1281/2022 - Glenveagh and the Irish Examiner
The Press Council of Ireland upheld an appeal submitted by the editor of the Irish Examiner on the following complaint.
On 30 May 2022 the Press Ombudsman decided that the Irish Examiner breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. There was insufficient evidence to decide on other parts of the complaint that Principle 1 had been breached. A complaint that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) were breached was not upheld.
On 1 November 2021, the Irish Examiner published in print and online an opinion article by a university lecturer. The online article was headlined “Why is the State selling public lands to private developers for a fraction of its value?”. The print article was headlined “Outsourcing the job is avoiding responsibility”. The article made reference to the sale by Dublin City Council of 43 acres of building land to property developers Glenveagh. The claim was made in the article that the land was being sold well below its market price if the developers were to maximise the site’s “full potential housing density”.
Glenveagh wrote to the editor of the Irish Examiner stating that the article contained “a number of significant inaccuracies”. Glenveagh claimed that the value the article put on the site was “clearly untrue and a significant misrepresentation of the factual position”. Glenveagh further claimed that there was no prospect of the building of any additional housing units on the site to maximise profits as there was an agreement between Dublin City Council and Glenveagh which was part of a “competitive tendering process that resulted in Glenveagh being named preferred tenderer”. Glenveagh further challenged the claim made in the article that the private homes in the development would likely be sold as build-to-rent to an institutional fund. Glenveagh asserted that “there are no circumstances under which the proposed transaction can result in private homes being sold to institutional funds”. Glenveagh claimed that the article breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. Glenveagh concluded by requesting that the Examiner publish a “full correction”.
The editor of the Irish Examiner responded to Glenveagh by stating that the author of the opinion column was a highly regarded expert on the housing crisis and a regular contributor to many media outlets. The editor stated that the article had been altered online to qualify the “potential” value of the site if additional development were to take place. In regard to other claims made by Glenveagh the editor stated that without sight of the terms of the proposal made by Glenveagh for the development of the lands it was difficult to verify or challenge these claims. The editor concluded by offering to publish a statement by Glenveagh summarising the terms of the proposed development and to carry an interview with a Glenveagh spokesperson.
Glenveagh responded by stating that as no effort had been made prior to publication of the article to fact-check “incorrect and damaging claims” the proposals by the Examiner were “not sufficient to remedy” the breaches of the Code of Practice. Glenveagh concluded by repeating its request that a correction be published prominently in both the print and online editions of the article that addressed “all the factual inaccuracies” and other matters raised in the complaint.
The editor of the Irish Examiner responded to Glenveagh by stating that the writer was a commentator with a national profile and known strong opinions, that he was by-lined in the piece, and that it could not be clearer from its positioning in print and online that it was a commentary piece and not a news story. In regard to the other elements of Glenveagh’s complaint the editor offered to publish a piece in which the company could set out its case. In regard to the claimed breach of Principle 1 the newspaper stated that the columnist was clearly speculating on the basis of a higher-density of development taking place noting the words “could” and “potential” used in the article. In regard to claims in the article that private homes on the site might be sold to institutional funds the editor said that the newspaper had “now added language” to clarify the matter and that commentary on this “possible outcome is legitimate”.
Glenveagh wrote to the editor including the draft wording of a clarification it wished to see published by the Irish Examiner.
Glenveagh made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman. It noted that the original article had been amended in the Examiner’s online edition, but no reference had been made in the print edition to the amendment published online.
The Irish Examiner stated that the newspaper could not agree on the proposed wording of a clarification as it included statements that “we cannot independently verify as accurate”. The Examiner offered an alternative draft of a correction it was prepared to publish in print and online, and said that it was prepared to include a further paragraph only after it had evaluated the statement through sight of the contract that included the commitments in question.
Glenveagh wrote to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stating that if the Examiner published the most recent draft of the proposed clarification in print and online the company would “consider the matter as closed”.
The Examiner, in a letter to the Office of the Press Ombudsman, said that it could not agree to publishing the last part of the proposed draft clarification unless they had “sight” of the contract between Dublin City Council and Glenveagh (which it said could be redacted to keep confidential commercially sensitive material).
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation both parties agreed that the complaint be forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
Upheld part of complaint
I am upholding in part the claim that Principle 1 was breached. The newspaper acknowledged that the original article had been modified in its online edition. The editor stated ‘For additional clarity this contingency …..has now also been noted in the earlier paragraph …”. and did so in its online edition. But it did not address the matter in its print edition. As the original article was published in print as well as online the newspaper was in breach of Principle 1.2 which states
When a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report or picture has been published, it shall be corrected promptly and with due prominence.
To avoid a breach of Principle 1 the Irish Examiner needed to publish in its print edition a clarification similar to what was published online. This obligation was independent of the unsuccessful attempt by both parties to agree an overall clarification that addressed a wider range of issues.
In regard to other potential inaccuracies raised as possible breaches of Principle 1 there is insufficient evidence available to me to decide on these matters. I do note the determination of both sides to reach agreed wording of a possible clarification and welcome the efforts made by both Glenveagh and the Irish Examiner to reach a conciliated outcome to the complaint. However, as is sometimes the case even with good will, it is not possible to agree wording.
Not upheld part of complaint
Principle 2 requires the press to distinguish between fact and comment
The matters Glenveagh took issue with in its complaint were clearly part of an opinion piece and readers of the article would have understood that the contents reflected the opinions and views of the writer of the article. For this reason, I find no breach of Principle 2.
This Principle requires the press to not knowingly publish matter based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations and must take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. Nothing in the article suggests to me that there were any malicious misrepresentations or unfounded accusations in the opinion piece that is the subject of this complaint.