4132/2019 A Couple and Irishmirror.ie
The Press Ombudsman has decided not to uphold a complaint made by a couple that Irishmirror.ie breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty), Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
The Irishmirror.ie published a short report on a security company that had been involved in the eviction of a family who were in arrears in the repayment of a debt. The report was based almost entirely on comments made by an un-named “former colleague” of the head of the security company. The comments were critical of the professionalism of the security company. The article was accompanied by two photographs, one of the head of the firm at a previous eviction and the other of three vehicles parked around the man’s home.
The man wrote to the editor of the Irish Mirror stating that a Mirror journalist had called to the family home and would not leave despite being asked to do so. He said that the journalist only left when his daughter phoned the police. The man said his wife then phoned the Mirror’s office and said that she did not want any journalists near their home and that they did not want pictures to be used. He said that when the article was published it was accompanied by a photograph which described as “security vehicles” the family’s “private vehicles”. He stated that the publication of the photograph increased the “very real threat” that his family was under. He further stated that the article contained a “number of inaccurate and misleading statements, allegedly made by a former colleague”. Finally, he said that the article stated that the eviction turned violent but failed to report that the violence had not been caused by the security company but by a gang of masked men who assaulted the security staff and torched vehicles at the repossessed property. He claimed that Principles 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 had been breached.
Irishmirror.ie responded to the complaint stating that that the incident at the eviction was a matter of public interest and concern. Irishmirror.ie defended its journalist calling to the house to discuss what had happened at the eviction and stated that the journalist did not engage in any form of harassment towards the man’s family. Nor was there, the Irishmirror.ie stated, an infringement of privacy as the photograph published did not allow the family home to be identified and identifying marks on the vehicles visible in the photograph had been obscured.
The couple submitted CCTV footage of the area around their home to the Office of the Press Ombudsman and a written recollection of events from their daughter. The CCTV included footage of the area in front of the door to their house which showed the journalist and a photographer arrive at the door and attempt to engage in conversation at the front door. They also submitted some screen grabs of the area around their house. The statement from their daughter included a description of how the journalist from the Irishmirror.ie arrived at the door and asked to speak to her father. She said that her mother told the journalist to leave immediately as she didn’t want to talk to journalists. She went on to state that the journalist wouldn’t leave and that at that point she phoned the police.
In its submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman Irishmirror.ie questioned the appropriateness of the CCTV footage and screen grabs provided by the family stating that all the recordings should be made available and not just a selection. Irishmirror.ie also sought details of the claims made by the family to the police about the behaviour of its journalist. Irishmirror.ie claimed that the report had not breached any Principle of the Code of Practice. The publication pointed out that it had removed the photograph complained about when first contacted by the family.
In an additional submission the Irishmirror.ie made the point that the CCTV footage showed that its journalist had spent less than two minutes at the door of the family’s house attempting to secure an interview.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
Principle 1 refers to accuracy. The couple questioned the accuracy of some of the statements about the security firm attributed to an un-named former colleague including, for example, that payments to employees were made on a “cash-in-hand” basis. However, they provided no evidence to support their counter-claims. In addition, the couple claimed that the family’s cars and vans were incorrectly identified as security vehicles. If they are correct in this claim it is not a significant inaccuracy and therefore doesn’t breach Principle 1.
Principle 2 requires the press to distinguish between fact and comment. All the descriptions of the operations of the security firm complained of by the couple were identified in the article as the comments of a former colleague and were not presented as facts. Therefore, I find no breach of Principle 2.
This Principle requires the press not to obtain information through harassment. The couple claim that the journalist engaged in harassment at the door of their house and that their daughter felt it was necessary to call the police. They submitted CCTV footage and a description from their daughter of the journalist’s actions at the doorstep. The CCTV does not suggest behaviour that equates with harassment. The journalist was only at the door for approximately two minutes and in that time she did not appear to be animated or aggressive in any way (though it needs to be said that the CCTV footage is mute). The fact that the couple’s daughter felt the need to call the police is not in itself sufficient evidence to verify a claim of harassment.
This Principle requires the press to not knowingly publish material based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations and requires the press to take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. The report carried claims of behaviour by the security firm which did require to be checked before publication. The journalist calling to the house of the family was, presumably, seeking to provide the head of the firm with an opportunity to respond to the allegations made by a former colleague. The couple were fully entitled to refuse to be interviewed. However, Irishmirror.ie fulfilled its obligations under Principle 4 by attempting to check its facts before publication.
This Principle deals with privacy. The couple believe that their family’s privacy was breached by Irishmirror.ie through the publication of a photograph taken from within their private property. The photograph is of an outhouse and three vehicles. These images do not breach the family’s privacy as the location is not identifiable and the vehicle registration plates are obscured. It is also noted that Irishmirror.ie deleted the photograph from its online archives on receipt of the complaint. Therefore, there is no breach of Principle 5.
21 March 2019
Note: The complainants exercised their right to have the decision reported n a form which did not identify them.