Complainants and the Irish Independent

(10 Oct 2008)

The Press Council of Ireland has upheld a complaint against the Irish Independent that an article entitled “Africa is giving nothing to anyone – apart from AIDS” published on 10th July 2008 was in breach of Principle 8 (Incitement to Hatred) of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Periodicals in that it was likely to cause grave offence.

The case was referred to the Press Council by the Press Ombudsman under the Articles of Association, which give him discretion to refer some complex or significant cases to the Council for decision.

Complaint

A woman and Mr Hans Zomer, Director of Dóchas, complained that an article in the Irish Independent of 10 July 2008 entitled “Africa is giving nothing to anyone apart from Aids” was in breach of Principles 1 (Accuracy), 3 (Fairness and Honesty), 4 (Respect for Rights) and 8 (Incitement to Hatred) of the Code of Practice. They argued that its description of the entire continent was inaccurate and untruthful; that its assumptions – particularly in relation to the right to life – were in direct conflict with human rights principles; and that it perpetuated and promoted harmful, inaccurate and dangerous stereotypes of all Africa’s peoples. While they accepted the rights of columnists to provoke public debate on important issues, they maintained that the article was, because of the grave offence they said it caused, in contravention of the Code of Practice. Although the complainants acknowledged the subsequent publication of an article critical of Mr. Myers’ views by the Chairperson of Dóchas, the organization of which Mr Zomer is Director, they argued that this article was not presented as, and for this and other reasons did not constitute, a satisfactory right of reply to the views he had expressed.

Response

The newspaper replied, in a detailed legal submission of more than 100 pages, that although the article contained radical opinions and expressed convictions that might readily be described as inflammatory and outrageous, its publication was in accordance with the principle of freedom of expression enshrined in the Irish constitution and in Irish law. It argued that freedom of expression included the right to say things which right-thinking people regarded as dangerous or irresponsible, that the complainants had distorted the columnist’s arguments, and that the statements in the article were true and accurate in the facts upon which it was premised. It maintained that the article was a polemic, designed to raise an uncomfortable and serious issue, and that, although the writer admitted that people would be offended, shocked or disturbed by its contents, it would be a grave insult to him to suggest that it was intended or likely to cause incitement to hatred. It further noted that it had published, shortly afterwards and following some negotiations, an article by the Chairperson of Dóchas challenging their columnist’s views. Finally, it argued that the columnist’s legal entitlement to freedom of expression should not be greater than a less formally measured industry or societal determination of such entitlement.

Decision

The question at issue in this case relates to the appropriate boundaries of the right of freedom of expression in respect of comment and analysis in newspapers. The Code of Practice clearly affirms the right of the newspapers to comment upon news and to advocate particular points of view. The Press Council fully accepts that comment and analysis are an integral and valuable aspect of the function of newspapers, and represent the area within the corpus of a newspaper where freedom of thought and expression are properly given their widest scope. The opportunity for robust presentations in the print media of widely different views, however controversial or disturbing some of them may be, is a powerful indicator of a mature and confident democracy.

But ultimately the same broad boundaries which limit all freedoms must apply to freedom of expression, including comment in the press. The Greeks and Romans first articulated the doctrine that freedom without limit is licence and the enemy of true freedom, which can flourish only when it has regard for the rights of others and for the common good. Modern societies that respect the law adhere to these principles and seek to give expression to them in law. They apply to the press and to the press as a medium of comment as well as of information.

The Code of Practice, which represents the consensus of an experienced group of editors and journalists and to which all print media associations are committed, supplements the law and seeks to define more precisely the ethical and professional standards that should govern good journalism, so as to safeguard freedom of the press while serving the public interest and respecting personal rights. The Code of Practice recognises that the freedom to comment, a central aspect of freedom of expression, has limits, and it seeks to define them most specifically in Principle 8. It is the task of the Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman, which were set up by the industry as an independent arbiter, to interpret and apply as objectively as possible the principles of the Code. It was with these considerations in mind that the Press Council approached this important case. The article in question dealt with serious issues and highlighted tragic conditions prevailing in many parts of Africa. But, beginning with the headline “Africa is giving nothing to anyone – apart from AIDS”, the mode of presentation was marked by rhetorical extravagance and hyperbole which used the failings of some to stigmatise whole societies, employing a level of generalisation that was distorting and seriously insulting to Africans as a whole. In addition the article resorted, in several instances, to language that was gratuitously offensive and was, in the view of the Press Council, likely to cause grave offence to people throughout sub-Saharan Africa and to the many Africans in particular who are now resident in Ireland.

The Press Council therefore concluded that the article did breach Principle 8 of the Code of Practice in that it was likely to cause grave offence. It did not, however, find reason to conclude that it was likely to stir-up hatred or that there was any intention to do so. It also concluded that it did not have clear grounds on which to make any findings in relation to the complaints under Principles 1, 3 & 4 of the Code. The Press Council noted that the newspaper published an article by the Chairperson of Dóchas, and other contributions expressing strongly opposing views to those of its columnist, shortly afterwards. While it commended these editorial decisions, it was of the view that they did not excuse the breach of the Code of Practice.

 

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