A Man and Village
The Press Ombudsman has upheld part of a complaint that Village magazine breached the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. The complaint was made under Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice. Other parts of the complaint are not upheld.
Village magazine published an article about a recent film documentary on a notorious crime of multiple murders which took place in Northern Ireland some decades earlier. The headline on the article stated that the documentary had named people who had carried out the killings.
The complainant wrote to the editor stating that the headline to the article, and a number of other statements in the article, breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice. He complained that the article presented comment and unconfirmed reports as fact, in breach of Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment), and that publication of the name of the village in which he lived breached Principle 5 (Privacy).
The editor stood over the article. He said that the heading merely acknowledged the tragic fact of the murders and was not sensationalist, and that the confounding of fact and opinion alleged by the complainant seemed to be in the documentary rather than in the factual reporting of it. He said he was happy to remove the name of the village from the article, and to correct another reference to the complainant in the article. He also offered to meet in confidence with the complainant and offered to publish a piece by him outlining his concerns and position.
The complainant was not happy with the editor’s response and submitted his complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman.
The editor of Village again defended the publication of the article. He stated that he was guided by the credibility and fact-finding expertise of the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman’s Office reports, and by the reputation of the documentary maker and the “forensic tendency of this particular documentary”. The editor said that he had now removed from the online edition of the magazine the name of the village where the complainant lived and a reference to a business which the article said he operated. He said that at all times he had tried to give the complainant a chance to explain himself in the teeth of grave allegations, and twice informed him that he was willing to publish a piece from him.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
I am upholding this complaint only in relation to the heading of the article. The heading breached Principle 1 of the Code as it stated as fact that the people named in the documentary had carried out the killings, while the documentary referred to people who were suspected of having carried out the killings. This distinction is important as no one has ever been charged or convicted of the killings.
Other parts of the complaint are not upheld.
As the article only reported on the contents of the documentary and did not present the contents as fact, the article did not breach Principle 2 of the Code.
There is also no breach of Principle 5 of the Code. The complainant objected to the inclusion in the article of the name of his village. Having named the complainant in the article it was not unreasonable to include the name of his village. This would overcome the danger that other people living in Northern Ireland with the same name as the complainant might be thought to have been identified by the documentary maker as having been involved in the killings.
Note: the complainant is not named in the decision as he requested anonymity under data protection legislation.
The Magazine appealed against the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland.
Decision of the Press Council
At its meeting on 24 May 2018, The Council determined that the appeal submitted by the magazine was not admissible, as the appeal did not provide sufficient evidence under any of the three grounds for appeal.
The Decision of the Press Ombudsman therefore stands.