The IPSC, the Irish Times, and a miscarriage of journalism

The Irish Times reported an untrue story on its front page about Irish pro-Palestinian activists - then reported it again and again. The Press Ombudsman shrugged his shoulders, and the Press Council couldn’t be bothered. The Dervish affair tells a worrying story about the state of our press, and about the failure of Ireland’s much-vaunted “independent” form of press regulation. Harry Browne reports

As anyone who attended or followed its Gaza protests last month can attest, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) is a serious, dedicated organisation. It maintains a consistent human-rights message with the help of a strong network of contacts in the Middle East, regardless of factions and rejecting all forms of bigotry. Within it Palestinians and Jews work together - two of its most outspoken members are Jewish, including its former chairman. (Disclosure: I am not a member of the IPSC but have supported and advised it on media matters, including the case discussed in this article.)

Nonetheless, last May even its sympathisers had reason to believe the IPSC had lost the run of itself, perhaps through some combination of fanaticism and the licence for bad behaviour that online social media are often said to confer. Ireland’s newspaper of record reported on page 1 that the the trad-folk group Dervish had pulled out of a planned tour of Israel, and in doing so had cited an “avalanche of negativity” and social-media “venom” from the IPSC and its supporters. Over the following weeks the newspaper reported this basic narrative again and again and again. It was the basis for statements from Ireland’s ministers for justice (“cultural fascism” and “cyberbullying”) and foreign affairs (“unacceptable efforts to harass artists with a view to intimidating them”).

This story, however, was fundamentally untrue. The newspaper was told repeatedly that it was untrue, and the evidence was before its eyes on Dervish’s Facebook page. But it took nearly a fortnight after the first story appeared for the Irish Times even to publish a letter that cast doubt on key elements of the narrative. Despite a detailed formal complaint from the IPSC to both the newspaper and the Press Ombudsman, the paper has never clarified or corrected the misleading impressions and inaccurate details of that story.

Then the Press Ombudsman, Prof John Horgan, rather breezily rejected the long and complex complaint without ever appearing to address the basic question of the story’s accuracy.

Now that the Press Council has rubberstamped his decision, can publish the documents that provide the details of a miscarriage of journalism, a series of stories in the Irish Times that condemned the IPSC for sins it hadn’t committed, while ignoring or deriding the wider issues the organisation sought to raise. Meanwhile, the Office of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council, organisations set up five years ago by the newspaper industry to forestall statutory regulation of the press, particularly on privacy matters, have appeared to confirm the early impression that they share the basic values of the Establishment they represent, including contempt for mere activists. does not mean to state that the Irish Times is always or reflexively pro-Israel. A recent editorial and story on Israeli settlements and settlement goods both suggest otherwise. But the newspaper got the Dervish story wrong, then dug in and repeated the error.

The story you are reading, which for reasons of space deals only with the first erroneous story, is based on no new research or interviews, just the very same information that was available to the Irish Times and to the Press Ombudsman.

Dervish, Israel and Facebook

The story the Irish Times got wrong is in many ways shockingly simple. Everything about it - the statement from Dervish, the later statement from the group’s singer Cathy Jordan, the comments from supporters of the Palestinians and from supporters of Israel - everything was and (at the time of writing) is visible on Dervish’s Facebook page. Although it is possible in theory that some “venom” and “negativity” existed somewhere other than on Facebook, no one has ever suggested, let alone alleged, that was the case. So all any reporter, including this one, has to do to research this story is pick his or her way through Facebook posts and comments.

Dervish, a six-member group, were scheduled to appear in Israel in June as part of an Irish music concert series. Toward the end of April pro-Palestinian activists in Ireland, including members of the IPSC, directed comments at Dervish’s Facebook page urging the group to cancel the gigs to comply with the cultural boycott urged by some Palestinians and supported by an international campaign for “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) against Israel. A few of those comments are strongly worded, e.g. “Don't you people have a conscience or respect for human rights? By playing in apartheid Israel, you'll be legitimising and whitewashing a rogue and criminal state. Please don't do it.” At least one is from a respected fellow artist, the legendary Andy Irvine, and his tone is more in keeping with the majority: “Dear Friends, I have just heard about this and I have to concur with the comments of others regarding your trip to Israel. It will be a great disappointment to me and many of your fans if you fulfill this gig...Andy.”

In truth there are not many such pleas, just a few dozen. “Venom” is in the eye of the beholder, but by Facebook standards they certainly don’t constitute an avalanche.

On 30 April, Dervish issued an unsigned statement on Facebook. It reads, in its entirety:

Dervish wish to announce they will not be taking part in the Irish music concert series in Israel this June.

Our original decision to participate in the concerts was, like all our tours and appearances, completely non-political.

The organiser of the shows is a musician and friend of the band for many years. He has worked to bridge divides between people through music for much of his life. These concerts were organised in this same spirit.

At the time we agreed to these performances we were unaware there was a cultural boycott in place.

We now feel that we do not wish to break this boycott.

Our decision to withdraw from the concerts reflects our wish to neither endorse nor criticise anyone's political views in this situation.

Dervish are a grouping of like musical minds, we are not a political party.

