PATRICK CLIFFORD AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2821

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Patrick Clifford complains about a “Today in History” item published by The Press on August 22, 2019.He considers the item breached Principles 1 (Accuracy fairness and balance), 4 (Comment and fact), and 12 (Corrections) of the Media Council principles.

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

3. “Today in History” is a regular feature in The Press and in all other Stuff newspapers that have room to carry it. It consists of a short list of historic events that occurred on the same day and month as the relevant issue of the newspaper. On Thursday August 22, 2019, the list included “1922 - Irish revolutionary Michael Collins is killed in an ambush in Co Cork, by republican extremists”.

The Complaint

4. Mr Clifford complains that it is inaccurate, biased and derogatory to use the words “republican extremists” in this context. He points out that in 1922 Ireland was embroiled in a civil war. Michael Collins supported the proposed treaty, with republicans, including relatives of Mr Clifford, opposed to it. His father’s cousin was the commanding general of the Irish Republican Army and was in overall command of the forces that attacked and killed Michael Collins. He and others put their lives at risk for the cause of an independent and republican Ireland and should more properly be described as freedom fighters.Members of the Irish Republican Army were later recognised by the Irish government as soldiers with a military service record and a military service pension. They were neither republican extremists nor assassins. He sought a correction or retraction of the item.

5. In further comment, Mr Clifford emphasised (and gave references to support his comment) that neither contemporaneous reports nor more modern histories use the term “extremists” to describe those involved in the killing of Michael Collins. The terms used are “irregulars”, “anti-treaty forces”, “rebels” and similar.


The Response

6. The initial response to the complaint came from Will Harvie, acting News Director, Opinion atThe Press.He pointed out that the item did not say that all those on the republican side were extremists. However the actions of those involved in the assassination of Michael Collins establish them as extremists. They had less extreme options, such as taking him prisoner.

7. Mr Harvie offered Mr Clifford the opportunity to have his views published in a letter to the editor.

8. A more extensive response later came from Grant Shimmin, News Director, Opinion, Stuff. In general he repeated and endorsed the points made by Mr Harvie, noting in particular that the reference to “extremists” did not imply that Mr Clifford’s family members were extremists. He also noted some online historical sources that referred to the killers of Michael Collins as “Republican extremists” or “extreme Republicans”, concluding that the forces opposed to accepting the treaty between Britain and Ireland were widely viewed as “extreme Republicans.” In a later response he rejected Mr Clifford’s argument that because the anti-treaty forces were awarded pensions, they could not be considered extremists

9. Mr Shimmin repeated Mr Harvie’s offer to print a letter to the editor setting out Mr Clifford’s views.

The Decision

Principle 1- Accuracy, fairness and balance

10. Principle 1 requires publications to observe accuracy, fairness and balance in their reporting.Mr Clifford argues that it is inaccurate and unfair to refer to the killers of Michael Collins as extremists.

11. While the historic record is clear that military action was involved, it is also clear that many people in 1922 and later regarded the methods adopted by the Irish Republican Army as extreme.It is worth noting that theIrish Post of 22 August 2019 refers to the anniversary of Michael Collins’ “assassination”. Other modern and contemporaneous news reports use the terms “gunned down”, “ambushed” and similar. This is the language of extreme action.

12. Mr Shimmin has pointed out that the anti-treaty forces were widely seen at the time as holding extreme views and acting accordingly. It is true that one person’s terrorist or extremist may be another’s freedom fighter and that views may well change as history falls into perspective over a century or so. In addition, there may be changes in the language used to describe the participants in a conflict – the term “irregular” is seldom used today, while “extremist” and “guerrilla” have become more common since 1922. However, there is enough evidence to show that, while it may be unacceptable to some, the term “Republican extremists” is not necessarily inaccurate or unfair. The Media Council concludesThe Press acted appropriately in offering to publish Mr Clifford’s views as a “letter to the editor” and thus providing readers with an alternative opinion.

Principle 4 – Comment and fact; Principle 12 - Corrections

13. The Media Council can see no grounds for the application of either of these principles.The item in question was not a comment or opinion, but a short factual statement. The Correction principle applies only when a publication agrees there has been an error or has been found to have published an error.

Determination

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Liz Brown, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Hank Schouten stood down to maintain a public member majority.