Mr Harry Browne and the Irish Independent/Independent.ie

On 24 June 2015 the Irish Independent and Independent.ie published an article under the heading “Boycott of Tel Aviv feis shows the face of real bigotry”, which commented on a campaign to dissuade an Irish dancing troupe from performing in Israel.  

Mr Harry Browne complained that a statement in the article that “The ongoing BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Movement has been loud and shrill in their calls for a complete boycott of individual Israelis, regardless of their own political affiliation” was inaccurate and  in breach of  Principle 1  (Truth and Accuracy), Principle 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and Principle 4 (Respect for Rights) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland because, he argued,  the call to boycott is of the Israeli State and of Israeli cultural and academic institutions, not of Israeli individuals.      He also complained about a reference in the article to “blanket boycotts of anything involving Jews”. Mr Browne provided draft wording of a clarification which he wanted published.

The newspaper responded by suggesting that Mr Browne might consider submitting a letter for publication outlining his disagreement with the article and that the newspaper would be “well disposed to publishing” the letter.  

This offer was not accepted by Mr Browne and he made a formal complaint to the Press Ombudsman’s Office.  The editor stood over the article and argued that the newspaper should not be penalised for offering an opinion which by its provocative nature promotes important debate.   As the complaint could not be conciliated it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.

Under the Code of Practice newspapers are free to publish articles containing opinions or comments and the writers of such articles are entitled to advocate robustly their views on topics, so long as the articles do not breach any of the Principles of the Code of Practice. The article published on 24 June was quite clearly a commentary piece, and as such enjoys a wide measure of protection under the Preamble to the Code of Practice which states:

The freedom to publish is vital to the rights of the people to be informed. This freedom includes the right of the press to publish what it considers to be news, without fear or favour, and the right to comment upon it.

The right to publish strongly held and argued opinion must be tempered by the obligation to abide by the Code of Practice. In this instance the article was factually inaccurate in relation to the two statements complained about by Mr Browne. I am therefore upholding this complaint on the grounds of a breach of Principle 1 of the Code of Practice.

BDS campaigns for a widespread boycott of Israeli institutions and organisations.  It does not campaign for a boycott of all Israeli citizens.  Neither does BDS campaign for a boycott of “anything involving Jews”.  Its campaign, though widespread in its targets, is limited to a boycott of Israeli State institutions as well as economic, cultural, sporting and academic organisations. It does not extend, as the author claimed, to “anything involving Jews”.

In regard to the editor’s offer to publish a letter by the complainant Principle 1.2 of the Code states:

When a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report or picture has been published, it shall be corrected promptly and with due prominence.

In this particular instance, when the inaccuracy was brought to the attention of the newspaper, there was an onus on the newspaper to correct the record, and the the publication of a letter by the complainant was therefore insufficient as a means of redressing the complaint.  

I do not believe that the article breached Principle 2 of the Code, as there was no failure to distinguish between fact and comment, or Principle 4 (Everyone has constitutional protection for his or her good name),  as the complainant was neither named nor identified in the article.

14 August 2015

The Newspaper appealed the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland.

Decision of the Press Council

The Press Council, at its meeting on 2 October 2105, upheld the appeal because it is of the view that the newspaper’s offer of a letter would have provided sufficient remedial redress to correct any factual inaccuracies in the article.

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