442/2020 - Ms Dawn Doyle and The Irish Times
The Press Ombudsman has decided that The Irish Times offered to take and took sufficient action to resolve a complaint by Ms Dawn Doyle that 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 had been breached.
On 21, 22 and 26 February 2020 The Irish Times reported on comments attributed to the Garda Commissioner about the findings of a 2015 report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the structure and role of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. In the first article published on 21 February it was reported that “Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said that an IRA Provisional Army Council still oversees the party”. The article also attributed a number of other statements to the Commissioner. In the 22 February article it was reported that “Opposition parties will continue to engage with Sinn Féin despite the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris’s statement that he agreed with the PSNI’s assessment that the IRA’s so-called army council continues to oversee Mary Lou McDonald’s party.” The 26 February article reported that “… the 2015 report stated that the Provisional Army Council continued to oversee the IRA and Sinn Féin” and said that Mr Harris was asked at an event held the previous week if he agreed with the view by the PSNI that the Provisional Army Council still oversaw both the IRA and Sinn Féin.
Solicitors representing Ms Dawn Doyle, who at the time the articles were published was General Secretary of Sinn Féin, wrote to The Irish Times stating that the articles “contain significant inaccuracies and misleading statements”. The solicitors included a copy of the 2015 report drawing attention to a statement in the report “PIRA (Provisional IRA) members believe that the PAC (Provisional Army Council) oversees both PIRA and Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy. We judge this strategy has a wholly political focus”. This, the solicitors claimed, was quite different from the claim in the articles attributed to Commissioner Harris that the Provisional Army Council oversees the IRA and Sinn Féin.
When the solicitors received no response from The Irish Times they made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman that the three articles had breached Principles 1, 2 and 4 of the Press Council’s Code of Practice. The essence of their complaint was that the articles published in The Irish Times had “inaccurately quoted” the relevant section of the report on Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland and the subsequent comments of the Garda Commissioner. They said that the relevant section of the Report- paragraph 13 - stated that members of the Provisional IRA believed that the Provisional Army Council oversees the PIRA and Sinn Féin.
The Irish Times defended its reportage of comments by the Garda Commissioner in relation to the 2015 assessment of paramilitaries. They noted that at no point had Commissioner Harris, the Garda or the PSNI expressed any concerns about the three articles. The newspaper did not accept that the articles gave a misleading and distorted impression of the report. The Irish Times went on to say that to remove any possible misunderstanding it had published a clarification in the Corrections & Clarifications column. This clarification included "The report (into paramilitary activity) set out the continuing management position of the PAC over Sinn Féin’s strategy, citing IRA members as sources. ‘PIRA members believe that the PAC oversees both PIRA and Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy’”. The editor offered to arrange for the clarification to be published online and for a link to it to be added to the three online articles.
Solicitors representing Ms Doyle responded to the editor of The Irish Times expressing their surprise upon learning that the editor had “decided to unilaterally publish what he describes as a ‘clarification’ in the print edition” without any notice to or consultation with them or their client.
They repeated their view that the three articles had created a distorted picture of the 2015 report. They further stated that the clarification was “ineffective, inadequate and fell far short of what was required” because it made no reference to the fact that a complaint had been received about the articles, it failed to identify which articles it purportedly sought to clarify, and it did not acknowledge that there were any inaccuracies or misleading statements in the articles.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
There was contention as to the accuracy of what was stated in the 2015 report into Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland and what was stated in the three articles that referred to the report. By publishing a clarification in its print edition The Irish Times effectively acknowledged the need to clarify what was in the report and what was in the articles. Principle 1 of the Code of Practice requires that where a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report has been published it shall be corrected promptly and with due prominence. The clarification published in the print edition two weeks after the initial complaint met the requirement for promptitude. A two week delay is acceptable given the need for the editor to check with journalists, records and sources. Its placing in the Corrections & Clarifications column met the requirement for due prominence. The offer to publish the clarification online and link the three articles to it met the requirement for the digital publication of the articles.
I can find no evidence of a failure to distinguish between fact and comment in the three articles. The subject of the complaint is the interpretation of what was said in the 2015 report in the three articles. I do not think this can be attributed to the inclusion of commentary. It is rather a disagreement about the interpretation of facts.
Principle 4 requires that reasonable care must be taken in checking facts before publication. I have no reason to believe that reasonable care was not taken in this instance. What is at issue is the interpretation and meaning that can be taken from an intelligence report. The newspaper and the complainant differ in this regard, but it is not a matter of any failure to take reasonable care by the newspaper.
1 July 2020