The Press Ombudsman has upheld a complaint that The Irish Times breached Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
The Irish Times published an article on a number of patients confirmed as having Covid-19 who had died in a hospital over a short period of time. The article named four patients who had died.
The family of one of the named patients wrote to the editor of The Irish Times stating that one of the patients named was their mother. The family said that the headline to the article – which reported on the removal of the bodies of patients from the hospital – was “deeply distressing” and caused extreme upset because of its graphic reference. The family went on to state that they had not given permission for their mother’s name to be published and that they “had every legitimate expectation to believe that our mother’s medical details, including her name, would not become public property”.
The Irish Times responded stating that it deeply regretted that the article had caused the family “so much upset” and apologised unreservedly for the upset caused.
The family made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman that Principle 5 of the Code of Practice had been breached.
In a submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman The Irish Times stated that publication of the article was in the public interest and that “In naming residents who had died, our motivation was not to intrude on their privacy or to be unsympathetic to them or their loved ones. Their deaths were the subject of public discussion at local and national level. … Our motivation was to reflect the fact that they were more than statistics …”. The editor repeated the apology already given for the distress caused to the family, and said that he would ensure that the family’s mother’s name would be deleted from the online article.
The family remained unhappy with the editor’s response because, they said, while the editor had apologised for the distress caused by the publication of their mother’s name, he had not apologised for its publication, and that the article could have been published without using their mother’s name.
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
I am upholding this complaint. Principle 5.3 of the Code of Practice states
Sympathy and discretion must be shown at all times in seeking information in situations of personal grief or shock. In publishing such information, the feelings of grieving families should be taken into account.
In publishing the name of the family’s mother without any consultation with the family The Irish Times breached Principle 5.3 of the Code. While publication of the article may well have been justified in the public interest, publication of the complainants’ mother’s name was not.
Note: The family requested that the decision be reported in a manner which protects their privacy.
19 June 2020