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Village editor on Irish Times’ misreporting of SIPO’s Cllr Oisin Quinn ethics case

Interesting to see how the Irish Times, the newspaper of record, handles challenging and sensitive stories concerning the political establishment – when you know what the real story is. Here’s an article from a December edition:

Councillor’s property stake and vote to be investigated
MARY MINIHAN, writing in the Irish Times
THE STANDARDS in Public Office Commission is to investigate alleged contraventions of the ethical framework for the local government service by Labour Dublin city councillor Oisín Quinn.
The complaint against Mr Quinn relates to his participation in votes on the draft Dublin City Council’s development plan while he had an interest in a property in the city. The property, which Mr Quinn has declared in his annual declaration of interests, is 84-93 Lower Mount Street, the majority of which is occupied by the Revenue Commissioners. Mr Quinn continues to have a one-sixth interest in the property.
A public sitting of the commission will be held next Monday to investigate the complaint submitted by Michael Smith, editor of Village magazine and formerly of An Taisce, and Independent councillor Cieran Perry. They wrote to the commission on November 23rd, 2010.
According to the commission, the investigation will take place under the Ethics in Public Office Acts 1995 and 2001 (the Ethics Acts) and part 15 of the Local Government Act 2001. Mr Quinn said the same complaint had previously been made to the council’s ethics registrar and had been rejected.
“I believe I behaved with exemplary care and transparency,” Mr Quinn, a nephew of Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, said.
“I believe I followed not just the letter but also the spirit of the ethical framework. I took advice by asking the city manager, senior city planners and the city law agent for their view and, importantly, I followed their advice and did it transparently by putting it on the record at the start of the meeting.”
The complaint from Mr Smith and Mr Perry states Mr Quinn had an interest in the “substantial and valuable” property and acknowledges that he has disclosed this to the council in writing as required.
The complainants argue that Mr Quinn should have refrained from voting on matters relating to the development plan.
They argue that he breached the ethics provisions of the Local Government Act 2001 and the associated code of conduct for councillors on a number of grounds, one of which was “through his speaking persuasively to, and voting for, other resolutions in . . . July 2010 which would have allowed increases in heights across the inner city including for his own property on Lower Mount Street”.
The complaint continues: “His disclosure before the 2010 meeting was not accompanied by his leaving the chamber and refraining from voting.”
The council’s ethics registrar previously told Mr Smith and Mr Perry: “I am satisfied that there has been no breach of the ethics framework contained in the Local Government Act 2001 and the code of conduct for councillors.”

Here are the problems, as I see it:

1) Mary Minihan uses comments from only one side of the story. I would have been unwilling to give her a quote, as there is a quasi-judicial hearing imminent and it is unedifying, and inappropriate and unfair (at least while Oisín Quinn remained silent) for us as complainants to comment. I wonder what guidelines the Irish Times has on this.

2) The article not only uses comments from only one side, it is also one-sided in outlining the respective cases. It is unbalanced and it makes multiple mistakes all of which, not uncoincidentally, are to our detriment, not Cllr Quinn’s.

For example:
A) Balance
a) the article tendentiously quotes six of Oisín Quinn’s arguments and only three of ours, one of which is essentially a repeat though an inaccurate one and b) it suggestively finishes up with a quote from an apparently independent source supporting the first (key?) argument Oisín Quinn makes in the article.
B) Inaccuracies in reporting central details of our case
a) Mary Minihan does not state our best case, part of which is that Cllr Quinn improperly proposed changes in height in ‘Dublin 2 minus the Georgian area’ – a far smaller area than the ‘inner city’ and therefore far more blatantly to his financial advancement and b) she comprehensively mis-states our case – we did not argue that he ‘should not have voted on matters relating to the development plan’ merely on height standards that affected his property (I’m going to ask the Irish Times to correct this – we’ll see how I get on [see below]);
C) Inaccuracies in reporting central thrust of our case
Mary Minihan entirely fails to understand our case which is that if you make a declaration you (obviously!) withdraw: there are no brownie points under ethics legislation for declaring a relevant interest and then voting – it’s quite simple;
D) Apparent unawareness of current status of complaint
Finally, she emphasises not just once but twice the hasty, and obviously not independent, view of the ‘ethics registrar’ who works as a senior official in the local authority whose officials had advised Oisín Quinn to make a declaration and then stay to vote. She never mentions that SIPO, which looked at the ethics registrar’s opinion, considered our complaint for over a year, delegated an inspector to follow up the complaint and then took an official decision to pursue it. Cieran Perry and I will probably take no further role in this case. The essential case we made will now be presented on behalf of SIPO by its senior counsel, not by us. This matter is more relevant than the matter she mentions twice, regarding the current status of our complaint. You’d think from her article that our case could be borderline frivolous or vexatious.

In short, Mary Minihan quotes comments from Cllr Quinn but not from us, quotes twice as many arguments for his case as for ours, does not state our best case, mis-states the rest of our case, and fails to recognise the status of our case.

Now I am not saying there are not two sides to this argument. Indeed this article I am writing is not about the substance of our cases, but rather merely about the fairness of the reporting. I am saying that only one side of this case has been put, or put coherently, by Mary Minihan. Not ours.

All in all it seems to expose systemic weaknesses in political reporting of contentious quasi-judicial matters by the Irish Times. Often, once they’ve got it wrong the Irish Times’ political team repeat their mistakes serially until the matter finally disappears off their radar. Expect to find chunks of this unfair article in future pieces [note: most of it duly appeared some weeks later in a Breaking News feature].

Michael Smith is editor of Village Magazine but writes in his personal capacity