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Editorial: On the Irish Freedom Party the Press Ombudsman has gotten it badly wrong

Last month the Press Ombudsman ruled that the Journal had not breached the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland when it published a piece which had called the Irish Freedom Party (IFP) a “far-right party.”

Hermann Kelly, President of the IFP, had lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman, arguing that calling the IFP far-right breached Principal 1 (Truth and Accuracy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland, a code which the Journal is a signatory of. Kelly wanted the piece to be corrected and an apology to be issued.

The Ombudsman, in his finding that no such breach occurred, made the argument that the term far-right was a “broad-sweep” term which, “coming from a political reporter…seems acceptable given the range of policies promoted by the party and by the causes party members have been associated with.”

The problem here is that the Ombudsman’s argument is that it is “acceptable” for a journalist to say a party has a particular political ideology if that journalist is expressing “his or her political judgement,” but that’s not what the Ombudsman’s job was – the Ombudsman was to determine, not if it was “acceptable” to say it, but if it accurate and true to say it. Additionally, one could also make an argument that the Ombudsman’s statement conflict with Principle 2.2 of the Code of Practice – “Comment, conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports shall not be reported as if they are fact.”

The Ombudsman doesn’t say what policies the IFP have that make it accurate to call the party far-right; he doesn’t detail which causes members of the IFP have allegedly been attached to which would justify the IFP being called far right; he doesn’t consider that the IFP is not responsible for the associations of its members beyond their association with the IFP; nor does he reference any evidence the Journal provided to back up their claim.

The Ombudsman doesn’t even give a definition of what he considers “far-right” to mean. That may seem like a minor failure, but the term has a tendency to morph and transform to suit the circumstances at hand, and pinning down exactly what the term means, or perhaps bothering to ask the Journal what definition of the word they use, would seem to have been something that the Ombudsman should have done as part of his appeal.

It is exceptionally common, even amongst academics and journalists who should know better, for terms like far-right, alt-right, and fascist to be used in incredibly broad terms that bear little to no resemblance to the commonly accepted definitions of the word and are instead basically shorthand for “we deeply dislike these people/views and they should be delegitimised.”

But these terms do have descriptions, there are common understandings of what they refer to, and yet the Ombudsman details no attempt he made to deal with the term far-right as any kid of factual statement rather than merely an opinion.

In short, the Ombudsman’s report contains little to no factual statements or evidence, but rather seems to be entirely based on the Ombudsman’s personal views on the matter.

And yet, despite not having done, or at least not having displayed in his judgement that he had done, the very basic work that would have been required in order to determine if calling the IFP far-right was true or accurate, the Ombudsman felt confident enough in his work to release a document which is going to increase the likelihood of the IFP being called far-right, both by those who believe in the authority of the Press Ombudsman, thin on the ground as they may be, and those seeking to delegitimise the party.

We now have a judgement that contains no details of any attempt to determine the truth and accuracy of the term used by the Journal.ie; makes no attempt to define the term in question; makes claims about the content of the political programme of the IFP without evidence or detail, which moves it from an explanation to an arguably defamatory insinuation; and which could be read as saying political reporters can basically say what they want as long as it falls within “his or her political judgement” and aligns with the feelings of the Ombudsman on any particular topic.

The term far-right has a negative connotation that few other terms possess, and having it attached to you is deeply damaging. One would have hoped that the Ombudsman, who must know that, would have felt the seriousness of the claim required he respond in a detailed, comprehensive, and serious manner. That was not the case in this instance. This case, demonstrating as it does a willingness to present the views of the Ombudsman as fact without going to the bother of presenting any evidence, holds the potential to damage whatever remains of the reputation of the Office of the Press Ombudsman as a fair and independent body.

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