1704/2024 - SAOL Project and the Sunday Independent

By admin
Wednesday, 13th March 2024
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The Press Council of Ireland overturned a decision of the Press Ombudsman to uphold a complaint by SAOL Project that an article published by the  Sunday Independent breached the Press Council’s Code of Practice.

Press Ombudsman's Decision

On 8 January 2024 the Press Ombudsman partially upheld a complaint by SAOL Project, an addiction service provider, against the Sunday Independent about an article published in print and online in July 2023 under a headline which refers to "Dublin's drug problem".  SAOL Project complained that the article breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty), Principle 5 (Privacy) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Press Council’s Code of Practice.


The article is based on interviews conducted with, and photographs taken of, a number of people encountered by the publication in alleys in Dublin city centre, along with descriptions of scenes of the selling, buying and taking of drugs. There is also commentary from security sources, businesspeople and public transport providers on issues including a "perception of menace" on the streets.  The article speaks of "serious violence ... spurred by drug use".


SAOL Project complains that the Sunday Independent had taken "a group of people suffering from a mental health issue (in this case addiction)" and apportioned blame to them for generic violence and two "horrendous attacks" in particular.  It said persons who were vulnerable and intoxicated were photographed and interviewed when their ability to consent was compromised or not sought, and that this was unethical. It said the article was sensationalist and de-humanising.


The Press Ombudsman notes that the woman named and photographed in the article has consented to SAOL Project making this complaint on her behalf.  The complaint refers extensively to the publication’s treatment of two other people whose alleged drug-taking is featured - an unnamed man who is photographed and an unnamed woman who is quoted.    Both are potentially identifiable and in the absence of their consent to be included in the complaint, the Press Ombudsman considers that she is not entitled to include specific information about them in her decision.


On Principle 1.1 of the Code SAOL Project states that the publication links drug use with serious violence.  It states that the inclusion of a photograph of a man injured in one of two recent attacks mentioned in the article "visualises the link" the article seeks to establish, but that no evidence is offered.  It questions whether the woman interviewed and photographed knew the publication intended to write about her (alleged) purchasing of crack cocaine or not and states that she has told SAOL Project that she did not know this. 


On Principle 2 of the Code SAOL Project states that the publication enters into conjecture when it refers to how "two recent attacks have shone a spotlight on the potential for serious violence to break out, often spurred by drug use".  It states that the article should have made clear that three people referred to in the article as drug users were not associated with violent crimes, but instead left readers to associate them with such acts.


On Principle 3.2 of the Code SAOL Project asserts that the publication "deceptively obtained representations".  It states that the woman photographed and named, who is a participant in the SAOL Project, "strongly disagrees" with the newspaper's assertion that she knew she was being interviewed and would be identified.  SAOL Project states that she was "most likely" under the influence of crack cocaine, that her ability to give consent was compromised, and that it was unethical to gather information from her in such a situation.


On Principle 5 of the Code SAOL Project asserts a breach of privacy in that there was a failure by the publication to ensure it had the consent of the woman photographed and identified in the article, and states that she has told them she did not consent.  It questions her ability to give consent as she was seeking to buy and may already have taken drugs. It asks if the publication returned to check with her that it had her consent "given the highly exposing nature of the article and photograph". It suggests the photograph was obtained deceptively and by misrepresentation.  It also asserts that Principle 5.5 was breached.  This states that taking photos of individuals in private places without their consent is not acceptable unless justified by the public interest.


On Principle 8 of the Code SAOL Project cites UN and WHO research on drug dependence as a complex multi-factorial health disorder.  It asserts that the Sunday Independent has “targeted people with a chronic health condition” and implied they are associated with violence, and that this breaches Principle 8’s requirement that the press should not “stir up hatred against a group”. (The protected categories include illness.)


The Sunday Independent denies any breaches of the Code.  It states that the article is humanising and deals with a subject of considerable public importance.


On Principle 1 the publication says the article is about the rise of anti-social behaviour in Dublin and that drug dealing and violent crime, while different, fall within this category. It quotes a security source saying that crack cocaine is “causing a lot more violence and mugging on the streets”.  The publication also quotes the UN on links between illegal drug use and violence. It asserts that readers would empathise with the three individuals highlighted.


