16/2019 SIPTU and the Sunday Independent
The Press Ombudsman has decided that the Sunday Independent offered to take action sufficient to resolve a complaint by SIPTU that Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland had been breached.
On 2 December 2018 the Sunday Independent on its front page published a report under the heading “Aer Lingus chief says staff stealing ‘many millions’”. The article stated that the Chief Operations Manager of Aer Lingus had said that “millions of euro worth of goods have been stolen from Aer Lingus passengers, members of staff and in company stock, including duty free”. To counter this, the newspaper reported Aer Lingus management were introducing CCTV cameras and engaging private security to carry out random patrols of staff areas. The article went on to say that the Chief Operations Manager “blamed ‘a small percentage’ of staff” and “recognised that ‘the vast majority of staff come to work every day and perform their duties in line with our values’”.
In the days following the publication of the article Aer Lingus management following a request from the Aer Lingus Group of Unions held a meeting with staff and union representatives at which management apologised and expressed its regret for the hurt and upset caused by, what it described, “as this misleading article”. Management also made a significant donation to two charities.
This response by management was reported in a follow up article in the Sunday Independent published on 9 December 2018 under the heading “Charities in the money as Aer Lingus seeks to shift blame for PR disaster of its own making”. In the article it was stated that the article published the previous week had been “entirely based on the content” of the manager’s memo and the airline “had not subsequently raised any direct concerns” with the Sunday Independent.
SIPTU wrote to the Sunday Independent stating that the articles had “caused considerable upset to our members and SIPTU staff representing them in Aer Lingus”. SIPTU asked for “an immediate right of reply”. The newspaper replied stating that it had faithfully reported the contents of the memo by the Aer Lingus Chief Operations Manager. The editor went on to state that Aer Lingus management had apologised for some of the comments in the memo and had made a donation to charity and that it was the airline and not the newspaper that had caused upset to the staff. The editor concluded by offering to publish a letter from SIPTU that would allow the union to outline its concerns about the memo. SIPTU replied to the editor saying that it was seeking a right of reply to the newspaper’s two articles and not to the Aer Lingus management’s memo. The editor responded to SIPTU saying “a right of reply, by definition, is a response to claims that have been made in public”, and that it was the Chief Operations Manager who had made the claims. SIPTU replied saying that the offer to publish a letter was not sufficient to address the “hurt, stress and embarrassment caused to our members”.
SIPTU made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman claiming that the Sunday Independent had breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice. In particular, SIPTU argued that the headline on the article had misrepresented the comments made by the Chief Operations Manager in his memo. The headline, SIPTU argued, would “have influenced the reader’s perception of the article itself”. SIPTU further argued that the newspaper should have sought a response from the union in advance of publication of the article.
In its response to the complaint the Sunday Independent reiterated its belief that the article published on 2 December had “faithfully reported” the contents of the Aer Lingus management memo, and went on to state that it was not the newspaper that claimed staff had stolen goods, but that this was the claim made in the memo. Given the actions taken by Aer Lingus management to address theft the newspaper argued that the headline was “reflective of the story and must be read in the round”. The editor did not address the issue raised by SIPTU that it should have allowed the union to comment on the article but did say that Aer Lingus management had been contacted in advance of publication and asked to verify the authenticity of the memo. The editor concluded by offering SIPTU a 600-word article which would allow it to reply to the Aer Lingus management memo.
SIPTU responded by welcoming the offer of the article to be written by the union on behalf of SIPTU members at Aer Lingus but said the article would have to be about the headline and contents of the articles published by the newspaper which had “deeply upset” the union’s members working in Aer Lingus.
The editor responded by saying the article would have to be “broadly in line with terms” set out in previous correspondence. SIPTU reiterated that it “would intend to focus our response on the actions and reportage of the newspaper”. The editor insisted that a piece focussing solely on the actions and reporting of the Sunday Independent was “neither reasonable nor acceptable”.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
I accept SIPTU’s concern that the headline on the article published on 2 December might have been misinterpreted by some readers as some kind of general claim about the honesty of SIPTU members working in Aer Lingus, though a reading of the article made it clear that the management memo was only referring to a small number of workers. I also accept SIPTU’s concern that it was not contacted by the newspaper in advance of publication of the article. The claims reported in the article (and repeated a week later) were serious and a case can be made that the requirement found in Principle 4 (The press … must take reasonable care in checking facts before publication) was not adhered to in advance of publication, though this argument has to be balanced by the fact that it was stated in the body of the article that the claims about dishonesty were solely based on the management memo and were not reported as fact.
However, all these concerns could have been addressed by SIPTU if it had penned the 600-word article which the Sunday Independent offered to publish. The disagreement about the thrust of the article (whether it should be about the Aer Lingus management memo or the newspaper’s reporting of that memo) could have been ironed out in communication between the union and the editor. This is especially the case when it is considered that the editor acknowledged that the article had to only be “broadly in line” with the newspaper’s view that the article should be about the management memo rather than the newspaper’s reporting of that memo. It is regrettable that the union did not at least draft the article and then decide if the newspaper was giving the union editorial freedom to determine the contents of the article. For these reasons I have concluded that the Sunday Independent offered to take action which was sufficient to resolve the complaints of SIPTU.
27 February 2019