1768/2024 - Dr Harry Browne and The Irish Times

By admin
Tuesday, 27th February 2024
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The Press Ombudsman has decided not to uphold a complaint made by Dr Harry Browne about an article published in The Irish Times, in print and online, in October 2023.  The article is an opinion piece by one of the publication’s regular columnists. It contains the assertion that “those embracing the social media free for all are facilitating the shutting down of real debate”. This is followed by a short account of the postponement/cancellation of a panel discussion by a student society at a Dublin university. The event was to have been held earlier that week.

The article states that one of the debate’s convenors told one of the intended speakers that “hate comments … death threats and graphic propaganda videos” had been sent to members of the Society.  It notes that the Society “insists this was not the primary reason for the cancellation” and that a number of guest speakers had pulled out citing other concerns.  However, the article comments that in cancelling the event, the Society had stressed that “hateful messages … on our social media” were unacceptable. The article laments the damage done to debate by “such frenzies”. 

Dr Browne is one of the guest speakers who withdrew from the event on the day it was to take place.  He complained the article breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) of the Code of Practice.

On Principle 1 of the Code he said the article asserted that the postponement of the event was an example of the shutting down of debate by “social media free for all”, when in fact the auditor of the student society had stated in advance of publication of The Irish Times piece that there had been no death threats, and that, in Dr Browne’s words, “social media played no part, main or otherwise, in the event’s postponement”. Dr Browne said it was his withdrawal and that of two other guests that had caused the postponement.

Principle 2.2 of the Code requires inter alia that “unconfirmed reports shall not be reported as if they are fact”.  Dr Browne said the newspaper had published a report which was “not merely unconfirmed” but repudiated by the organisers of the debate in advance of publication of the article.  He describes the publication’s use of the word “insists” as “tendentious”.

Dr Browne sought for the paper to publish a correction. In advance of making his complaint to the Press Ombudsman he wrote a letter to The Irish Times for publication.  This included reference to people who “behaved pretty badly online” but said this had been “exaggerated in the re-telling” and had no consequences.  The Irish Times had declined to publish the letter because it asserted that Dr Browne had set pre-conditions that were not acceptable. The Irish Times also said there were no breaches of the Code of Practice, and therefore no correction was required. 

On Principle 1 it quoted from an email sent to one of the scheduled speakers by one of the debate’s convenors, whose identity it had verified. The article quotes from this email. The email stated that the debate had been cancelled and went on to describe “by way of explanation” how there had been an “unprecedented surge” in social media interaction about the debate including “a vast number of hate comments, as well as death threats and graphic propaganda videos” which had been sent to members of the Society, causing distress.  It said it hoped in the future “when people are more open minded” it could host another discussion on the topic.

The Irish Times also provided a copy of the Society’s formal announcement on Instagram of the postponement. This was on headed paper which included the name of the Society’s auditor.  The announcement stated that this was in order to listen to the university community “and our speakers, who were initially happy to speak, no longer are”.  It went on to condemn the “hateful messages sent” and said videos and messages sent had been “unacceptable”.  

The Irish Times noted that during a fact checking process its attention was drawn to a subsequent explanation given by the auditor of the Society to another publication. (This was the explanation cited by Dr Browne in his complaint and referred to above.) The Irish Times said its article had been adjusted to take account of this. It said this showed it had striven for   truth as required under Principle 1 of the Code.  It said the fact that the complainant disagreed with the column did not mean there was an error to correct.

On Principle 2.2 The Irish Times suggested that the complainant might have failed to recognise that “his own stated reason for pulling out of the debate is not the last word on the circumstances in which it was cancelled” and there were other points of view. It referred to Principle 2.1 which states that publications are “entitled to advocate strongly their own views on topics”.  It asserted that a columnist was entitled to give their own view of events that took place in an organisation, in this instance a student debating society.  It said that the fact that the view of a columnist did not align with a statement made by the head of an organisation did not mean the columnist was wrong.


This complaint is about the circumstances surrounding the last-minute postponement/cancellation of a discussion organised by a student society.  Speakers pulled out. There was social media activity variously depicted as bad behaviour, hateful and unacceptable. An email explanation was offered by one of the convenors, the Society issued a formal postponement statement via social media, and the next day its auditor provided another account in a media interview.  The convenor’s email blamed social media activity.  The society’s formal notice included reference to “hateful messages received on our social media”.  The auditor was reported as stating that there were no death threats, that the event could not go ahead because of the withdrawal of guests, and that none of the guests “raised any concerns or made comments regarding social media activity…”.

The Press Ombudsman finds that the Society’s position was confusing, contradictory and unclear.  She notes that while the auditor, in the most recently provided explanation, does state that the event was called off because guests withdrew, and that there were no death threats, he does not, as Dr Browne asserts, state that “social media played no part, main or otherwise, in the event’s postponement”.  The auditor asserts that none of the guests raised concerns about social media activity. The role of social media activity remains a matter open to interpretation.

The Press Ombudsman finds that having checked source material and conducted fact checking, The Irish Times made changes to its article so that the opinions it expressed were founded upon an interpretation of the facts insofar as it had been able to establish them.  The publication strove for truth and accuracy.  There was no breach of Principle 1 of the Code. 

The Press Ombudsman finds that The Irish Times did not rely on unconfirmed reports.  It sought the facts, considered a range of statements, and offered its own interpretation of events.  It had every right to reach its own conclusions on the role social media activity played in the calling off of this event. The depiction of this activity as an example of “frenzies” is a matter for the publication. This was an opinion piece. There was no breach of Principle 2 of the Code.

6 February 2024