674/2021 - Paul Murphy TD and The Irish Times
On 26 January 2021 the Press Ombudsman has decided that The Irish Times offered to take sufficient action to resolve a complaint by Paul Murphy TD that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland had been breached. A complaint that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) was breached was not upheld.
On 9 December 2020 The Irish Times published an account of proceedings in Dáil Éireann. The headline on the report was “Coalition has ‘some whack of advisors’ opposition claims in Dáil”. The subheading to the article was “Paul Murphy launches highly personalised attack on new Government press secretary”.
Deputy Murphy complained to the editor of The Irish Times stating that his comments in the Dáil were in no way a “highly personalised attack” on the new press secretary and that the reporting of his comments was inaccurate and misleading. Deputy Murphy said that he had not even named the new press secretary, and requested that The Irish Times publish a correction clarifying that he had not launched “a highly personalised attack”.
The Irish Times responded to Deputy Murphy stating that although he had not named the press secretary he “had clearly identified him”. The newspaper stood over its belief that its reportage of Deputy Murphy’s speech had been “accurate and not misleading” and repeated that what Deputy Murphy had said in the Dáil had been a “highly personalised attack”.
Deputy Murphy was not satisfied with the newspaper’s response and made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman.
The Irish Times, in a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman, defended its reportage. However, in an effort to settle the complaint through conciliation, it offered to publish a clarification “saying Mr Murphy asserts that his attack (on the press secretary) was professional rather than personal”.
Deputy Murphy responded that the editor was not offering a real clarification. He said that he would be happy to accept a clarification as the end of the matter, but that it must be a clarification from the newspaper accepting that he did not launch a highly personalised attack on the press secretary. The newspaper responded that its position was that Deputy Murphy did launch a highly personalised attack on the press secretary, but that if he wanted readers to know that, in his opinion, he did not make such an attack, it was prepared to publish a clarification to that effect
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
The newspaper interpreted Deputy Murphy’s remarks as a “personalised attack”. Deputy Murphy said they were not a personalised attack. This is not a matter of fact, rather a matter of judgment. Neither complainant nor newspaper disputed the words spoken. The Irish Times by offering to publish a clarification stating that in Deputy Murphy’s opinion he did not make a personalised attack on the press secretary was a sufficient offer to resolve the complaint made under Principle 1 of the Code.
In my view Principle 2 was not breached. A newspaper’s interpretation of reported wording (a wording which is not in dispute) is not a failure to distinguish between fact and comment. Journalists regularly have to interpret what is said. This is not the same as failing to distinguish between fact and comment.
Deputy Murphy appealed the decision to the Press Council of Ireland. The Press Council's decision can be viewed here