924/2021 - Ms Geri Lalor and the Sunday Independent
The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint made by Ms Geri Lalor that the Sunday Independent breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
On 14 February 2021 the Sunday Independent published an opinion column. The subject matter of the column was the reopening of schools in the context of restrictions brought about by Covid-19. The columnist expressed her opinions on concerns expressed by teachers on the proposed return to classroom teaching. The column included the following:
The UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) likewise has found teachers face a far lower risk of dying from Covid than numerous other categories of workers – not only nurses, doctors and care workers but also taxi drivers, catering staff, security guards and machine operatives.
Between March and November last year, the ONS recorded only 50 deaths from Covid among teachers, out of a death toll that now tops 100,000 in the UK.
Ms Geri Lalor, a teacher, wrote to the editor of the Sunday Independent saying that the columnist should apologise for the disrespect she demonstrated “to the dead, their families, and the wider teaching community”. She said that she and her teaching colleagues “feel personally slighted, sickened and appalled by this journalist’s casual disregard for those lives so tragically lost”. She said she found the inclusion of the word “only” before giving the number of teachers who died of Covid in the UK “shocking”.
As no reply was received Ms Lalor made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stating that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice had been breached. She said Principle 1 had been breached because the reporting was inaccurate, particularly in relation to schools in France, and in relation to the professional description of a teacher, which she said was not to look after children, but to educate them. She said that Principles 4 and 8 were breached because she said there was an implication in the article that if only a few people from a certain sector of society die, that their deaths are less worthy of consideration. She also complained that the overall tone to the article suggested that teachers are dishonest.
In a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman the editor apologised for the newspaper’s failure to respond to Ms Lalor. He offered to publish a letter that would allow Ms Lalor to express her views on the opinion column. The editor stated that Principle 4 had not been breached as the “article has not denigrated the good name and reputation of any individual” and did not contain “malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusation”. He also stated that Principle 8 had not been breached as the article “is plainly not intended to cause grave offence or stir up hatred on any of the grounds referred to in the Code.” Regarding the claim that Principle 1 had been breached he noted that the complainant questioned the accuracy of the claim in the article that “teachers look after and educate our children”. He said that “the vast majority of our readers would appreciate Irish teachers as people who benefit the care and wellbeing of children in their classrooms above and beyond the strict requirements of the academic curriculum”.
Ms Lalor replied to the editor’s submission saying she still believed that the article breached Principle 8 of the Code as grave offence had occurred. She said that “quantifying the deaths within a certain sector of society during the pandemic, and reducing them to “only” so many, trivialises and debases the loss of those individual lives and the real people behind the numbers”.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
Much of this complaint revolves around the use of the word “only” in describing the number of teachers who had died of Covid in the UK. It is clear to me that the columnist’s use of the word “only” was not intended to diminish the tragedy of those lives lost but was included to compare the number of teachers who had died to the overall number of deaths that occurred in the UK. The use of “only” to describe 50 deaths out of 100,000 deaths is not a breach of Principle 8. I have no doubt whatsoever that Ms Lalor was genuinely offended by what she saw as the trivialisation of those teachers’ deaths. But it is not possible to conclude that the grave offence she has taken was sufficient to determine that Principle 8 was breached. A breach of Principle 8 applies to grave offence or the stirring up of hatred against an individual or group on the basis of race, religion, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, membership of the travelling community, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age. This did not occur in the column published on 14 February 2021.
Opinion columns often contain views which are challenging and, even at times, provocative. This is the nature of public debate. There was nothing published in the column that was “based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations” and therefore I find there was no breach of Principle 4.
I have been presented with no evidence that there was any inaccuracy in the opinion column and therefore I find there was no breach of Principle 1. The complainant’s challenge to the description of teachers “taking care” of children is not an example of inaccuracy but of emphasis or understanding.
It is noted that the newspaper failed to respond to the complainant when she first wrote to the newspaper. This is regrettable as an early response might have alleviated the hurt felt and might have resolved the complaint. Newspapers need to ensure that all genuine complaints are responded to promptly and attentively.
3 September 2021