A Woman and Independent.ie
The Press Council of Ireland has decided to uphold an appeal from the Newspaper against a decision of the Press Ombudsman.
The Press Ombudsman had upheld a complaint by a woman that Independent.ie breached Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland. The woman also complained that the article breached Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) and Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice. This part of the complaint was not upheld.
Independent.ie published a report that the complainant had been awarded damages following a road accident. The article included references to the woman’s deceased husband and to her son’s criminal record.
Solicitors representing the woman wrote to Independent.ie stating that they had no difficulty with the court reporting part of the article but felt that it was “grossly unfair that (their) client should be confronted with an extremely unpleasant past in respect whereof she is not responsible”. The woman’s solicitors went on to state that the publication had caused their client “unnecessary trauma” and the publication had resulted in her suffering in her job.
In a further letter to the editor of Independent.ie solicitors representing the woman sought a “formal apology for the unforgiving manner that (their) client was dealt with in (the) newspaper article”.
The woman’s solicitors made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman claiming that the article had breached Principle 4, Principle 5 and Principle 8 of the Code of Practice. They claimed that the article had been “malicious” and had been “drafted in such a way that (their) client was held up for ridicule and contempt when (their) client is in no way involved in criminality”.
In a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman Independent.ie stood over the article as “fair and accurate”. Independent.ie stated the article was balanced by the inclusion of favourable comments made by the presiding Judge that he believed the woman “ …to be an honest lady who had quite a history of accidents. Insofar as she had described all the accidents to him, accepted that she was an entirely innocent party”. The newspaper said that for these reasons it was not in a position to offer the woman an apology for the publication of the article.
Solicitors for the woman described the newspaper’s response as “disingenuous” and again criticised the references to their client’s late husband and her son in the report as breaching their client’s privacy and displaying prejudice.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
The article published in Independent.ie included information about the complainant’s late husband and her son’s criminal record. This information was not relevant to any understanding of the court case. The Judge was reported as describing the woman as “an entirely innocent party”. Therefore, I can find no justification in including references to the woman’s husband and son in the report. Principle 5 states that the right to privacy shall not prevent publication of matters of public record or in the public interest. I accept that what was published about the woman’s husband and son in the article was mostly based on information on the public record. However, like all rights, the right to publish information on the public record cannot be unqualified and the relevance of such information to the subject matter of the article that has led to the complaint has to be taken into consideration. This is especially the case in court reporting when information is included in an article which was not made known in court. As much of the information published about the woman’s husband and son was not relevant to the report of court proceedings I am upholding this part of the woman’s complaint as a breach of Principle 5.
Other parts of the complaint were not upheld.
There is no evidence that the article contained any matter “based on malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations”. The article contained a court report augmented with information about the complainant’s husband and son. I have no reason to believe that the publication did not “take reasonable care in checking facts before publication”.
I can find no evidence that Independent.ie published anything “intended to cause grave offence or likely to cause stir up hatred against an individual” on the basis of the complainant’s “race religion, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, membership of the travelling community, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age”.
10 May 2018
The complainant and the newspaper both appealed against the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council.
Decision of the Press Council
The appeals were heard by the Press Council at its meeting on 6 July 2018.
The complainant appealed the Press Ombudsman’s decision on the grounds that there was an error in the Press Ombudsman’s application of the Code of Practice. The Press Council decided that the appeal was not admissible because it did not contain sufficient evidence to support the grounds cited.
The publication appealed the Press Ombudsman’s decision on the grounds that there was an error in the Press Ombudsman’s application of the Code of Practice. The Press Council considered the appeal and decided to uphold the appeal on the grounds that the Press Ombudsman based his decision on the relevance of the information complained about, where relevance under Principle 5 of the Code does not arise in circumstances where the information was already on the public record or in the public domain, and where its accuracy was not disputed. The Press Council decided therefore to uphold the appeal.
Note: The complainant has exercised her right under data protection legislation to have this decision reported in an anonymous form