THE Press Ombudsman has decided to uphold a complaint by Marriage Equality and BelongTo Youth Services that an article in the Irish Independent on March 14, 2012 was in breach of Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines.
He also decided to uphold a complaint about the same article under Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code.
The article, headlined “Every single human decision has a consequence — so remember that the next time you vote for someone’s rights”, was about giving full marriage rights to same-sex couples.
It reported as fact that:
– “the liberalisation of the laws against homosexual acts” had resulted in the “catastrophic reality” of “at least 250,000 deaths from AIDS”;
– “the record of every society shows that boys without a strong stable male figure in their lives are an express train heading for trouble”; and
– Catholic adoption agencies have “closed rather than do something which they feel is immoral, which is to hand children over to homosexual couples”.
The newspaper responded that it did not accept that the article breached Principle 2 of the Code because the writer was entitled to express his strongly-held views, however controversial, under the principle of freedom of expression. It repeated a previous offer to publish a right of reply from the complainants. This offer was declined.
The Preamble to the Code of Practice, and the Code itself, confer considerable freedom to newspapers to comment on news. However, affording immunity from complaint under the Code of Practice to comment articles because the views expressed are strongly-held or otherwise would be a significant departure from both the spirit and letter of the Code.
Consequently, where a comment is reported as fact, as in the case of this complaint, a newspaper can reasonably be expected to provide, as part of its justification for publication, evidence of the factuality of the matters complained of. No such evidence was provided by the newspaper.
The Press Ombudsman’s opinion is that, in this case, the failure to distinguish adequately between fact and comment was sufficiently substantial to justify a decision that the article was in breach of Principle 2 of the Code.
Marriage Equality and BelongTo Youth Services and three other individuals — Mr Rory McCann, Mr Steven McCall and Mr Adam Long — also complained about the article under Principle 8 (Prejudice) of the Code of Practice.
In response to this part of the complaint, the newspaper said that the article was self-evidently an opinion piece containing views on a matter which was evidently divisive and controversial. It did not accept that setting out of opinions in such a manner could or should amount to a breach of the Code. Articles such as these, it said, were designed to contribute to debates on controversial topics. It also provided evidence of its willingness to accept and publish contrary views subsequent to the publication of this article, and it offered to publish a further article of around 500 to 600 words from Marriage Equality.
In the opinion of the Press Ombudsman, the breaches of Principle 2 above were, in the circumstances, capable of causing grave offence under Principle 8 and, for that reason, amounted to a breach of that Principle also. They did not, however, breach that part of Principle 8 relating to the publication of statements which might act as an incitement to hatred.
A number of other complaints about the article were not upheld.
The full decision can be accessed at http://www.pressombudsman.ie.
Congrats to Marriage Equality, Belong To, my friend Adam Long and more who went to the trouble of making clear and irrefutable complaints about the attention-seeking bigot.