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The 2016 FactCheck Review of the Year

Which politicians had the most TRUE and FALSE claims? And what were the issues that kept us busiest?

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2016 WAS THE first year of TheJournal.ie‘s FactCheck – the Republic of Ireland’s first and only fully-dedicated fact-checking project.

As we turn the corner into 2017, we’re going to take a minute to pause and reflect on what turned out to be a momentous 12 months for politics, journalism, and (as it happened) fact-checking, around the world.

We’ll present a tally of verdicts for politicians, and look back on the issues that kept us busiest.

Politicians and their verdicts

Including our first article on 5 February, we’ve done a total of 89 fact checks, examining more than 160 separate factual claims, up to 16 December.

By far our biggest source of inspiration has been you, the reader.

Your suggestions by email, tweet and direct message on Twitter gave rise to 37% (33) of all our fact checks. The rest came from TV and radio debate, social media, and we even had one fact check request delivered from the floor of Dáil Éireann.

Since we started right at the beginning of the general election campaign, we were able to examine the claims of individuals and organisations from many different areas of Irish public debate, but 71% of our fact-checks (63) had to do with politics, or involved politicians or political parties.

A breakdown of verdicts for everyone would be cumbersome and in some cases not particularly meaningful (what would we learn from knowing someone has a 100% TRUE rating, based on just one claim?)

Instead we’ve picked out the nine political figures who had the most claims fact-checked this year, with all of them having had at least three claims checked. Here’s how they performed:

Source: For a full-size version of this chart, click here

As you can see, a series of debates during the general election campaign meant that the four major party leaders at the time had the most claims checked.

Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams had the relatively impressive record of seven TRUE claims out of 14 in total, while former Labour leader Joan Burton had six FALSE claims out of 12.

Enda Kenny had a more mixed record, with five claims either TRUE or Mostly TRUE, and four either FALSE or Mostly FALSE.

Out of his 10 fact-checked claims, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin had four FALSE, four TRUE or Mostly TRUE, and two Half TRUE.

Justin Barrett, leader of the newly formed National Party, attracted a FALSE verdict for every one of his four claims in one fact check in November.

By contrast, Mary Lou McDonald, who featured in a TV3 Deputy Leaders’ debate, had three TRUE claims out of three.

Climate Change minister Denis Naughten had an odd mix, with one verdict each of Mostly TRUE, Half TRUE and UNPROVEN.

Meanwhile, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar had one TRUE claim, but one FALSE and one Mostly FALSE, as well.

The Big Issues

There were four major themes that recurred throughout the year – in the news, in readers’ requests to FactCheck, and therefore in our articles: Water, jobs, industrial action and abortion.

Water 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Arguably the biggest claim of all on this front – and, indeed, the one voted by readers as the False Claim of the Year – was Fianna Fáil’s unflinching denial that their stance on water charges and Irish Water had been anything other than consistent and unmoving.

In fact, the party adopted several policy combinations, laid out in detail in our September fact check.

When it came to this issue, the claims really did come thick and fast all year.

Right2Water activist Brendan Ogle overstated the case in June when he said “big business and agriculture” used 90% of water, but ordinary households paid for 78% of the cost.

Then there was former Minister and Labour TD Pat Rabbitte’s often-repeated claim that RTE focused mainly on water protests, largely ignoring the need for water infrastructure improvement.

A FactCheck audit of the RTE news and current affairs archive found that this claim simply did not stand up to factual scrutiny.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

And earlier this month, with the report of the Expert Commission appearing to move water services in Ireland back in the direction of general taxation, the AAA-PBP made a point of saying that 73% of people had declined to pay their charges, the last time they were asked, in April and May.

After a careful analysis, FactCheck came to the conclusion that Paul Murphy and Kieran Allen were probably right, but given a surprising gap in Irish Water’s data, we couldn’t say for sure.

Jobs, Apple, multinationals

Back at the height of the general election campaign, with jobs numbers being frequently and enthusiastically invoked by the government, and challenged by the opposition, we checked out two major issues, the source of many queries from readers over the past 11 months: the effect of JobBridge and temporary, part-time contracts on artificially putting a gloss on the employment statistics.

The reality?

Yes, job activation schemes have had a meaningful impact on unemployment levels. Right before Election Day, the unemployment rate would have been 12.6% instead of 8.6%, if people on job activation schemes were counted as unemployed.

But no, the schemes don’t really represent a significant factor in terms of employment, during what has been a year of undeniably strong jobs growth in Ireland, whatever way you look at it.

And contrary to common perception, as our fact check just a week later showed, a great portion of the new jobs created in the past few years have been good quality, full-time, permanent positions.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The European Commission’s Apple tax ruling in August gave rise to all manner of statistics being put across the airwaves in Ireland, especially in an effort to convey the stakes at play for Ireland.

During one memorable week, it appeared almost as if government ministers were attempting to outbid one another at an auction, as the “number of workers at foreign companies” increased with successive interviews.

The dependence of the Irish economy on foreign direct investment is fairly well-established in the public consciousness, and the true scale of employment at multinationals is actually significant enough in its own right that it doesn’t appear to have warranted the kind of progressive exaggeration we saw in September.

