Councillor Toiréasa Ferris and The Irish Times
The Press Ombudsman has decided to uphold a complaint by Councillor Toiréasa Ferris that The Irish Times breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
On 20 January 2016 The Irish Times published an article following a meeting of Kerry County Council at which Cllr Toiréasa Ferris (Sinn Féin) responded to a proposal by Cllr Sammy Locke (Independent) that glass panels be erected at a monument in Tralee listing the names of soldiers who died during the First World War. The article stated that Cllr Ferris “threatened to seek to use money allocated to local councillors for favoured projects to erect a monument at Banna Strand to the Marita-Ann….” (The Marita-Ann was a boat used in an unsuccessful attempt by the IRA to smuggle arms into Ireland in 1984.)
Solicitors representing Cllr Ferris wrote to the editor of The Irish Times claiming that the article was replete with inaccuracies. In particular, her solicitors said that Sinn Féin did not “warn” and she did not “threaten” to push for the erection of a monument to the Marita-Ann.
Solicitors representing The Irish Times rejected the “assertion that the article contained inaccuracies or false assertions”. They went on to state that the article constituted a “fair and accurate report of proceedings at the meeting” and that Cllr Ferris “had raised the use of funds for erection of a monument to the Marita-Ann”.
As Cllr Ferris was not satisfied with the response of the newspaper to her complaint she made a formal complaint to the Press Ombudsman’s Office claiming that the article breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice. Her complaint was accompanied by extracts of the minutes of the meeting of Kerry County Council of 18 January 2016 and statements by four Councillors who were in attendance on the occasion of the debate, including the Chairman of the County Council and Cllr Locke.
During conciliation various wordings of a clarification were suggested by solicitors representing Cllr Ferris and The Irish Times, but agreement could not be reached.
As the complaint could not be conciliated it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
I am upholding this complaint as in my view the article breached Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice. The minutes of the Council meeting corroborates Cllr Ferris’s complaint that Sinn Féin never pushed, and she never threatened, to seek to use money to erect a monument to the Marita-Ann, and that she only raised the issue as an example of an inappropriate use of public funds. This is backed up by the statements of the Chairman of the Council (a member of Fine Gael) and Cllr Sammy Locke. The Council minutes state that Cllr Ferris and another Councillor “could propose that a monument should be erected to the Marita-Ann in Fenit but they would not do that”. Cllr Locke said in his statement that Cllr Ferris “would not be proposing such an event” (the erection of a monument to the gun-running incident). The Chairman of the County Council said “At no point in that meeting did Cllr Toiréasa Ferris propose that a monument be built to the Marita-Ann”.
It is undoubtedly the case that The Irish Times did go some way towards offering sufficient action to resolve the complaint. However I believe the wording proposed by the newspaper fell short of what was required as it did not sufficiently clarify that the use of the words “warned” and “threatened” in the article were inaccurate.
I am not upholding the other parts of Cllr Ferris’s complaint as I can find no evidence that the article breached Principles 3 or 4 of the Code.
20 June 2016