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Ross O'Carroll Kelly column did not 'promote negative hatred' towards English people - Press Ombudsman

A complaint against The Irish Times’ column, published in February, was not upheld.

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A COMPLAINT OVER an Irish Times column that a reader considered to be racist towards English people has not been upheld by the Press Ombudsman.

In a ruling published yesterday, the Ombudsman found that the piece by the fictional character Ross O’Carroll Kelly did not meet the criteria for racial prejudice set out under Principle 8 of the Press Council of Ireland’s Code of Practice.

The satirical column, published on 9 February, described how the character attended an Ireland rugby international against England with his three small sons.

The article recounted how O’Kelly’s children shouted the words “Fock England” at English supporters on their way to the match and during the English national anthem.

It led to a complaint from an English man living in Ireland for more than two decades, who wrote to The Irish Times to say he found the piece “insulting, negative and rude”.

He suggested that the publication of the article “promoted negative hatred of … the English in general”.

Genuine regret

In response, The Irish Times said that while it was a “matter of genuine regret” that the complainant had been offended by column, the piece was “an exercise in satire that seeks to be entertaining and funny but not to be taken seriously”.

The man subsequently made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman, describing the column as “racism”.

He claimed that the article breached Principle 8 of the Press Council’s Code of Practice, which says that the press should not publish material intended to or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against an individual or group on the basis of nationality.

The Irish Times editor Paul O’Neill later told the Press Council that he genuinely regretted that the complainant did not find the column funny.

He said that in considering the column racist, the reader had misinterpreted the point of it, adding that the author – whose real name is Paul Howard – is “one of Ireland’s best-known satirists and comedy-writers”.

O’Neill also offered to publish a letter from the complainant which would allow him to take issue with the column, but the complainant refused as he said it was The Irish Times’ policy to publish letter-writers’ names and that he wished to remain anonymous.

The complainant repeated his view that the article was racist and could incite hatred towards England.

Dilemma

As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation, it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman, Peter Feeney, for a decision.

In considering the complaint, Feeney noted that satire can be “an effective way of interrogating contemporary values and attitudes” and sometimes had to stretch the boundaries of what is acceptable and what causes offence in order to do so.

“This is a dilemma that many satire-writers face,” he said. “Exposing prejudice in satire may run the risk of some people taking offence.”

However, he found that readers of The Irish Times’ Ross O’Carroll-Kelly column are not expected to take literally the views of the fictional characters, but are expected to understand that the views expose the foolishness and prejudice of those characters.

While he appreciated that the complainant was offended by the remarks, he felt that there was no intention to cause offence or to stir up hatred on the basis of nationality.

Feeney concluded that there was no breach of Principle 8 of the Press Council’s Code of Practice, and the complaint was not upheld.

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