243/2019 - Pagan Federation Ireland and The Irish Times
The Press Ombudsman has decided that The Irish Times offered to take action which was sufficient to resolve a complaint by Pagan Federation Ireland that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland had been breached.
On 28 September 2019 The Irish Times published an article under the headline “Climate justice campaign resembles a pagan cult”. The article included the following claim “Despite describing itself as based on science, it is increasingly evident that it (the climate justice movement) has become a cult – and a pagan one at that”.
Mr Raymond Sweeney, National Coordinator of Pagan Federation Ireland, wrote to the editor of The Irish Times stating that the article breached Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice. He claimed that the statement in the article “What are some of the hallmarks of paganism? Obvious examples that spring to mind include nature worship, ritual sacrifices and doomsday prophecies” was “patently false, misleading and prejudicial against Paganism”. Mr Sweeney sought a full retraction and an apology.
Mr Sweeney received a reply from The Irish Times stating that the newspaper “did not mean any offence to your organisation or to pagans in general”. The reply went on to state that “paganism is a very broad term” and some people who describe themselves as pagans would hold “quite different beliefs and practices to those of yourself and other members of Pagan Federation Ireland”. The reply concluded with the offer of a right-of-reply through the submission of a letter for publication.
Pagan Federation Ireland made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman claiming that the article breached Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice. The complainant described the column as “the smearing of Paganism with outrageous characterisations”. He said the inference in the article that Paganism involved the subjugation of humanity was patently untrue, that the article denigrated and belittled what Pagans believed and was blatantly pejorative in all references to Pagans and Paganism.
The editor of The Irish Times made a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stating that the article had been clearly marked “Opinion” and there had been no failure to distinguish between fact and comment as required under Principle 2. In regard to Principle 4 the editor argued that the article expressed the opinion that some of the hallmarks of paganism include nature worship, ritual sacrifices and doomsday prophecies. He said that Pagan Federation Ireland said that it did not provide a “doctrinally definitive Pagan creed” so that even within the membership of Pagan Federation Ireland there can be differing views. In regard to Principle 8 the editor said a writer was entitled to be critical of an organisation without being accused of prejudice against it and reiterated its offer to publish a letter from the complainant.
Pagan Federation Ireland said that the offer of a letter for publication was not sufficient “to deal with the important matters of equality that the article, and indeed the subsequent response have raised”. A retraction and an apology were necessary, the Federation argued.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
Opinion columns in newspapers frequently include controversial commentary. Easily the best way to deal with readers who disagree with what is included in opinion columns is for editors to offer a right-of-reply. In this instance the editor of The Irish Times offered to publish a letter from Pagan Federation Ireland. This letter would have offered the Federation an opportunity to respond to the points raised in the article. The editor imposed no restrictions on the contents or length of the proposed letter. In my view this offer was sufficient to resolve the complaint.
15 November 2019
The Complainant appealed this decision to The Press Council of Ireland.