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Senator Fidelma Healy Eames attending a Fine Gael think-in in 2011. The Press Ombudsman has upheld complaints made by Healy Eames against the Irish Daily Mail. Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Press Ombudsman

Press Ombudsman upholds Healy Eames complaint about Kenya trip

The Irish Daily Mail was found to have breached the Press Council code of ethics three times last August.

Updated, 14:08

THE PRESS OMBUDSMAN, John Horgan, has upheld a complaint made by Fine Gael senator Fidelma Healy Eames against the Irish Daily Mail over its coverage of her participation in a charity trip to Africa.

The complaints were made over articles carried by the paper on consecutive days last August, the first of which appeared on its front page with the headline, ‘How can I cover up my free holiday?’ and with the subtitle: ‘Extraordinary attempt by senator to hide the fact that a charity (or the State) funded Kenya trip’.

The Galway-based senator took part ‘Politicians For Development’ trip to Rwanda last August, organised by the Voluntary Service Overseas charity, which last year received about €531,000 from Irish Aid to distribute to AIDS initiatives in southern Africa.

Her husband Michael had joined her on the trip, and the two travelled to Kenya for a holiday after concluding their work in Rwanda. The charity had covered the costs of Michael’s travel to Rwanda, and the couple’s flights onward to Kenya, intending to recover the costs from the couple once they were back in Ireland.

The Irish Daily Mail’s front-page article on August 20 referred to emails between Healy Eames and the charity, in which she queried financial arrangements at the charity so that any negative publicity about this arrangement could be avoided.

The Press Ombudsman found that the headline on this article had effectively put words into Healy Eames’ mouth, and gave the ‘significantly misleading impression’ that she had inappropriately benefited from public or charity funds.

He also found that the opening paragraph of the story – which said the taxpayer had footed the bill for ‘her luxury African holiday’ – was conjecture reported as fact.

‘Balance the books’

Healy Eames had told the previous day’s Sunday Independent that she intended to “balance the books” with the charity – paying back her husband’s travel costs and the cost of her flight to Kenya – once she had returned home.

The next day, the paper published a report claiming that none of the other 10 politicians who had previously travelled on such tours had brought a partner with them. The paper had later acknowledged that previous participants had been accompanied by relatives, partners or friends.

The Mail had offered to correct the record in its usual corrections and clarifications space, at the bottom of page 2, but Healy Eames rejected this – a decision supported by the Press Ombudsman who said the proposed apology did not clarify the actual matter being apologised for.

It also cast doubt on Healy Eames’ credentials in repaying the cost of private travel, and was deemed not to satisfy the requirement that any clarification or correction should be given “due prominence” in the paper.

As a result, both reports were found to have breached Principle 1 of the Press Council’s code of practice, which requires member publications to strive “for truth and accuracy” at all times.

The first report was also found to breach Principle 2, requiring publications not to report on conjecture as if it were fact and to make a clear distinction between fact and comment.

The ombudsman dismissed, however, a related complaint from Healy Eames who argued that the reports were based on ‘malicious misrepresentation or unfounded accusations’, which would be a breach of Principle 4 of the code of practice.

Author’s note: This article originally suggested that 11 politicians look part in last August’s tour, and has been edited to clarify that Healy Eames was the sole politician in last year’s party, but the 11th to participate in it since the programme began in 2008. It has also been corrected the level of funding received by VSO in 2012.

Read: Fidelma Healy Eames apologises for dodging car tax

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