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South's weak Press code letting Mail off hook over Buncrana

By Paul Connolly

Published 13/05/2016

Louise James
Louise James

A few weeks back I wrote about the controversy involving the Irish Mail on Sunday and a bogus interview with Derry woman Louise James, who lost almost her entire family in the Buncrana pier tragedy.

The allegation came from the family and accused the paper and its reporter of tricking its way into her home accompanied by two children.

Further Reading

Buncrana: Irish Mail on Sunday has questions still to answer  

There then appeared an "exclusive", which was construed as an interview with Louise.

Journalists have two methods of recording comments: contemporaneous written notes, or an audio/video recording. If the journalist was taking notes, it would have been obvious who she was.

So, either the proceedings were either secretly recorded or the quotes were recalled from the reporter's memory. Neither is acceptable.

I'll not rehearse my previous arguments; suffice to say the allegations against Alison O'Reilly and the Irish Mail on Sunday are that they rode a coach and horses through both the UK and Irish Press codes, including clauses on accuracy/distortion, subterfuge and intrusion into grief and shock. A subsequent apology was inadequate, misleading and omitted from UK editions (which carried the story).

My understanding is that an internal inquiry is under way at the paper to discover what happened here.

If the Irish Mail on Sunday wants to redeem itself it should initiate and publish - unredacted - an inquiry by an independent expert. Sunlight, as always, is the best disinfectant.

The problem is this episode raises a further host of difficult questions for the paper.

Is subterfuge regularly used to get interviews which are not in the public interest? Have conversations been recorded without consent? Is this a regular practice in this newsroom?

There appears no sign at present that Press regulators in either the Republic or the UK are actively investigating this affair.

This is very disappointing.

Almost as concerning is that the controversy has underlined structural weaknesses in the Republic's Press regulation system.

Turns out the Irish watchdog, the Press Ombudsman, is in some respects as toothless as the UK's now-discredited PCC.

The Ombudsman, Peter Feeney, confirmed no complaint has yet been made to his office from the James family. I asked Mr Feeney whether, as this was a matter of public interest, he would involve himself and investigate anyway, but he says this isn't possible: "Section 24 of the Memorandum and Articles of Association of the Press Council of Ireland lays down our complaints procedure. There is no provision for the Press Ombudsman to initiate a complaint in section 24.

"A further restriction you might note is that complainants must be able to demonstrate that they are personally affected by what is published."

He added: "Therefore, if this office received a complaint about any reports on the Buncrana drownings, it would be necessary for the complainant to demonstrate how he/she were affected."

I see it rather differently: the Republic's code and preamble gives the Ombudsman adequate scope to act, stating it is his "duty" to ensure that the code is honoured in spirit and letter.

It also provides an obligation to act in the public interest. In my view, these trump the articles of association.

It is high time the office of the Press Ombudsman was given proper powers to investigate malpractice.

As it stands, the Republic's code of practice is not fit for purpose.

Belfast Telegraph

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