1310/2022 Blake O'Donnell and the Irish Independent

By Gabrielle Collins
Tuesday, 27th September 2022
Filed under:

On 26 July 2022 the Press Ombudsman decided not to uphold a complaint that the Irish Independent breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights), Principle 5 (Privacy) and Principle 7 (Court Reporting) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. In regard to part of the complaint that Principle 1 had been breached the Press Ombudsman decided that the newspaper took, or had offered to take, action sufficient to resolve that part of the complaint.

On 2 May 2022 the Irish Independent reported that Mr Blake O’Donnell, the complainant, was a candidate standing in UK local elections in a constituency in a London suburb. The report included information on Mr O’Donnell’s involvement in court proceedings taken by the Bank of Ireland to repossess a house in County Dublin. In 2015 the bank as part of bankruptcy proceedings took legal action against Brian and Mary O’Donnell. Blake O’Donnell, son of Brian and Mary O’Donnell, was the solicitor who represented the family in the court proceedings.

Mr O’Donnell wrote to the editor of the Irish Independent stating that the article breached several Principles of the Code of Practice as there were many inaccuracies and false statements in the article which, he said, were designed to give a misleading and distorted impression. Mr O’Donnell highlighted a number of particular statements in the article to the editor which he felt breached the Code of Practice, and sought the publication of a prominent full retraction, clarification and apology.

The editor failed to respond to Mr O’Donnell.

Mr O’Donnell made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman. As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

Decision of Press Ombudsman

Publication of photograph
Mr O’Donnell complained that the use of a photograph of him taken at court proceedings in 2015 was a breach of Principle 1 as it was “designed to distort the reader’s perception and give the impression that I was still involved in personal litigation”. The editor of the Irish Independent in a submission to the Press Ombudsman stated that the photograph had been captioned to make it clear that it was an image taken at the High Court in 2015. The editor stated that “the photograph selected is therefore relevant to the contents of the article”. As the article informed readers of the court proceedings of seven years earlier it is my view that the use of the image was appropriate and therefore there was no breach of Principle 1.

It was also claimed by Mr O’Donnell that the article contained several inaccuracies which breached the Code of Practice.

Use of term “gambit”
Amongst the inaccuracies cited by Mr O’Donnell in the article was a claim that the O’Donnell parents had entrusted the family home to their four children in a “gambit to hold onto the property”. Mr O’Donnell stated that the company that owned the house was placed into a trust in the Isle of Man. The editor in response to this stated that “control of the house was subject to a significant number of protracted legal challenges by the O’Donnell family, and linked companies, that were ultimately unsuccessful”. The editor added that the article had been amended online and he proposed publishing a clarification that the house had been owned by a company and not the O’Donnell parents. Regarding the disputed ownership of the house, this action offered by the editor was sufficient to avoiding breaching accuracy requirements as found in Principle 1.

Use of term “barricaded”
Mr O’Donnell complained that a reference to the O’Donnell family barricading themselves in their house was misleading. Mr O’Donnell said that the family simply closed their gates. The editor said that the term “barricaded” was widely used in various contemporaneous reports at the time. I do not find the use of the term” barricaded” in the article a breach of the Code of Practice. There is no doubt that there was a stand-off at the house with protesters and journalists outside the property. In these circumstances, the term was not inappropriate and therefore the Code of Practice was not breached.

New Land League
Mr O’Donnell complained that the article indicated that he was a member of the New Land League organisation. In his submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman Mr O’Donnell stated “I have never had any political association with the New Land League and have never
campaigned for them though the article claimed I was a campaigner for them and I had “ditched” them”. The editor said that the references to members of the New Land League who were protesting outside the O’Donnell home did not state that Mr O’Donnell was a member of that organisation. Notwithstanding this, the editor stated that the online version of the article had been amended to remove the reference to the New Land League from the headline. I find that the amendment of the headline was sufficient to address this part of Mr O’Donnell’s complaint.

Failure to contact complainant prior to publication
Mr O’Donnell complained that he was not contacted for comment before publication of the article so that he could ensure the report was accurate and truthful. Principle 3 of the Code of Practice requires the press to strive at all times for fair procedures and honesty in the procuring and publishing of news and information. As the article was relying on records of court proceedings for most of its information I believe there was no breach of Principle 3.

Failure to respond to initial complaint
Mr O’Donnell in his complaint raised the issue of the initial failure of the editor to respond to his complaint. The editor in his defence said that he did not receive Mr O’Donnell’s initial complaint. Whilst the Office of the Press Ombudsman urges editors to respond to all complaints any failure to do so, for whatever reason, is not a consideration in deciding if there has been a breach of the Code of Practice.

Mr O’Donnell complained that his rights to privacy were breached by the reporting of events of seven years earlier. The subject matter of the article was Mr O’Donnell’s candidacy for local elections in 2022 and references to events seven years earlier were, in Mr O’Donnell’s opinion, a breach of his privacy. In my view the newspaper was entitled to report on such a recent court case. Legal proceedings are matters of public record and Principle 5 states that the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record.

Court Reporting
Principle 7 requires the press to ensure that court reports .. are fair and accurate. No evidence has been presented that the Irish Independent failed to fulfil all requirements in regard to the accuracy of court reporting.

“Right to residency”
Mr O’Donnell complained that the reference to “right to residency” used in the article was in breach of the Code of Practice. He stated that the “Court of Appeal upheld that there was an arguable case in relation to my parents’ right of residence” and therefore the article was inaccurate and in breach of the Code. The editor said that a failure to refer to one “(ultimately inconsequential) part of the Court of Appeal’s judgment” did not create a “misleading impression for the reader”. In my view, the reference to “right to residency” in the article was not a breach of any Principle found in the Code. The newspaper was summarising complex legal arguments that took place over several days and, inevitably, this involved simplification.

Placement of article in Business Section of newspaper
Mr O’Donnell raised in his complaint the placement of the article in the Business section of the print edition of the newspaper although, he said, it had nothing to do with business. He argued that this was done to damage his reputation. The editor said that while the article related to Mr O’Donnell running for public office in England, his prominence in Ireland is amongst the business community and his professional expertise lies in this area. I do not see that the placement of the article in the print edition presented a breach of the Code of Practice.

Claims of disruption of Bank of Ireland AGM
Mr O’Donnell complained that the article was inaccurate in its references to calls for ordinary mortgage holders to disrupt the Bank of Ireland AGM with their pleas. The editor of the newspaper removed this claim from the online edition of the article. This action was sufficient to avoid a breach of the Code of Practice.

Mr O’Donnell, in subsequent correspondence with the Office of the Press Ombudsman, complained that the Irish Independent cannot “justify how my parents’ finances are relevant to my professional career as a solicitor and putting my name forward for a local election”. In my view, the subject matter of the article can be justified as the 2015 court case generated a large amount of attention at the time and a report seven years later about what became of the O’Donnell parents and their adult children can be justified as an item of interest for readers of the Irish Independent who remembered the 2015 case.

Having considered all the issues raised by Mr O’Donnell I have concluded that no Principle of the Code of Practice was breached by the article published in the Irish Independent on 2 May 2022.

View the Decision of the Press Council of Ireland