Mr Eddie Sheehy and Village
The Press Council of Ireland has decided to uphold an appeal by Mr Eddie Sheehy that two statements complained about in an article published by Village in March 2018 were inaccurate and therefore a breach of Principle 1 of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
Decision of the Press Ombudsman
On 25 June 2018 the Press Ombudsman upheld a complaint made by Mr Sheehy that Village breached Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice. He decided that he had insufficient evidence to make a decision on claims of a breach of Principle 1 (Truth and Accuracy).
In March 2018 Village published an article on a Senior Counsel’s investigation and report into the compulsory purchase in 2004 of lands by Wicklow County Council. Mr Eddie Sheehy (the complainant) was the Wicklow County Manager at the time the Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) was made. The article also reported on a subsequent defamation action taken in the High Court by two County Councillors following the Council’s publication of a press release on the Senior Counsel’s findings. Mr Sheehy complained that the article, which was published in print and online, contained a number of false and misleading allegations about him, and that it omitted to include a number of rebuttals made by barristers acting for him and Wicklow County Council in the defamation action.
Mr Sheehy complained about a number of particular statements in the article: that an Order made by him was “false” and “misleading”; that the Senior Counsel was provided with two Manager’s Orders (when, he says, there was only one); that a number of claims made by the barrister representing the plaintiffs in the defamation action, including one about a landbank held by the County Council, had been rebutted by barristers acting on behalf of the defendants (Mr Sheehy and Wicklow County Council); that in her judgment the Judge referred to the extensive documentation available to the Senior Counsel for his review but withheld from the Councillors; that claims in the article concerning negotiations for the exchange of land were inaccurate and that no effort had been made by Village to contact him in advance of publication of the article.
The editor of Village responded to the complaint defending the article as published.
He stated that during court proceedings relating to the defamation action Mr Sheehy “accepted that there was a site of over 10 hectares (22 acres) of land which were zoned residential in the immediate vicinity” of the land subject to the CPO in 2004. The editor stated that Mr Sheehy had produced no documentation to support his contention that the 10 hectares had been “earmarked” for the development of Greystones harbour. He said that the Judge cited the documents available to the Senior Counsel for his review which proved that Wicklow County Council owned the 22 acre site which was zoned residential for housing and said that on this basis it was “factual to state that the Manager’s Order on which the CPO was based was “false” and “misleading” as stated by the barrister representing the plaintiffs in the defamation action.
In regard to the claim in the article that there had been two Manager’s Orders, he said that a second Order, dated November 2003, had been “referred to extensively during the High Court action and also in the detailed judgment … which was delivered on 10 July 2017”.
In regard to the claims made by the barrister representing the defendants about a landbank held by the Council, the editor said that there was no documentation to support the claim that there was any legal or other impediment to providing social housing on the land, which was zoned for residential use.
In regard to the statement in the article that the Judge in the defamation case referred to extensive documentation available to the Senior Counsel for his review but “withheld” from the councillors, the editor stated that the defamation action judgment referred to the fact that certain documents provided to the Senior Counsel for his investigation had not been in the “Room of Documents” made available to councillors at the time of the CPO. These included reports on possible flooding on the lands subject to the CPO.
In regard to references in the article to negotiations for the exchange of land, the editor stood over what was published.
In regard to Mr Sheehy’s complaint that he had not been contacted in advance of publication to respond to assertions made in the article the editor stated that efforts had been made to contact the Senior Counsel who had carried out the report and that he had “declined to comment”. In addition, the editor stated that Village had been in correspondence with Mr Sheehy and his officials “over several years” regarding some of the issues reported on in the article.
Mr Sheehy responded to the editor’s submission. He described the article as “a partisan piece” that relied heavily on the plaintiffs’ Counsel in the defamation action without reference to “the counter submissions” of the defendants’ Counsel. He reiterated that there had only been one Manager’s Order and that when the plaintiffs’ Counsel had referred in the defamation action to a “2003 Order” it had been done so inadvertently. Mr Sheehy provided the Office of the Press Ombudsman with copies of documentation relating to the 2004 Manager’s Order.
In regard to claims in the Village article of the withholding of documents from councillors at the time the CPO was made Mr Sheehy argued that these documents were created after the appointment of the Senior Counsel in 2012 to investigate the matters and could not have been withheld from councillors as they did not exist at the time of the CPO.
Finally, in regard to the claim by the editor that the magazine had been in correspondence with Mr Sheehy and Wicklow County Council in the years before the article appeared Mr Sheehy stated that he had retired in April 2015 and that he had received no communication from the magazine in the past three years.
As the complaint could not be resolved through conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for his decision.
Upheld Part of the Complaint
Principle 4 requires the press to take reasonable care in checking facts before publication. Village failed to contact Mr Sheehy in advance of publication. Given that the article raised serious questions about Mr Sheehy’s performance as a public figure I believe the magazine had a responsibility to contact Mr Sheehy and put to him the allegations contained in the article. The failure to do this represents a breach of Principle 4.
Much of this complaint revolves around claims and counter-claims as to what happened 14 years ago. To support its conclusions the article relied heavily on evidence and the interpretation of that evidence from the defamation action. Mr Sheehy asserts that many of these interpretations are misleading and false, and that the article relied heavily on the evidence on the plaintiff’s side, but failed to publish counter-arguments from the other side. While he provides some documents from 2004 to support his complaint, they are in themselves insufficient to conclude the accuracy or otherwise of the statements which he believes to be inaccurate. Village provides no documentary evidence to support what it published. In these circumstances I have insufficient evidence available to me to make a decision on the accuracy or otherwise of the statements in the article about which Mr Sheehy complains.
Not Upheld Part of the Complaint
Principle 2 requires the press to avoid reporting comment, conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports … as if they are fact. I can find no evidence that this Principle was breached in the article.
Principle 3 requires that the press shall strive at all times for fair procedures and honesty in the procuring and publishing of news and information. I can find no evidence that this Principle was breached in the article.
The article relied heavily for background on comments made during a defamation action. But the article was not a court report of the defamation action and therefore the requirement found in Principle 7 that the press shall strive to ensure that court reports … are fair and accurate does not apply in this instance.
Mr Sheehy appealed that part of the Press Ombudsman’s decision made under Principle 1 of the Code of Practice that he had insufficient evidence to decide on the accuracy of a statement in the article that Judge Baker referred to extensive documentation available to a Senior Counsel for his review “but withheld from the Councillors”, and references in the article to a 2003 Manager’s Order.
The appeal was submitted on the grounds (i) that significant new information relevant to the original complaint was available that could not have been or was not made available to the Press Ombudsman before making his decision and (ii) that the procedures followed by the Press Ombudsman in making his decision were not in accordance with the published procedures for submitting and considering complaints.
At its meeting on 7 September 2018 the Press Council decided there was insufficient evidence to admit the appeal on the grounds that there had been an error in the published procedures, but admitted the appeal on the grounds of significant new information.
The Press Council decided to uphold the appeal on the grounds that the significant new information provided allowed them to decide that the two statements complained about were inaccurate and therefore a breach of Principle 1 of the Code.