It is essential in a democracy that the press reports the facts, distinguishes facts from opinions and corrects errors.
The Irish Times styles itself the newspaper of reference. It used to call itself the newspaper of record but no longer can. It no longer aims to correct all the errors it prints.
This article is perhaps challengingly over-detailed but it’s in an effort to make the above case, by describing my own experiences over the last few weeks, and years. I believe the case is representative.
In the August-Sept edition of Village I made a mistake in saying Green Concillor, Mark Dearey, voted for a rezoning in Louth in 2007. Elsewhere in the article unconscionable activity involving other people and withdrawal of an appeal for a large payment is described. Mr Dearey feels the taint embraced him, I think not. He is suing for defamation but that is not the point here.
At issue is a court report in the IT (8 October), by Ray Managh, on the defamation case Dearey is taking in the Circuit Court case against Village which was interesting, if certainly neither fair nor accurate. Indeed I feel it may be defamatory of me and so unfair and inaccurate, particularly as to the case I made, as to leave the truth of the proceedings hidden.
First, it reported that the article I wrote is in fact defamatory, even though this is the issue to be determined by the court. This seems like it could be tritely damaging/defamatory of me and of Village in what purported to be a report of a court proceeding in a serious newspaper which “above all else commits itself to accuracy”. The court report stated: “Mr Mohan, who appeared with James McCullough, had also sought an order directing the defendants to publish a correction comparable to the false and defamatory material about Mr Dearey in the August-September edition of Village”.
Grammatically, putting “the” in front of a word or phrase denominates it as being real.
If an order is sought for anything counterfactual the reporter must use quotes or “allegedly”. That’s elementary to defamation and elementary to (court) reporting.
Second, Mr Dearey is not seeking damages, as the Irish Times’ subheading prominently but inaccurately stated, but rather a declaration of defamation under a relatively new procedure designed for cases where a publisher fails or refuses to make an apology. This apparent basic mistake implies Ormond Quay Publishing Ltd and I may be open to enforced payments on a scale entirely different to what is in fact possible.
Third, the article was not, as the Times reported, “about” Mr Dearey who is mentioned once in passing (in a seven-word sentence in a 1400-word article), but about large payments to third-party appellants to withdraw appeals they’d made to An Bord Pleanála.
Fourth, the article was not a “corruption special”. There was a corruption special within the magazine which embraced three articles, not including the allegedly defamatory one.
Fifth, the Irish Times reported it as fact that the article “had alleged criminal conduct and misfeasance in public office against a large number of individuals mentioned”. In fact nowhere in the Village article is there such an “allegation against anyone, least of all the councillors who voted for the material contravention.
Sixth, contrary to the report, Judge Linnane did not in fact ask if Ormond Quay Publishing Ltd was impecunious. I stated it was, in a successful effort to get the judge to include costs as an issue in discussions she was encouraging between me and the plaintiff’s lawyers. And seventh, Ray Managh misreported what I said about that company. I stated it operated on a shoestring, not that it was on a shoestring. The latter version, repeated in a caption elsewhere in the article, seems to impute fragility rather than frugality and has the effect of damaging the financial standing of the magazine.
More generally, though the report refers to the entirety of the case for the plaintiff, it fails to report the essence of my case, stated succinctly and in unvarying terms on a number of occasions. I told the court my case was procedural and substantive. The report ignores this. The procedural point made is that s28 of the 2009 Defamation Act does not apply in cases, as here, where an apology has been offered (indeed given). The substantive point made is that the comment is not defamatory – that the article describes unusual events surrounding the withdrawal of appeals to An Bord Pleanála at a cost of nearly €1 million, events that involve a difference process and different actors from the process – material contravention – about which the article made a mistake concerning Mr Dearey.
Reflecting the Irish Times’ lack of interest in the seven mistakes it made in the Dearey report, matters whose seriousness should have been arresting, it failed to print or acknowledge a letter concerning some of them that I sent for publication. Inevitably then the ferret-like Phoenix magazine picked up the thrust of the Irish Times article, without calling for my view on it.
This is not the first time I have been the object of grand-scale misreporting of my involvement in important and serious judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings, by the Irish Times, in reports that purported to be definitive and factual. In 2006 the Irish Times unfairly misreported my evidence to the Mahon Tribunal, and in 2011 and 2012 it serially misreported my evidence and then the decision of the Standards in Public Office Commission, concerning a successful complaint I had taken against Councillor Oisín Quinn.
In the report of one of only three decisions in eleven years that went against someone in public office the Irish Times misreported the central facts, made eight errors and chose to ventilate the views of the Councillor, even though SIPO had decided against those views. The Irish Times misreported the matter three times through its political correspondents but did publish one reasonable effort by Tim O’Brien, the day after the hearing.
In 2011, Councillor Oisin Quinn had threatened to sue me on the back of a report in Village outlining some conflicts of interest that he had not declared or acted to avoid concerning high-rise development in Dublin 2. After meeting his legal representatives I decided that in fact, far from having defamed him, we’d understated the case against him. I decided to report him to the Standards in Public Office Commission. A year later I won the case with SIPO deciding Quinn had breached the ethics acts in four ways. Apart from misreporting the number of breaches as one only Stephen Collins, the Irish Times political editor, riddled his article outlining the decision with no less than seven other factual errors (IT 16 Dec 2012) – half Mr Collins’ own; half from the mouth of Councillor Quinn. Mr Collins’ report failed to report the complainants’ case, SIPO’s case or indeed SIPO’s decision; or the thrust of any of them. Instead it reported a diatribe by Mr Quinn rehashing many of the points decided against him. No effort was made to get rebuttals of this or any balance in reportage of a decision that dramatically went against him, failing to accept his central point on the “remoteness” of his interest and many others.
It was not true – indicating that Collins knew nothing about the complaint and did not make any effort to look at any documentation relating to it – that “The complaint centred on a claim that Mr Quinn had contravened the Act by voting on the Dublin City Development Plan 2011-2017 while he and other members of his family owned property on Lower Mount Street”. The Irish Times had already corrected a Mary Minihan article which said this in its edition of 7th January 2012 . At that time its Corrections section noted: “The complainants in the case recently before SIPO concerning Councillor Oisín Quinn did not argue that Councillor Quinn ‘should not have voted on matters relating to the development plan’ as stated in an article of 13 December 2011. They argued that he should not have voted on the very limited range of matters that changed height standards in certain limited areas of the city. They claimed voting on these matters might tend to enhance the value of his interest in the Revenue Commissioners building on Lower Mount St”.
This was the third time that the Irish Times had comprehensively mis-reported this matter: twice (once online on the day of the hearing in ‘breaking news’) after attention had been drawn to inaccuracies and untruths. No member of the public would have anything like an accurate sense of what went on in these proceedings from reading the Irish Times. In late December Oisin Quinn, along with Dublin City Council spent five days in the High Court, at taxpayers’ expense, challending the Sipo decision. Perhaps mercifully the Irish Times completely refrained from any coverage of what would appear to be something they should be recording.
What could the explanation for these weird distortions be? My theory is deference to lawyers.
For the record, Village will correct any mistakes drawn to its attention. We’re also interested in others’ experiences attempting to get factual errors corrected in Ireland’s so-called serious media.
Note:in its edition of 2 January the Irish Times corrected two of the seven errors in the Dearey report – tinyurl.com/pf4rlea