1441/2023 - Environmental Trust Ireland and the Limerick Leader/LimerickLive.ie
The complaint from Environmental Trust Ireland concerns a report of a special meeting of Limerick City and County Council’s Metropolitan District in December 2022 to discuss a planning issue. This was published in the Limerick Leader newspaper, and in its online publication, Limerick Live.
The article was headlined “Special meeting on student complex” in the newspaper, and “‘Spurious’ objections and ‘nimbyism’ over Limerick student halls plan criticised” in Limerick Live. The content was otherwise identical and will in this decision be referred to as the article, while the publisher of both will be referred to as the newspaper.
The article explained that the developer had earlier obtained planning permission but that after Environmental Trust Ireland appealed this to the High Court a judge had quashed the decision. The article said this new discussion of the plan would form part of a report to An Bord Pleanála.
The complainant said the article was biased and unfair and was “a one-sided account based on incorrect statements made by a number of councillors”. It said the report breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice, Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice). It said the headline used on Limerick Live was ‘erroneous’, ‘malicious’, and ‘untrue’.
In the course of dealing with the complaint the Press Ombudsman’s office received several letters from the complainant, all of the contents of which have been considered in reaching a decision. In summary:
On Principle 1, the complainant contested the depiction of Environmental Trust Ireland’s objections as “spurious”. It said the article was not a factual account of the meeting and had omitted a councillor’s questions about a High Court Order. It said Limerick Live’s headline was untrue. It said that it was incorrect to describe Environmental Trust Ireland as a “lobby group”.
On Principle 2, it said the article failed to adhere to the principle that comment, conjecture and rumour should not be reported as if they were fact and it alleged that the newspaper had not disclosed inappropriate influences or potential conflicts of interest.
On Principle 4, it said there had been a breach of the requirement that the press should not knowingly publish matter based on malicious representation or unfounded accusations and must take reasonable care to check facts. It cited a quote from a councillor who spoke of “nimbyism” and claimed the newspaper had not sought a response from Environmental Trust Ireland. It said the Limerick Live headline was malicious.
On Principle 8 it alleged the newspaper had published material likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against “an independent voluntary environmental organisation”. It underlined the words “stir up hatred.”
The complainant said several times in correspondence that the newspaper had not offered a right of reply or an opportunity to provide balance.
The newspaper denied any breach of the Code. In a detailed response the editor said the report was an account of a council meeting and included all sides of the debate. She said that what councillors had said was reported accurately and in quotation marks and it was not the role of the newspaper to investigate every comment at a meeting. She denied there was any bias against Environmental Trust Ireland and said that based on how it describes itself on its own website, it was reasonable to describe its activities as lobbying.
The newspaper concluded its formal response by stating that it was “very much open to doing an article with Environmental Trust Ireland in relation to conveying their concerns in relation to the development.”
The article is a news report of a meeting at which councillors and planners gave their views. These views were reported in quotation marks in the article and in the headline from Limerick Live. The views of a councillor with concerns about the proposed plan were included. No impropriety is suggested in depicting as a lobby group a voluntary advocacy group such as Environmental Trust Ireland which seeks to influence decisions in the public realm. The Press Ombudsman finds that the statements published do not present any breach of Principle 1 of the Code.
During a meeting at which elected representatives debate a contentious matter, intemperate assertions are likely to feature. The newspaper in this instance made use of clearly marked direct quotations. No evidence is provided of improper influences or conflicts of interest and in this regard, it is not within the remit of the Office of the Press Ombudsman to investigate assertions made by the complainant and denied by the newspaper. There is no breach of Principle 2.
The newspaper deemed newsworthy and has quoted some strong statements made at a meeting at which speakers enjoyed qualified legal privilege. It did not offer an opinion on them. This is also the case in the Limerick Live headline. It is normal journalistic practise to report on such events without seeking the views of other parties, however strong their connection with issues discussed. There is no breach of Principle 4.
Environmental Trust Ireland has clearly advocated strongly against a project which is supported with equal conviction by others in Limerick. It may understandably be offended by views expressed during this meeting. However, the Press Ombudsman finds that the complained of article cannot be described as contributing to causing grave offence or stirring up hatred under any of the criteria set out in the Code. There is no breach of Principle 8.
The Press Ombudsman’s decision is that the Limerick Leader has not breached the Code of Practice. Furthermore, she notes that the complainant on several occasions asserted that the newspaper did not seek its views. However, throughout the complaints process the editor repeatedly offered the organisation the opportunity to express its views by way of an article in the paper. The complainant’s response was that this could only be taken up if the newspaper accepted what it had done wrong. This was not a reasonable precondition. The Press Ombudsman finds the editor’s offer was made in good faith and regrets that the complainant did not accept it.
29 March 2023
Environmental Trust Ireland appealed the decision to the Press Council of Ireland.