The company at the centre of the whole debacle had its say, of course. In his response to the Commission’s ruling, CEO Tim Cook claimed that Apple was “the largest taxpayer in Ireland”, a claim repeated by Michael Noonan on the Six One News.

The problem was, only Revenue is supposed to know how much every company pays in taxes. And they’re not authorized to tell anyone else.

So how could Tim Cook possible know whether Apple is the biggest taxpayer in the country? Who knows.

The company didn’t respond to our request for evidence, and the Department of Finance told us confidentiality concerns meant they were barred from commenting.

Although that didn’t prevent Michael Noonan from repeating Tim Cook’s claim in the first place.

Strike talk

corrected luas meme

There was an almost unprecedented level of debate about industrial action in Ireland in 2016, and naturally this translated into plenty of factual claims on every side of every dispute.

Back in March, we corrected the exaggerations and simplifications (as well as the accurate statements) contained in a heavily-circulated meme about Luas drivers and junior doctors. It provoked a strong reaction among readers, becoming the most-read fact check of the entire year.

And at the height of the Dublin Bus drivers’ strike in September, we turned our sights to the NBRU leaflet dropped on buses across the capital one morning.

When it turned out their claims were almost entirely true, readers shared our fact check en masse, and it formed the basis of a segment on TV3’s Tonight With Vincent Browne (starts at 23 mins).

Then there was the $64 million question – is it legal for gardaí to go on strike, the subject of an in-depth fact check in August.

While the government’s deal with gardaí avoided the unprecedented spectacle of our police force out on strike, it also inspired other sectors of the public service to re-evaluate their own posiitions – including the nurses.

As our fact check revealed, the nursing union boss Liam Doran ran the gamut from FALSE to Mostly TRUE, and everything in between, during an extraordinarily fact-filled 90 seconds on Claire Byrne Live, in November.

Abortion and the 8th Amendment

With a Citizen’s Assembly beginning in September, and bills to repeal the 8th Amendment going through the Dáil, intensive debate on this perennial and sensitive issue was inevitable in 2016.

Most notably, the Pro Life Campaign’s Cora Sherlock was found to have her facts straight, more often than not, in a series of public disputes with: the Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole (on Ireland’s maternal mortality rate); Labour Senator Ivana Back (on “late-term” abortion); and with AAA-PBP TD Ruth Coppinger (on the subject of Down Syndrome and abortion in the UK).

However, Sherlock’s Prolife Campaign colleague Sinead Slattery found herself caught out on TV3’s Tonight With Alison O’Connor, after appearing to read a quote from HSE guidelines on maternal bereavement.

The problem was, the HSE guidelines did not say what she claimed they did.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

During the summer, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was accused of misleading the Dáil after badly misrepresenting the results of Ireland’s several past referendums on abortion.

FactCheck asked Kenny’s office for evidence to support his claims, and later on, if he would be retracting his statements. We got no response.

The major stories of 2016

With the seismic, shocking impact of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, it was perhaps inevitable that FactCheck would rub up against some bold claims connecting Ireland to the year’s two biggest news stories.

Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty misrepresented the facts in October, when she defended the cabinet’s preparations and contingencies for Brexit, by claiming that it would be “illegal” for them to negotiate with the UK before the Article 50 notification is triggered.

It wouldn’t, as it turns out.

And back in the summer, then candidate Donald Trump announced a plan to visit his business interests in Scotland and Ireland, prompting a petition to ban him from the country, which got us thinking – could he actually be barred from Ireland?

It turns out he could, but it was always going to be unlikely.

In the end, he cancelled his trip. After the publication of our fact check. (But let’s not rush to conclusions about cause and effect).

And finally, a word about “fake news” and social media.

Post-’post-truth’

Screen Shot 2016-12-19 at 17.40.55

Not that there’s any fear of us forgetting, but remember, 2016 was the year that the Oxford English Dictionary felt was best captured with the phrase “post-truth”.

Interestingly, the Society for the German Language also deemed “postfaktisch” its word of the year.

While Irish public debate has, mercifully, been spared the kind of blatant lying and redefinition of the meaning of language seen, for example, in the US this year, FactCheck did have one or two brushes with outrageous or viral falsehoods, this year.

This included our first ever verdict of “Nonsense”, which was introduced in September, and went to an article on the Winning Democrats website, which claimed “Ireland is now officially accepting Trump refugees from America”.

As an example of what’s generally (though without precise definition) referred to as “fake news”, it’s almost perfect.

  • An ideologically-motivated piece on an ideologically-slanted website that appears to produce news (but doesn’t really)
  • A headline that does not match the body of the article
  • Is not supported with any specific evidence in the article
  • And constitutes a baseless exaggeration of an existing story (the people of Inishturk inviting Americans to come and visit)
  • Which is itself centred around an (at best) considerable misquotation from another source.

And though the article was originally published in May, it went viral (all over again) in the 48 hours after Trump’s election.

As a result, many internet users received the (entirely, ridiculously) false impression that, almost immediately after the result, Ireland had formally opened its doors to Americans seeking asylum because of a president who had not yet taken office.

Speaking of fake news, and bearing in mind the year that was in it, in September TheJournal.ie‘s FactCheck took the step of signing up to the world’s first Code of Fact-checking Principles, as part of our involvement with the International Fact-checking Network.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.

For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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