Ms Michelle Mulherin TD and The Sunday Times
The Press Ombudsman has decided that The Sunday Times offered to take sufficient remedial action to resolve part of a complaint made by Michelle Mulherin TD. He decided not to uphold other parts of the complaint.
On 22 March 2015 The Sunday Times published on its front page under the heading “TDs breaching landlord registration requirement” a report which identified a number of TDs who had failed to register rental properties they owned with the Private Residential Tenancies Board (PRTB). The article claimed that Deputy Michelle Mulherin had failed to register with the PTRB two properties she owned, a house in Ballina Co Mayo and an apartment in Galway City. The article reported Deputy Mulherin as saying “I am compliant in all matters to which you refer”. The article went on to state that Deputy Mulherin “did not return calls seeking clarification on why the properties are not registered”.
Two days later the Fine Gael Press Office contacted The Sunday Times and informed the newspaper that the two properties had never been rented out and therefore there was no requirement to register them with the PRTB. A request was made to publish an apology in the newspaper.
The next day The Sunday Times responded outlining the efforts its journalists had made to contact Deputy Mulherin in advance of publication to enable her to respond to the claims about her which were contained in the article. The response also included an offer to publish a letter the following Sunday from Deputy Mulherin setting out the fact that the properties mentioned in the article had not been rented out and therefore did not require to be registered.
On 18 June solicitors representing Deputy Mulherin complained to the Press Ombudsman’s Office that the article had breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. The editor of The Sunday Times upon receipt of the complaint to the Press Ombudsman’s Office offered to publish the following clarification:
Clarification: Michelle Mulherin TD
An article published on 22 March (“TDs breaching landlord registration requirement”) stated that Michelle Mulherin TD had not registered all the properties she disclosed in her Oireachtas filing with the Private Residential Tenancies Board but included her statement that she is fully compliant. We have since learned that two of the properties owned by Ms Mulherin were not rental properties and did not need to be registered. We are happy to clarify this matter.
Deputy Mulherin’s solicitors rejected this offer as “wholly unsatisfactory”.
As conciliation was not possible the complaint was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
Deputy Mulherin complained that the article was in breach of Principle 1 because it was inaccurate and misleading.
Principle 1.1 requires the press to strive at all times for truth and accuracy. In this instance I believe that the efforts made by various journalists working with The Sunday Times to seek confirmation of what was about to be published and to seek a response from Deputy Mulherin were sufficient to meet the requirement to strive for truth and accuracy at all times.
Principle 1.2 requires that where a misleading statement has been published it shall be corrected promptly and with due prominence. The Sunday Times, when it learned that the two properties had not been rented out and therefore did not require to be registered, offered to publish a letter from Deputy Mulherin. This offer occurred before any involvement of the Press Ombudsman’s Office in the complaint. If a newspaper publishes something that might be misleading then the onus is on the newspaper to clarify the matter. So, in my view, at this point the offer to publish a letter was an inadequate response to the complaint.
However, the newspaper subsequently offered, when the Press Ombudsman’s Office became involved in the complaint, to publish a clarification which clearly stated that the properties did not require to be registered. This offer of a clarification was rejected by the complainant who was seeking an apology, not a clarification.
Given that the newspaper’s journalists had made sufficient efforts to seek a response from the complainant before publication and that the article had carried Deputy Mulherin’s statement that she was “fully compliant”, it is my view that the offer to publish the clarification was sufficient to address the matter and an apology was not required. The complaint about the publication of misleading information about the properties owned by Deputy Mulherin might not have arisen had the Deputy or her representatives answered more thoroughly the questions put prior to publication.
I can find no evidence of a breach of Principle 2 in the article. There is no failure to distinguish between fact and comment.
Equally I can find no evidence of a breach of Principle 5. The Oireachtas register of TDs’ interests is a public document. The information about the properties owned by Deputy Mulherin was not private information and therefore there is no breach of Principle 5.
13 July 2015