Press Council upholds complaint against Myers article

Sat, Oct 18, 2008, 01:00

The Press Council of Ireland has upheld a complaint against the Irish Independentthat an article by its columnist Kevin Myers breached its Code of Practice relating to incitement to hatred.

The article, entitled "Africa is giving nothing to anyone - apart from Aids", was published on July 10th, 2008. Hans Zomer, director of Dóchas, the association of NGOs, complained about the article to the Press Council, on the grounds that it breached four principles of the code: Principles 1 (Accuracy), 3 (Fairness and Honesty), 4 (Respect for Rights) and 8 (Incitement to Hatred). He, along with another complainant, said it was inaccurate and untruthful and it promoted harmful, inaccurate and dangerous stereotypes of all Africa's peoples.

The case was referred to the full Press Council by John Horgan, the Press Ombudsman, as a complex or significant case. The Press Council is made up of representatives of the press and of Irish society, and is chaired by Prof Thomas Mitchell, former provost of Trinity College.

The newspaper replied, in a detailed legal submission of over 100 pages, stating 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 pointed out that it had published shortly afterwards an article by Mr Zomer challenging the views expressed in the article.

In its ruling, the Press Council stated: "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 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."

It continued by stating that the same broad boundaries which limit all freedoms must apply to freedom of expression, including comment in the press. True freedom "can only flourish when it has regard for the rights of others and for the common good", it said.

"Modern societies that respect the law adhere to these principles and seek to give expression to them in law. They apply to the press . . . as a medium of comment as well as of information."

The Code of Practice supplements the law and seeks to define more precisely the ethical and professional standards that should govern good journalism, it said. It 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.

The council acknowledged that the article dealt with serious issues and highlighted tragic conditions prevailing in many parts of Africa. But, it said, beginning with the headline, 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".

"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 . . . who are now resident in Ireland."

It concluded that the article breached Principle 8 of the code, 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 it intended to do so. It did not make findings in relation to the complaints under other principles.