175/2019 - Mr Bulelani Mfaco and The Irish Times
The Press Council of Ireland has upheld an appeal by Mr Bulelani Mfaco against a decision of the Press Ombudsman not to uphold a complaint he made that The Irish Times breached Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
On 4 September 2019 the Press Ombudsman did not uphold a complaint by Mr Bulelani Mfaco that The Irish Times breached Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
On 17 July 2019 The Irish Times published in its online edition a court report where a man was accused of racially abusing a taxi driver. The report included an allegation that the man accused, a passenger in a taxi, called the taxi-driver a “n****r” using the full spelling of the word. Mr Bulelani Mfaco contacted the newspaper objecting to the publication of the word, saying that “as someone who has been called the N word, I’m hurt”. Mr Mfaco received a reply from The Irish Times which said “Thanks for bringing this to our attention. The error has been rectified”. The word complained of was amended to “n****r”.
Mr Mfaco made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stating that he was not satisfied with the response of the newspaper and that the use of the word “normalises the everyday racism” which he and “many of my black friends who call Ireland home have experienced”. He sought a public apology from the newspaper. Mr Mfaco claimed that Principle 8 (Prejudice) had been breached. Principle 8 states:
The press shall not publish material intended or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against an individual or group on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, colour …
The Irish Times responded by stating that it had published the word before and doubtless will do it again. The editor said the critical issue is the context in which the word is reported, and that it “would not include the word in an article if its inclusion was gratuitous or intended to be offensive”. The editor said the word appeared in the article “because it was part of the sworn testimony against a defendant accused of racial abuse and violence against a taxi driver”. He said that in contextual terms there was justification for the word to be reported in full but in response to Mr Mfaco’s correspondence it was amended.
Mr Mfaco was not satisfied with this response, pointing out that the newspaper in the same article had “censured” another offensive word to “c**t” but had not seen it as necessary to censor the word which was the subject of his complaint.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
I have a great deal of sympathy for Mr Mfaco. The word “n****r” is deeply offensive and everything possible should be done to exclude its usage in everyday life. Indeed, research commissioned by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland by IPSOS MRBI into offensive language in 2013 found that the word “n****r” was regarded as the most offensive word if broadcast. I also have sympathy for Mr Mfaco as The Irish Times when reporting on the court case felt the need to “sanitise” one offensive word but not another. However, the editor’s defence that the context in which a word is used in an article is critical. A court report is one of the few places where the publication of the word the subject of this complaint is defensible. Taking all of the above into consideration it is my view that The Irish Times did not breach Principle 8 (Prejudice) on this occasion, though I would encourage all editors to give careful consideration before deciding to publish the word that is the subject matter of this complaint.
Decision of the Press Council
Mr Mfaco appealed the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland on the basis that there had been an error in the Press Ombudsman’s application of Principle 8 of the Code of Practice.
At its meeting on 1 November 2019 the Press Council decided to uphold Mr Mfaco’s appeal on the basis that publication of the word complained about breached Principle 8 of the Code of Practice because it was likely to cause grave offence and that the context did not justify its use.