1188/2022 - A Complainant and the Irish Daily Mail

By Gabrielle Collins
Tuesday, 25th January 2022
Filed under:

The Press Ombudsman has decided that the Irish Daily Mail took sufficient action to address a complaint that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland had been breached. A complaint that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) were breached was not upheld.

On 25 October 2021 the Irish Daily Mail ran a front-page story based on an interview with the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly. In the course of the interview Mr Donnelly expressed his views on people who had decided not to be vaccinated against the Covid virus. The newspaper summarised Mr Donnelly’s views in a headline “Minister Declares War on the Unvaxxed”.

On the same day the complainant emailed the Irish Daily Mail claiming that the newspaper had breached Principle 1, Principle 2 and Principle 8 of the Code of Practice.

The editor of the Irish Daily Mail responded to the complainant stating that hers was one of a number of similar complaints the newspaper had received in the days following the article. He stated, “Those complaints, allied to our daily editorial review of what we have published, gave us pause for thought and led to the publication of a correction and clarification of the headline…”.

On 28 October the Irish Daily Mail published a clarification on the top of page two which acknowledged that the headline “did not accurately summarise the Health Minister’s position”.

The complainant was not satisfied with the response of the newspaper and made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman on the grounds that the headline and contents of the article breached Principles 1.1, 2.2 and 8 of the Press Council’s Code of Practice. As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

Principle 1

The complainant questioned as to whether “Minister Donnelly made the statement to the Daily Mail declaring war on the unvaccinated”.

The newspaper acknowledged that the headline was not accurate but stated that it had published a clarification within three days.

Principle 1.2 and 1.3 states

1.2  When a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report or picture has been published, it shall be corrected promptly and with due prominence.

1.3 When appropriate, a retraction, apology, clarification, explanation or response shall be published promptly and with due prominence.

The publication of the clarification within three days of the article under complaint was sufficient to address the complaint under Principle 1. The complainant argued that the clarification was not published with the due prominence required in Principle 1. However, it is my view that the clarification which was published on the top of page two of the newspaper was published with sufficient prominence as required under Principle 1.2.

Principle 2

Principle 2 requires the press to distinguish between fact and comment. Principle 2.2 states

2.2 Comment, conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports shall not be reported as if they are fact.

The headline on the article was acknowledged by the editor to be an inaccurate summary of what the Minister had said and was promptly corrected. There is no evidence that the choice of words used in the headline was based on comment, conjecture, rumour or unconfirmed reports.  The editor pointed out in his submission that “headlines endeavour to encapsulate the essence of a story in an eye catching and pithy way”. In my view the choice of the expression “declare war” was chosen for the reason given by the editor and was not a breach of Principle 2.

Principle 8

This Principle states

The press shall not publish material intended or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against an individual or group on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, membership of the travelling community, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age.

The complainant  argued that those more likely to not be vaccinated are to be found disproportionately amongst the groups identified in Principle 8 and therefore a breach of Principle 8 of the Code had occurred.  She referred to “indirect discrimination … when a practice, policy or provision applies in the same way for everybody but disadvantages a group of people  who share a protected characteristic”. I find this argument unconvincing. The Minister’s remarks were about the small percentage of the adult population not vaccinated at the time of the interview. There is nothing whatsoever to suggest that  he was addressing his remarks to people who might qualify in any of the groups identified in Principle 8. In addition the remarks of the Minister cannot be construed in any way as intended or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred.

The argument that Principle 8 had been breached by the choice of words used in the headline was also made. The expression “declare war” has a popular  meaning far less menacing than that ascribed by

the complainant . Teachers “declare war” on bad grammar, gardeners “declare war” on weeds, city councils “declare war” on litter. Readers of the headline would have understood the popular meaning of “declare war” and would not have associated it with literally declare war (i.e. a threat of violence and aggression) as the complainant claims the words meant. For these reasons I find no breach of Principle 8.

10 January 2022