197/198/2019 - Mr J Perry, Mr S Sefton and The Irish Times

By admin
Tuesday, 15th October 2019
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The Press Ombudsman has decided that he has insufficient evidence to make a decision on two complaints that The Irish Times breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.

The Irish Times published two articles online on 19 July 2019 reporting on political opposition to the Government in Nicaragua. The first article was headed “A revolution gone wrong; Daniel Ortega’s government stands accused of repression and worse”, the second was headed “A revolution gone wrong: dead, buried, exiled – stories from Nicaragua 2019”.

Mr John Perry made a complaint to the editor stating that the first article failed “to meet reasonable tests of truth and accuracy and does not distinguish properly between fact and comment”. He said that the report was unbalanced and inaccurate, and instanced several statements from the article which were, in his view, inaccurate.   Mr Perry complained that the articles were written from the opposition’s perspective and were hostile to the Nicaraguan government’s perspective.

The Irish Times responded by defending the article stating that “Mr Perry’s characterisation of the violence in Masaya does not tally with the assessment of international human rights organisations”. An Amnesty International report was cited. The newspaper stated that a report by the National Assembly on the causes of the violence cited by Mr Perry relied “almost entirely on information provided by state institutions”.

Mr Perry made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman outlining his arguments that several specific instances reported in the articles had been reported exclusively from the opposition’s perspective and had contained many inaccuracies. He concluded “my complaint is that (the articles) gave no voice to the many people of Masaya whose views differ from the ones put forward, despite having the opportunity to do so”.

Mr Stephen Sefton also complained about the two articles.   He wrote to the editor of The Irish Times expressing his dismay at the “outright misrepresentation of events in Nicaragua during and after the outbreak of violent anti-government demonstrations”. Mr Sefton said that The Irish Times’ reports of events in Nicaragua failed to include many facts which were necessary for “anyone seeking to understand the events”.  He gave several examples of the omission of  what he said were “vital facts”. One of these was the claim in the article that 60,000 Nicaraguans had gone into exile in neighbouring Costa Rica. Mr Sefton said that 25,000 Nicaraguans had asked for refugee status, not the 60,000 claimed in the article. Mr Sefton concluded by saying that the reports “indicated an unacceptable failure … to do due diligence”.

The Irish Times responded to Mr Sefton. The newspaper stood over what had been published challenging Mr Sefton’s version of several specific incidents which he claimed had been inaccurately described in the articles. The newspaper claimed that the figure given for Nicaraguans seeking refugee status in Costa Rica had been taken from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (in Spanish-speaking countries using the acronym ACNUR). 

Mr Sefton replied to the editor of The Irish Times saying that the journalist who wrote the articles had only spoken to opposition sources “just like the discredited human rights organisations he mistakenly cites as authoritative”.

The Irish Times responded to the two complaints stating that the two articles were a “wholly accurate account” of the information given to the journalist and were “truthful and accurate reportage”. The newspaper stated that the basis of the articles was “to report on the activities of the opposition to the Government of President Ortega”. The editor invited Mr Perry and Mr Sefton to submit letters for publication in which they could take issue with the articles.

In response Mr Perry said that the editor had failed to deal with much of the substance of his complaint and that as he had already published a letter from him which seemed to make no difference,  he offered to submit an article for publication.  The offer was turned down by the editor who repeated his offer to publish a further letter from him.

Mr Sefton stated that the articles did not make it clear that they “set out to represent the opposition point of view”. He rejected the offer to submit a letter for publication as “completely inadequate given the disproportionate space given to the original articles compared to the offer of a letter in reply which the editor requested be kept very short”.    

As the complaints could not be resolved by conciliation, they were forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

All complainants are informed that one of the options available to the Press Ombudsman when making a formal decision is to conclude that there is insufficient evidence available to make a decision. This is an outcome which is unsatisfactory both to complainants and to editors and is only reluctantly and very occasionally used as a last resort. I regret that in deciding the outcome of these two complaints I have no option but to determine that I have insufficient evidence. I am simply not in a position to evaluate what has happened in Nicaragua this year.  The two complainants have submitted detailed critiques of the articles published by The Irish Times.  The newspaper in turn has provided a detailed defence. The complainants have supported their views by reference to various agencies, as has the newspaper.  I am simply unable to decide on the accuracy or otherwise of the information contained in the two articles and therefore I have insufficient evidence to make a decision as to whether or not the articles breached Principle  1 and Principle 2 of the Code of Practice.

15 October 2019