On Principle 2 the publication says there is a clear distinction between the testimony given by the two women and the description of the two violent attacks, and there was no basis to suggest it linked the three individuals referred to in the article with violent crime. 


On Principle 3 the publication denies any deceit or subterfuge.  It says its reporter and photographer were “completely transparent” in their interactions with the people referred to in the article about who they were and who they worked for. 


On Principle 5 the publication says the named woman knew she was speaking to the Sunday Independent for an article to appear the following weekend. It says she gave her permission for her information and the photograph to be published.  It says the photographer used a phone rather than a camera to avoid attracting attention to the woman. 


On Principle 5.5 the publication says the photographs were taken in a public place and since the provision relates to private places, it does not apply.   


On Principle 8 the publication says the article was sympathetic and evoked empathy in the reader for the people featured.  It says there is a justifiable basis for linking drug use and serious violence and that Principle 8 could not be used to stifle reporting on the subject.  It says it was not done to stir up fear and hatred of people who use drugs.


The Sunday Independent comments that while it has not breached the Code, it recognises the valuable work carried out by SAOL Project and offers to publish an opinion piece by the organisation about how Dublin’s drug problem and/or the stigma about drug use could be addressed.


On Principle 1 of the Code the Press Ombudsman finds that the Sunday Independent does establish a link between drug abuse and violence. There is no breach in relation to this.


However, she finds the article’s assertion that the woman “speaks to the Sunday Independent” is based on an assumption that the woman is capable of understanding that she is being interviewed and of consenting to this.  The Press Ombudsman finds that this assumption should not have been made. The newspaper says the woman shows it illegal drugs she says she has just bought. The newspaper does not know if the woman has already consumed drugs. The publication could have taken steps before publication to seek her consent while she was not in a drug-taking situation. The decision to proceed to publish without doing so represents a failure to strive for truth and accuracy.  This is a breach of Principle 1.


On Principle 2 of the Code the Press Ombudsman finds that the article does not imply that the individuals whose alleged drug use is highlighted were associated with violent crimes.  There is no breach of Principle 2.


Principle 3.2 of the Code requires publications not to use misrepresentation or subterfuge in obtaining information or photographs, unless justified in the public interest. 


The Press Ombudsman accepts SAOL Project’s assertion that the woman was most likely under the influence of crack cocaine and therefore agrees that her ability to consent was compromised.  The publication states that she spoke after she has “scored” the drug.  


The Press Ombudsman finds the publication's claim that it was "completely transparent" in its dealings with the people it met in the alleyways is not credible.  Deciding to take part in an interview, and/or to be photographed, for publication in a major national newspaper is something that must be given serious thought.  Regardless of what the publication said about its intentions, street drug users are vulnerable people, and the woman in question was particularly vulnerable.  The public interest was not served by exposing her in this way.


It could not reasonably have been assumed that the woman was capable of understanding what was being proposed, no matter how it was explained.  The publication's disregard for this potential incapacity to give informed consent amounts to subterfuge and represents a breach of Principle 3.2.


On Principle 5 of the Code the Press Ombudsman agrees with SAOL Project that the named woman may well have been incapable of consenting to what was a "highly exposing" article and photograph. Due regard was not given to what the Code refers to as "the privacy and sensibilities of individuals." While the use of a mobile phone camera may have avoided attracting attention to the woman during the encounter with the publication, this illusion of privacy will have vanished once the photograph was published in a national newspaper.


She finds that Principle 5 of the Code was breached through the publication of the information and the photograph of the woman.


On Principle 5.5 of the Code the Press Ombudsman finds that the photographs in the article were taken in a public place, and that this part of Principle 5 therefore does not apply.    


On Principle 8 of the Code the Press Ombudsman notes that through its breaches of Principles 1, 3 and 5 this article has failed to meet the highest professional and ethical standards required by the Code and may thereby have caused offence.  However, she does not find that it seeks to stir up hatred against people on the basis of illness as SAOL Project alleges. The article includes interviewees from wider society, some of whom make comments that indicate a sympathetic understanding of the situation of people using drugs on the streets of Dublin.  The Press Ombudsman finds that Principe 8 was not breached.


The Press Ombudsman does not consider that the Sunday Independent’s offer to publish an opinion piece from SAOL Project was sufficient to resolve those parts of the complaint that were upheld.

View the Decision of the Press Council of Ireland