810/2021 - Mr Paul Larkin and Sunday Independent
A sub-committee of the Press Council of Ireland has decided that the Sunday Independent offered to take sufficient remedial action to resolve a complaint made by Mr Paul Larkin that an article published on 4 April 2021 breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
The article complained of was an opinion column published in print and online headlined “Nobody knows how we would vote if it really meant a united Ireland”. It was accompanied by a cartoon headlined “Are we there yet?” under which a pull quote read “Larkin’s loaded language about unionists would certainly cause raised eyebrows if directed at other religious minorities, such as Irish Muslims”. The article commented, amongst other things, about a book review by Mr Larkin published in another newspaper on 25 March 2021.
Mr Larkin complained that a number of aspects of the article breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) of the Code of Practice.
Mr Larkin complained about the juxtaposition of the pull quote directly below the cartoon, a cartoon which he said portrayed the organisation Ireland’s Future and Sinn Féin as a group of hapless people travelling in a ‘border poll’ vehicle about to plummet over a cliff face. He said that this juxtaposition, putting his name centre stage beneath a cartoon of Sinn Féin and Ireland’s Future members in a car, linked him to Sinn Féin and Ireland’s Future and the campaign for a border poll, and implied that he was intolerant of Unionists. He also said that the article implied that he had called for a border poll, that he came from a bourgeois background, that he was an ‘anti Protestant bigot’ and that he stated or implied that Unionists should ‘pack up and go home’.
Mr Larkin said that he was not and never was a member of Sinn Féin or Ireland’s Future, that there was no reference to a border poll in his book review, that he has no involvement whatsoever in the campaign for a border poll, and that quotes used in the article, which were taken from his book review, were a gross caricature and distortion of the review.
Mr Larkin also complained that the article breached Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice. He said that a post tweeted on the newspaper’s Twitter account, which included the cartoon, breached Principle 4 as it contravened his constitutional right to his good name. He complained that the article also breached Principle 4 as care was not taken
in checking facts prior to publication of the article, as the newspaper had failed to contact him in advance of publication.
Response from Sunday Independent
In response to the complaint, the editor of the Sunday Independent said that Mr Larkin’s contention that the entirety of the article was referable to him was fundamentally mistaken, and that no objective reading of the article would bear this out.
He said that Mr Larkin was not referred to as one of the Sinn Féin supporters mentioned at the outset of the article, and that neither the cartoon nor the tweet was referable to him.
He said that Mr Larkin was referred to in the context of a short passage of the article that was critical of a piece that he wrote for another newspaper. He said that the writer of the Sunday Independent article expressed his view of what Mr Larkin’s article amounted to as a perspective on Unionism, and that he was entitled to that view, but that this did not paint Mr Larkin as an ‘anti-Protestant bigot’.
The editor said that he had acknowledged that Mr Larkin took strong objection to the characterisation of his book review and had therefore offered him an opportunity to challenge the article with a rebuttal of 250 words, and that he subsequently increased the word count and offered to add the rebuttal as a postscript to the online version of the article.
The editor also accepted that the article intended to characterise Mr Larkin as a supporter of a border poll and that if the Sunday Independent was wrong about this it would be happy to clarify that Mr Larkin was not a supporter of a border poll and add it as a short addendum to the end of one of the writer’s columns.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was referred to the Press Ombudsman for his consideration. The Press Ombudsman exercised his right to refer the complaint to the Press Council of Ireland and the Press Council’s Chairman activated a sub-committee of the Council to consider the complaint.
Decision of the Press Council Sub-Committee
Comment and opinion articles enjoy a wide measure of protection under the Preamble to the Code of Practice, which states that the freedom to publish “… includes the right of the press to publish what it considers to be news, without fear or favour, and the right to comment upon it.”
In addition, Principle 2 of the Code of Practice distinguishes between comment and fact and protects the rights of the press to advocate strongly its own views on topics.
The Sunday Independent published an extremely robust and critical article that used somewhat intemperate language to set out the opinions of the writer. Mr Larkin complained that his reputation was maligned by the article, which he said misrepresented his views and
identified him with political beliefs which he did not hold, and that it associated him with political and other groupings which he did not have.
However, the article under complaint was clearly an opinion piece, appearing as it did on a page with a headline that read “Opinion” and published online in the “Comments” section of the online archive.
In all the circumstances, the offer by the editor of the Sunday Independent to publish a right of reply from Mr Larkin in which he could set out his position in response to the article, and to add it to the online version of the article as a postscript, together with his offer to clarify that Mr Larkin was not a supporter of a border poll, was sufficient to resolve the complaint made under Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and of the Code of Practice.
Mr Larkin also complained that the article breached Principle 4 of the Code of Practice because in not contacting him in advance of publication, the Sunday Independent did not take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. While it might be advisable, and indeed necessary in some circumstances, to contact the subject of a critical news story in advance of publication, this is not obligatory under the Code and in this particular case, where it was unmistakably clear that the writer was expressing his own opinion, it was not required.
21 May 2021
Appeal of decision to Press Council of Ireland
Mr Larkin appealed the decision of the Press Council sub-committee to the Press Council of Ireland on the following grounds:
The procedures followed in making the decision were not in accordance with the published procedures for submitting and considering complaints.
That significant new information relevant to the original complaint is available that could not have been made available to the Press Council sub-committee before making its decision.
The Press Council considered the appeal at its meeting on Friday, 2 July 2021.
Decision of Press Council on appeal.
The Press Council decided to reject the appeal on both grounds for the following reasons.
The Press Council found that the procedures followed by the Press Council Sub-Committee in making its decision were in accordance with the published procedures for submitting and considering complaints. It decided this on the basis that the email referred to by Mr Larkin under his first ground of appeal was received after Mr Larkin was advised that his formal complaint had been referred to the editor for the editor’s consideration. Because the email did not form part of Mr Larkin’s formal complaint that was submitted to the editor for consideration, the email could not be considered by the Press Council sub-committee as part of Mr Larkin’s formal complaint.
The Press Council found that the “significant new information” submitted by Mr Larkin under his second ground of appeal was not relevant to the original complaint because it related to material published on the Twitter platform, material for which the editor was not accountable and for which he had no editorial control. The Press Council cannot consider any information submitted in an appeal about material published on social media platforms unless the relevant account is operated by a member publication and that publication has editorial oversight of the account. Moreover, the Press Council was persuaded that the Sunday Independent column in question was an opinion article. It did not accept Mr Larkin’s contention that material published on social media invalidated that designation.