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Buncrana: Irish Mail on Sunday has questions still to answer

By Paul Connolly

Published 08/04/2016

Tragedy: Louise James
Tragedy: Louise James

Last week the Irish Mail on Sunday apologised to Louise James, the Derry woman who lost her partner, mother, sister and two sons in the Buncrana pier tragedy.

If the newspaper's bosses think this is the end of the matter they are mistaken.

And if DMG Media, publishers of the Mail on Sunday, think they have limited the damage to the south of Ireland; again, they're mistaken. The fake interview was also published in the UK edition; the apology, as far as I can see, wasn't.

Even if it was, it's not enough. Let's look at the key line in the apology because it raises more questions than answers.

The paper says: "Louise understood she was speaking to our reporter in a purely private capacity and had not consented to being interviewed."

Not good enough. It fails to address the central allegation that reporter Alison O'Reilly tricked her way into Louise's home without identifying herself as a journalist. It suggests Louise knew she was a reporter.

There is, in my opinion, a case to be answered of a breach of Clause 4 ('Intrusion into Grief or Shock') of the Editors' Code of Practice.

In normal circumstances one might anticipate a reasonable probability that grief-stricken Louise might have misheard or misremembered the reporter's identification.

But that begs the question: did the reporter have two children with her? The family say she did. We need to establish the truth of this allegation.

I have never, in almost 30 years in the business, heard of a reporter presenting on a doorstep accompanied by two children. If the allegation is true (and it may not be), it is likely to support the family's contention that subterfuge was the name of the game.

So, the Irish Mail on Sunday needs to answer the question: were there children with the reporter?

If the reporter had kids present and did not identify herself, Clause 10 of the Code ('Clandestine Devices and Subterfuge') certainly comes into play.

Then there are the matter of the quotes attributed to Louise. How were they gathered? Did Ms O'Reilly use a hidden recorder? This is likely to breach Clauses 4 and 10.

Another question for the Mail then: did Ms O'Reilly record what went on inside Ms James' home?

There are plenty of other questions: who, if anyone, asked Ms O'Reilly to make this approach? Was it the news desk? The editor?

Did she carry out instructions, or use unorthodox methods of her own? Why has the UK Mail on Sunday not apologised? It surely must.

This affair has been covered in The Irish Times, The Guardian and some other outlets. I am glad to report that the Belfast Telegraph's coverage has been more robust than the rest.

Legal options aside, the family have two Press complaints options. In the Republic they should approach the Press Ombudsman, who provides a "quick, fair and free" path to redress.

The Irish Mail on Sunday's apology is weak and full of holes. Frankly, if I were that paper's readers' editor (if it doesn't have one, it should) I would demand answers.

They should also complain to the Independent Press Standards Organisation in London. The UK Mail on Sunday must also apologise and it must investigate its sibling's behaviour.

You know what? If it would hasten ethical change, I'd lodge the IPSO complaint myself.

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