1279/2022 - Pro-Life Campaign and the Irish Independent

By admin
Friday, 20th May 2022
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The Press Ombudsman has decided that the Irish Independent took sufficient action to resolve 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 4 (Respect for Rights) had been breached was not upheld.

On 11 February 2022, the Irish Independent online published an article under the headline “Anti-abortion protestors say ‘divine providence’ led them to gather to pray at hospital on day of terminations”. The same article appeared in the print edition under the headline “Group praying at maternity unit on ‘termination days’”. The article quoted a TD speaking in the Dáil that “activists had been obtaining information about dates and times of appointments for terminations so they can harass women”. The article quoted one of those who had gathered outside a hospital as saying “If Wednesday happens to be the day that they do abortions, then it’s divine providence that that’s the day we happen to be here”.

The Pro-Life Campaign wrote to the editor of the Irish Independent stating that the report published on 11 February “focussed on the charge levelled by some abortion advocates that private information was being leaked to pro-life supporters about the dates and times that abortions were taking place …” The Pro-Life Campaign stated that this was not the case and that “the report in a most unfair and unscrupulous way painted a very distorted picture for readers”. The Pro-Life Campaign also stated that the activist’s quotation about “divine providence” was reported out of context and had never been made.

The editor of the Irish Independent stood over the substance of the article but acknowledged that a “note-taking error occurred”. He went on the to say that this was “regrettable and genuine efforts have been made to rectify the mistake”.  He stated that the article was amended online once the newspaper became aware of the mistake and that a lengthy right-of-reply letter from the activist was published prominently as the lead item on its Letters page

The Pro-Life Campaign was not satisfied with the response of the editor and made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman claiming that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 4 (Respect  for Rights) of the Code of Practice had been breached. The complainants drew attention to the inclusion in the article of a quotation which they said had “no origin in the interview” which had taken place with the activist. They said the article had falsely given the impression that activists had foreknowledge of the days on which abortions take place. This was, they claimed, a breach of Principle 1. They also said that Principle 4 had been breached as the activist’s right to her good name had been damaged by the quotation from the Dáil record about advance information about abortions taking place.

In a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman the Irish Independent stated that once the newspaper’s attention had been drawn to the error in the quotation included in the article the online article was amended and a process of “positive engagement” had taken place with the activist. The newspaper noted that the article had included a denial by the protestors that they had foreknowledge of abortions taking place and that they had held their protests every Wednesday for months. The newspaper also stated that a “right-of-reply” letter from the activist had been published in print and online and while the article complained about was behind a paywall and therefore available to a restricted audience, the right of reply was published as a free article.

As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

Principle 1

Principle 1.2 states

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

The Irish Independent acknowledged that a quotation attributed to the Pro-Life activist outside the hospital had been a mistake. The record was corrected in the online edition of the newspaper and a right-of-reply letter from the activist was published both in the online and print editions of the Irish Independent. It is my view that this response from the newspaper was sufficient to avoid a breach of Principle 1.2

Principle 4

Principle 4 states

Everyone has constitutional protection for his or her good name. The press shall not knowingly publish matter based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations, and must take reasonable care in checking facts before publication.

The reference to Pro-Life activists having access to information about the timing of abortions carried out in hospitals that appeared in the article was a quotation from a member of Dáil Éireann and was on the Dáil record. There is no evidence whatsoever that the inclusion of this quotation in the article  could be based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations. Furthermore the only obligation on the press when publishing what was said in the Dáil is limited to ensuring that the account of what is said is an accurate account of the Dáil record. It is not the function of the press to query statements made in the Dáil. For this reason I find there is no breach of Principle 4.

29 April 2022