1518/2023 - A Complainant and the Meath Chronicle
The Press Ombudsman has decided not to uphold a complaint against the Meath Chronicle. The complaint was made by the victim of an assault about a court report published in the newspaper in January 2023 with the headline, “Trim man found guilty of hitting bus driver avoids prison term”.
The complainant, who was the driver, has requested that his name should not be published. The report covered the trial in 2022 of a man who admitted having “drink taken” and who attacked the driver of a minibus in which he and his wife were passengers, fracturing the driver’s cheekbone and requiring him to have reconstructive surgery. It also covered the 2023 sentencing hearing.
The defendant denied a charge of assault causing harm. The driver gave evidence that he had been subjected to abusive name calling by passengers in his minibus, most of whom were intoxicated, after he said he was dropping them off in the town centre. He said they argued with him and filmed him on their phones. He said he left the minibus and crossed the street, but the defendant followed him and hit him twice. The jury found the defendant guilty.
The report summarises a victim impact statement presented at the sentencing hearing, in which the driver said he had needed to take unpaid leave, that he suffered panic attacks and that he had a permanent nerve injury. It concludes with Judge Orla Crowe’s imposition on the guilty party of a suspended sentence with a requirement that he enter a bond to keep the peace.
The complainant said that the article was “one-sided” in favour of the convicted man. He said the paper had left out “key elements” of the evidence heard in court. He said the report had breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 7 (Court Reporting) of the Press Council’s Code of Practice.
The newspaper denied the breaches. The editor said the piece made it clear the driver was the victim, that the report was fair and accurate and that the paper had to report the defence as well as the prosecution. He said the charge of assault had been brought against one person only. Although for space reasons it was “truncated” he said that from start to finish the report made it clear the driver was the victim and that the jury had found the defendant guilty. He said readers would see who was responsible for the “appalling” behaviour on the night of the incident.
The complainant said that three Principles of the Code of Practice had been breached. As Principle 7, Court Reporting, has a bearing on all of these, it is appropriate to consider it first. Court proceedings are (unless by order to the contrary) a matter of public record. Journalists are not required to report all the evidence but must provide a balanced, fair, and accurate account of it. In a criminal trial, this inevitably involves presenting statements made by the defence which are disputed by the prosecution and vice versa. Court reports must not report contested evidence as fact.
Turning now to Principle 4. This requires the press to ensure it does not knowingly publish unfounded accusations or matter based on malicious misrepresentations which could jeopardise a person’s constitutionally protected right to their good name. It must also take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. The rules of court reporting mean, however, that in a criminal trial, such as the one in question, a newspaper may well have to report unfounded accusations and malicious misrepresentations which would, if presented without the balancing view of the other party, be detrimental to a person’s good name. The newspaper must make it clear who is making these statements, but it is not its role to check the factual basis of evidence given – that is up to the jury.
Finally, to Principle 1, which requires the press to strive for truth and accuracy. The complainant said that “whilst there may be no inaccuracies or untruths based on what was said in court” the Meath Chronicle article was based on defence evidence and was one sided and derogatory to him. He gave examples to back up his complaint.
The Press Ombudsman finds, however, that the article gave appropriately balanced evidence from both the prosecution and the defence. The editor affirmed that his reporter was in court for the whole of the 2-day trial. The headline and the opening paragraph place the summarised evidence in the context that the defendant was found guilty. The article is therefore framed by the reader’s awareness that the jury did not accept the defendant’s account of events, and that the driver was found to have been the innocent victim of a violent assault.
The Press Ombudsman finds that none of the cited Principles of the Code have been breached. The Meath Chronicle article gave an accurate account of the trial of a man who carried out a violent and unprovoked assault which has had a lasting impact upon its victim.
16 March 2023