THE Press Ombudsman has decided that the Sunday Independent made an offer of sufficient remedial action to resolve a complaint by Mr Tom White that an article on fracking published on 14 July 2013 was in breach of Principles 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines.
Mr White complained, inter alia, that the opinions expressed by the writer of the article had no factual basis, that inferences he made were misleading, that he distorted the true picture in relation to fracking, and that he inaccurately described the petroleum licensing process. He also complained that the links between the company with which the writer was associated and fracking had not been sufficiently clarified, and that he was identifiable from the article as an "activist".
The newspaper responded that the article clearly identified the writer as a significant figure in the energy business, and that there would be no doubt in readers' minds that he clearly favoured fracking. It said that everything in the article represented the writer's clear opinions and that, even if the complainant disagreed strongly with the opinions expressed, this did not make them deliberately misleading. The newspaper said that it would consider publishing a reasonable response from the complainant, subject to the usual editorial and legal constraints. The offer was turned down by Mr White.
Newspaper articles -- particularly opinion articles, as this is -- rarely if ever embody unchallengeable accounts of complex scientific and environmental matters of substantial public controversy, and the remit of the Press Ombudsman does not extend to investigating such controversies to a conclusion. This is particularly the case when -- as here -- publications are prepared to afford space to opposing views published in good faith. Although the complainant provided persuasive evidence to disprove the writer's contention that there had not been "one single case of proven pollution out of hundreds of thousands of shale wells in the US," neither this, nor other issues raised by the complainant were, in the context of the article as a whole, of sufficient significance to justify upholding the complaint, and the Press Ombudsman therefore decided that the newspaper's offer to publish a reasonable response from the complainant was sufficient to resolve the complaint.
Mr White also complained that the author of the article had failed to disclose his financial ties to a particular fracking proposal in Ireland or to his company's financial interests in fracking and shale gas in Poland. This has to be set beside the explicit connection made in the headline between the article's author and San Leon Energy, and in the context of the author's unmistakably partisan approach to the whole fracking debate. Nobody who read the article would have remained for very long under any misapprehension about which side of the debate the author was on, or about the significance of his connection with the named company. For these reasons, this part of the complaint is not upheld.
Mr White also complained that he was identifiable as an "activist" from a reference in the article to "... a tiny majority of activists ...". The Press Ombudsman found that Mr White could not reasonably be personally identified by the reference in question, and therefore decided not to uphold this part of the complaint.
November 5, 2013
The complainant appealed the decision of the Press Ombudsman to the Press Council of Ireland.
Decision of the Press Council of Ireland
The appeal from the complainant was heard by the Press Council at its meeting on December 6, 2013. The Press Council decided to reject the appeal and to affirm the decision of the Press Ombudsman.
December 6, 2013