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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 14°C
Sam Boal/ The briefing room at the Department of Health ahead of a Covid-19 briefing.
# Ombudsman
Majority of complaints about Covid-19 news articles linked to anonymous Facebook group
More than 500 complaints in total were made last year – 200 of those related to coverage of the pandemic.

THE PRESS OMBUDSMAN has said the majority of complaints about Covid-19 news articles could be linked to a campaign by an anonymous Facebook group.

According to the annual report of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman, published today, a high proportion of complaints related to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The annual report shows the Ombudsman’s office received 527 complaints in 2021, representing a 50% increase compared to 2020. It was the second highest number of complaints received in any one year.

Approximately 200 of the complaints related to coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report states that social media was a “driving force” in the generation of many of these complaints.

“Common to the majority of complaints that were received about Covid-19 articles was that they were the subject of quite a vigorous Facebook campaign by an anonymous Facebook group,” it said.

“The Facebook group provided the text of complaints for submission to the Office in respect of a number of articles, and urged followers to submit a complaint to the Press Ombudsman.”

While there is no rule to say that complaints cannot be submitted in this way, the report said there is no benefit to such campaigns, since the office has a long-established policy, when it receives multiple complaints about one article, to process all of the complaints by the establishment of a ‘lead’ complainant.

“Multiple complaints submitted via social media campaigns merely clog the efficient and effective operation of the complaints process,” it said.

In 2021 the Press Ombudsman upheld seven complaints, two of which related to Covid reporting. In both instances he found that privacy requirements of Principle 5 of the Code of Practice of the Press Council – privacy – had been breached.

A complaint that Principle 5 had been breached in a front-page court report in Kerry’s Eye was upheld. The report included information that a court sitting had to be suspended because of a positive test for Covid-19 of a garda witness. The senior garda was named and his photograph included. The complaint was upheld on the basis of the publication of private medical information without consent.

However the decision of the Press Ombudsman was appealed successfully by Kerry’s Eye.

The Press Council upheld the editor’s appeal and overturned the decision, stating that the Press Ombudsman had not demonstrated any consideration of the public interest threshold put forward by the newspaper in its defence of its publication of the information complained about, and that publication of the information was consistent with certain principles of the Code of Practice.

A complaint by the Cork Traveller Women’s Network and the Irish Traveller Movement against the Sunday World about a breach of privacy was also upheld. The paper carried an article about the funeral of a man who had died after contracting Covid-19. The Ombudsman found that the paper had breached Principle 5 by reporting private medical information without permission.

The newspaper’s defence that the cause of death had been made known at the funeral was not accepted. The decision of the Press Ombudsman was not appealed.

Nineteen complaints were resolved by editors to the satisfaction of complainants through the Office’s Alternative Dispute Resolution service. Two of these were resolved through mediation, where the editor and the complainant met, on a voluntary and confidential basis, to discuss the complaint with the aim of arriving at a mutually satisfactory outcome.

“The pandemic has underlined the importance of objective, thorough reporting, and of well-informed expert comment and analysis,” commented chair of the Press Council, Rory Montgomery. “I believe that the press has served Ireland very well in this crisis, at a time when the risks and downsides of over-reliance on social media are really visible.”

He welcomed the publication in March of the “comprehensive and considered” Report of the Review of the Defamation Act.

“The Press Council is mindful of the fundamental rights of individuals, but it is also essential that the functioning of defamation law does not undermine the capacity of the press to report fully and objectively on matters of public interest,” he said.

He urged the Minister for Justice to move ahead quickly on her commitment to the early publication of draft legislation implementing the review’s recommendations.

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