In many, if not quite all, of the complaints ruled on by the Press Ombudsman, the identity of complainants does not appear in the verdicts which newspapers and magazines are required to publish in accordance with the Press Council’s code of practice.
This is why most of these published judgements describe complainants as simply a “man” or a “woman”.
People who lodge complaints may request anonymity, understandably so if they have already suffered unfairly as a result of an inaccurate newspaper report or headline and, anyway, they have the right to do so under data protection legislation.
But could anonymity be granted to a complainant who a) was in no way personally affected by a published report, and b) has a partisan interest in the matter highlighted in the report they are questioning? A decision published in this newspaper yesterday under the headline “A man and the Irish Examiner” tells us, worryingly, that the answer is yes, it can.
The Ombudsman upheld a complaint that the headline on a report about the anti-vaccine campaign and a case involving a child needing A&E hospital treatment was inaccurate. A man, in the words of the ruling, complained about the inaccurate headline “as the child was diagnosed with a form of influenza that was not vaccine-preventable”. Full details can be found at www.pressombudsman.ie.
Readers cannot be expected to know, because of the anonymity granted, firstly, that the “man” who lodged this complaint is a well-known writer and commentator on religious and social topics — including abortion, euthanasia and LGBT rights — and the director of an advocacy group, and, secondly, was personally untouched by the headline on our otherwise accurate report.
Our Press Council will, we hope, explore what might be a huge flaw in its approach to anonymity. There will be cases, such as this one, when there is a manifest public interest — and a public good — in identifying third-party complainants who are campaigners pushing a cause in one way or another, not victims of newspaper errors.