European Commission in relation to its allegations against the Irish Department of Agriculture. These proceedings are ongoing.
The complainant’s description of these proceedings as an “appeal” was plainly an error, but it was not, in the opinion of the Press Ombudsman, of sufficient significance to act as a foundation for the article’s accusation that she was guilty of “sleight [of hand]” - effectively, of deliberate misrepresentation - in this regard in the interview.
Finally, the article accused the complainant of “journalistic failure” because of what it said was her “failure to refer to the dishonesty and the cover-up” involved in the events about which FIE has initiated proceedings with the European Commission. If the complainant had in fact referred to the subject matter of these proceedings, before the European Commission had reached a conclusion about them, as a “cover-up” and “dishonesty”, different issues might indeed have arisen, but she did not.
In summary, the article’s accusations about the complainant, in the opinion of the Press Ombudsman, were unfounded within the meaning of Principle 4.
The Press Ombudsman therefore decided to uphold the complaint under the Principles cited.
16 January 2014