by Niamh Kirk
How the press responds to complaints by the subjects of their articles gives a deep insight into the culture of their newsrooms. In the UK the testimonies of the victims of News of the Worlds abuses was the centrepiece of the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics.
In Ireland, the Press Council of Ireland publishes the detail of the complaints it handles and each case offers a window into the culture of Irish newsrooms.
The recent decision against four Irish titles reveals a spectrum of approaches and ideologies in Irish journalism.
Irish Daily Mail, Evoke.ie, the Irish Daily Star and theSun.ie took images of a child off a YouTube video and published them without the consent of the parents.
Then story relates to a family who was given a present of a Ralph Lauren baby pants for their daughter. The elastic on the pants caused red welts and the family took a civil action against the manufacturer, Ralph Lauren who agreed to pay €17,500 in a settlement. This settlement was reported in most national newspapers.
None of the articles’ text was found to have breached the code. The details that were given in the court case were found to fall under the reportage of justice in public. The problem the Ombudsman had, was with the publication of the child’s photographs.
Each publication used two photographs, one of the child and then one of the child with her mother.
But each took a very different approach when the parents complained. And these responses give us a very good insight into the ethical boundaries that the publications were willing to push and the culture of their newsroom.
In the case of Evoke.ie, the family emailed to complain about the image. But Evoke.ie defended their position on the grounds that taking the child’s image off YouTube was grand because it was already public and they were reporting on the administration of justice. In the formal submission to the Press Ombudsman Evoke.ie said the child was too young to be embarrassed and that the pictures were on YouTube so publishing them was fair enough.
On making a decision, the Press Ombudsman found that because the images had nothing to do with the case and they were not relevant to the story. He noted that the purpose of those images, even though there were on YouTube were for family and friends and nothing to do with the case at hand.
The explanation for the decision reads “ Irrespective of the lack of privacy provisions in the uploading of images to YouTube account has to be taken as to the purposes for which [they] uploaded the images of their daughter. The usual purpose for uploading images of children is so that friends and families can see celebrations, family occasions, holidays, etc. The justification for a newspaper to publish these kinds of images is that they have obtained permission or if the images are in some way relevant to the outcome of court proceedings. As the parents made no claim in court that their daughter had suffered any long-term damages from the faulty baby pants I cannot see how the publication of images of a child at play some years after the event can be justified in this particular case.”
On appeal, the Press Council agreed with the Ombudsman’s decision and upheld the complaint.
The Irish Sun took a different approach. When they received the email from the family they took down the images immediately, (they were live for 3 ½ hours) The editor apologised and arranged for the article to be taken down from the website.
The family continued with the complaint to the Ombudsman. Here the Sun’s editor apologised again, offered to publish an apology and redress any problems that they had.
The complaint could not be resolved it too went to the decision of the Press Ombudsman who welcomed the apology and the prompt removal of the article but said: “given the serious breach of Principle 9 resulting from the publication of the photographs this is not regarded as sufficient action to resolve the complaint.”
This position too was upheld by the Press Council.
The Irish Daily Mail received a letter about the use of the images which also complained that the family found the “article offensive, sensationalised and exploitive.”
The Irish Daily Mail defended its actions as reporting the ‘administration of justice’ and also on the ‘it’s on social media anyway’, excuse. Again the Press Ombudsman pointed out that the images were not related to the case and were family and friends use. Again the position was supported by the Council.
The Irish Daily Star also used the images of the child. They too received an email that the images used were obtained without permission. What did the Star’s editor do? Apologise? Defend? Nope. They did nothing, they didn’t reply to the family.
In the formal submission, the editor said the case was held in open court and that the images were already in the public domain. But as before, the Ombudsman found that use of the images was in breach of the code and this too was supported by the Council.
These responses tell us a thing or two about the culture in these newsrooms. Firstly, whether they understood the Code of Ethics and their responsibilities under it. Whether they publish in the spirt of the code or whether they were sensitive to the rights of the people that they publish stories about. The complaints also tell us whether the titles were quick to reply, willing to consider that they were wrong and apologetic in their errors. And in total, it lets the rest of the audience know whether or not they want to support these cultures.