03 September 2013

Papers of Record Don't Refuse Ink

The Irish Times hasn't exactly had a spotless record on the abortion debates in Ireland over the last year or so. 

You'll remember how last September it bowed to pro-choice pressure and jibes from the likes of Graham Linehen to revise initial reports that "less than 1000 people" had participated in a pro-choice rally -- a figure borne out by video footage taken at the march -- in favour of a claim that "several thousand people" had taken part.

You'll remember too how last November it broke the story of Savita Halappanavar's death, relating a range of details which were subsequently cast into question by April's coroner's inquest. It also falsely claimed that in Britain doctors are "legally able to carry out abortions until the 24th week of a pregnancy for all reasons, not just medical"; I know someone who wrote to the paper to alert it to its misrepresentation of British abortion law, just as I did so about the discrepancies in the paper's reporting of the story. Neither letter was published, and corrections did not follow.

I could go on, pointing out the relative emphases given to different stories, depending on whether they leaned towards a pro-life or pro-choice agenda, but time is short and you get the idea. The last couple of weeks, though, may well have topped this. 

On 23 August, the following story appeared on the paper's front page, relating how a twin pregnancy had been terminated at the National Maternity Hospital on Dublin's Holles Street to save the twins' mother's life; supposedly this was the first termination conducted under the terms of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act.

A tragic story, it provoked the hospital's Clinical Director and former Master, Dr Peter Boylan -- yes, that Peter Boylan -- to call the report "outrageous", declaring that the details in the Irish Times allowed the woman in the story to be identified: "The breach of patient confidentiality - that's the most serious thing about this whole episode."

Peter Boylan, you'll have noticed, was named in the article as having been party to the decision to terminate the pregnancy:
"The Act does not provide for the identification of either patients or the doctors involved in the process. In this case, it is understood the master of the hospital Dr Rhona Mahony, former master Dr Peter Boylan, other senior obstetricians at the hospital and a paediatrician were involved in the decision-making process."
Given his supposed involvement in the process, you can understand his anger over how the woman being treated could be identified; presumably, you might think, he knew exactly who the paper was talking about. No wonder he was talking about possibly reporting a fellow doctor to the Medical Council.

The day the story broke, however, the Department of Health issued a statement pointing out that the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 had not yet commenced -- I'm not sure how the paper's legal people missed that little detail -- and the following day the article on the paper's website was prefaced with a sentence to the effect that subsequent sentences were untrue. The headline wasn't the only part of the article that was poppycock, after all; from the very first sentence on, the article, seemingly, was claptrap. 

A week later matters took a turn for the truly bizarre, as tucked away in a corner of page seven of Saturday's paper was a little box reading as follows. 
"On August 23rd last, under a story headlined 'First abortion carried out under new legislation', we reported on a purported clinical case at the National Maternity Hospital. The hospital has pointed out that the case described in the article did not happen. The Irish Times accepts this and apologises unreservedly to the hospital for any distress caused. 
The National Maternity Hospital has welcomed the correction and apology, accepts that the article was published by The Irish Times in good faith, believes the matter is now concluded and wishes to make no further comment."
Now. I don't even know where to start with this. The key sentence, of course, is: "The hospital has pointed out that the case described in the article did not happen." 

Yes, the entire story, we're now told, was fiction from start to finish. The Irish Times ran a piece of fiction on its front page, and eight days later issued a tiny discreet correction to the effect that Ireland's so-called paper of record doesn't refuse ink.

As Simon McGarr has so well shown, newspapers have a duty to correct errors with "due prominence", guidelines on how to do this being conveniently supplied by the Press Council of Ireland. I think it's pretty clear that that's not been done here. This, rather, is the journalistic equivalent of tucking something away in a dark cellar at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying "Beware of the Leopard".

When I did Accounting in school I was taught that when you'd made an error, you corrected it by putting a line through the erroneous figure with the correct one above the struck out one; under no circumstances, we were told, were we to reach for the Tipp-Ex bottle* and cover up the error so people couldn't see the problem. It's a good principle and one that the Irish Times would do well to live by.

Sadly, it seems that the Irish Times editorial staff weren't sitting in on my bookkeeping lessons, because the original story has now been wiped from the website, with all its fictional detail a thing of the past. Instead, under the same old dodgy headline, we have the bald statement that the HSE had confirmed on 23 August that the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act, signed into law by the President on July 30th, 2013, had not yet commenced, followed by the 31 August correction.

Thing is, I'm still a bit puzzled. 

There was no termination, as the hospital says and as the Irish Times now accepts. I understand that. 

Had there been a termination, it would not have taken place under the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act, as that has yet to commence. I understand that too.

What I don't understand is this. Given that he'd been identified as party to this supposed double termination that we're now told didn't take place, why on earth did Peter Boylan react to the original story by saying that the breach of confidentiality was an outrage and that the woman in the report was identifiable? Why didn't he say that such breaches of confidentiality are completely unethical, that to his knowledge the case described in the report never happened, and that he could confirm that he personally had never been party to such a case?

I don't understand that. Why not kill the story on the very first day?

* You remember Tipp-Ex, right?


Unknown said...

disgusting,RTE are no better their coverage of this abortion act was disgraceful they ignored the fact that half of the country and most of the doctors were against it,yet i have to pay mt tv licence so they can continue to lie to me...its a joke

Anonymous said...

He didn't say that because, perhaps, the termination DID happen, and the hospital doesn't want to get in trouble for breaking the law! I think it did happen and the story is NOT fiction. Instead, the newspaper and the hospital are just trying to cover their tracks.

Siobhan Maidrin Ruadh said...

I am still not clear from the apology which of the following scenarios is the correct one:

(a) A woman, pregnant with twins and miscarrying, had a medical procedure which erroneously was deemed to have been an abortion under the terms of the new (not yet operational) act


(b) There was no such woman, with no such pregnancy, and no such procedure.

Anonymous said...

I am as confused by the 'correction' as you are. Which may well be the intention.

One possible interpretation that I'm not entirely convinced of myself is that

"we reported on a purported clinical case at the National Maternity Hospital. The hospital has pointed out that the case described in the article did not happen."

means that the case as described in the article, namely one carried out under the new legislation, didn't happen. What do you think?

Maybe it's time to remind ourselves again that the one thing which will save newspapers from the threat of the internet is the dependable reliably researched stories they provide.

FrB said...

Re: Boylan's reaction & why he didn't simply say that the situation described in the story didn't happen, I suppose that it's possible that he answered the way he did so as to preserve the principle of patient confidentiality. Were I in his situation - or in an analogous situation concerning the confessional - I can well imagine that I might not wish to issue a straight denial that the patient ever existed. The act of confirming or denying a patient's existence - or subsequently refusing to do the same could well prove tricky in terms of preserving patient confidentiality in future situations.
If one could read his full comments in context, it could well be that he answered every question put to him honestly, without challenging the (incorrect) assumption of his questioner. I would contend that if this is the case, that even Peter Boylan is entitled to a mental reservation.

That being said, I won't deny that the perpetuation of the story suited his ideological position.