A Couple and Independent.ie
The Press Ombudsman has found that there is insufficient evidence available to him to make a decision on part of a complaint made by a couple that Independent.ie breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. He has not upheld other parts of the complaint that Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) of the Code of Practice were breached.
Independent.ie published a court report outlining how the couple had made a claim of defamation and false imprisonment arising from an incident some years beforehand when the couple were travelling through Dublin Airport and were challenged about the amount of money they had in their possession
The couple made a complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stating that the article and its headline were inaccurate and therefore a breach of Principle 1 as they did not give an apology to the court as reported in the article. They also stated that the article implied wrong doing on the man’s part. They further stated that the article should have reported the amount of money he had in his wallet at the airport, a sum which he said was “hardly excessive”. He also stated that the newspaper had breached Principle 1.2 as he had contacted the newspaper to inform it that the report was inaccurate, and nothing was done to correct the inaccuracies. They also stated that Principle 4 had been breached as the author of the report was not in court and failed to contact them to hear their side of the story. The couple attached a letter from their barrister outlining his version of the background to the action and its withdrawal.
In further correspondence with the Office of the Press Ombudsman the couple said that the article also breached Principle 2 (Distinguishing fact and Comment) and Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) of the Code of Practice as the article only presented one perspective and lacked fairness, objectivity and impartiality.
The editor of Independent.ie defended the court report, stating that both the journalist, who it said was present in court, and the solicitor representing the defendant, told it that “there was indeed an apology to the court”. He went on to say that “the couple withdrew their action and made a payment of €1,000 towards the defendant’s costs”.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
The couple claimed that Principle 1 was breached on the grounds, inter alia, that the report was inaccurate in stating that an apology had been made in court. The couple stated that they did not apologise in court, and they submitted with their complaint a letter from their barrister who stated that while he had drafted a retraction, he specifically did not use the word “apology”. Independent.ie responded stating that both the writer of the article, who was in court, and the solicitor for the defendant told it that there was an apology to the court. I have insufficient evidence available to me to make a decision on the accuracy or otherwise of the headline.
The couple claimed that Principle 4 had been breached as the reporter was not in court for the proceedings and failed to contact them to hear their side of the story. Independent.ie stated that the reporter was in court. I have insufficient evidence available to me to make a decision on this part of the complaint.
I am not upholding the remainder of the complaint. The article was a report of evidence given in open court and while unwelcome to the complainants, it did not breach the Code of Practice. I do not accept that there was any obligation on the court reporter to seek a response from the couple to what was proposed to be published.
Note: The complainants exercised their right under data protection legislation to have this decision reported in an anonymous form.
16 March 2018