Our motivation as a band has always been and will continue to be our love of music

The statement was clear. The group were withdrawing from Israeli appearances because of a boycott of which they hadn’t previously been aware. The sentence about the group being “like musical minds... not a political party” might have been a hint that they were not all of like political mind on the matter, but this short statement remains absolutely the only one to come from Dervish collectively about their Israel concerts.

Now came the avalanche. Within just one day that cancellation statement had attracted about 300 comments on Facebook, many of them appreciative, but a great many of them furious, from pro-Israeli commenters around the world. The comments are still there, and there are all sorts of them: Dervish were accused of anti-semitism and promoting hatred, and of “doing your part in satans [sic] agenda you bunch of lunatics.” They were even advised to go home to Sligo and plant potatoes. Facebook threads being what they are, commenters turned on each other. Venomously? You bet.

The next evening, on 1 May, the Dervish Facebook account posted another, longer message, but this time it was signed by just one of the group’s members, singer Cathy Jordan. Her very first sentence, putting her thoughts in the context of “today”, indicated that she was writing in light of what had occurred in the previous 24 hours or so, since the group statement cancelling the concerts had appeared:

Dear friends, today I arrived back from the US and although I was aware of the concerns with our proposed visit to Israel, I wasn't quite prepared for the extent of the venom directed at us.

Jordan’s often-eloquent letter is largely along the lines of “why can’t we all just get along?” She is clearly trying to be conciliatory with supporters of Israel. She carefully avoids blaming any side for what is clearly, for her, a distressing situation. Near the end of her letter, she writes:

I deeply regret any upset caused by all of this. It was far from our intention to stir up all this anger and hatred, when the opposite was what was intended. In hindsight, it was very naive of me to think our motives would not be misunderstood and misrepresented. So much so it started an avalanche of negativity which has made it impossible for us to make the trip regardless of our motives.

In context, “all of this” probably refers to the cancellation, rather than the proposed concerts. But the last sentence is ambiguous: she may be saying “it’s too late now, after all this mess, for us to change our minds even if we could agree to do so”, but this sentence taken on its own can look a bit like she’s saying “pro-boycott negativity is stopping us from going”.

However, commenters on this thread didn’t seem to think she was blaming the Palestinian campaign, and for the most part merely took up where they had left off on the previous post. The assumption in comments seemed to be that she was complaining of “venom” from pro-Israel commenters upset by the cancellation. One of them, Ben Gershon, wrote:

“Venom? You committed an act of political racism against an entire people [i.e. by cancelling the concerts]. Did you expect them not to be upset? Of course if you do such a thing you will get complains [sic] from the people you decided to boycott and from people who are against racism.”

So that’s what Facebook shows us, in chronological order: comments from pro-Palestinian activists, asking Dervish to comply with a boycott of Israel; a statement from Dervish doing just that, citing only the boycott as their reason for doing so; a virulent avalanche of a response from pro-Israel commenters; a statement from just of one of the group’s six members, complaining of “venom” but containing conciliatory and sometimes-ambiguous wording; further angry comments, some from pro-Israel commenters assuming she was complaining about their anger.

If you were going to write a story about it, you might headline it, let’s say, “Social media ‘venom’ after Dervish pull out of Israel tour”.

The Irish Times coverage

The Irish Times front-page story on 4 May, of course, said the exact opposite of that: “Dervish pull out of Israel tour after social media ‘venom’”. Why did the paper’s journalists get it so wrong? I do not suggest it was anything more than an honest mistake, but it was a mistake - viewing Dervish as the aggrieved victims of a vicious pro-Palestinian campaign - that coloured not only this story but subsequent Irish Times coverage.

The headline not only gets the sequence backward, but since in journalistic convention “after” suggests causation (shorthand for “as a result of”), it also clearly, and inaccurately, assigns blame.

The story contains a somewhat unusual dual byline: Ronan McGreevy, a reporter in the newspaper’s Dublin office, and Paddy Clancy, the former Irish Sun editor who now works as a freelance reporter based in the northwest. Given Dervish’s Sligo base, this appears to suggest that at least some significant aspect of the story originated there.

The story begins:

TRADITIONAL GROUP Dervish have pulled out of a concert tour of Israel citing an “avalanche of negativity” and “venom” directed towards them on social media websites.

It is difficult to locate a single accurate word after “Israel” in that sentence. In fact, Dervish “pulled out” citing nothing other than the boycott. After a venomous response to that cancellation, one member of the group used the quoted words, but Jordan’s statement not only doesn’t attribute the negativity or venom to anyone in particular; not only doesn’t blame the negativity or venom for the cancellation; but also doesn’t even say it occurred “on social media websites”, whatever they might be. A few paragraphs down, the story goes on to quote from Jordan’s statement.

Jordan said on the band website: “Although I was aware of the concerns with our proposed visit to Israel, I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent of the venom directed at us.

“I deeply regret any upset caused by all of this. It was far from our intention to stir up all this anger and hatred, when the opposite was what was intended.”

But the two quoted sentences are actually several hundred words apart in the original statement. The Irish Times does nothing to indicate this, not even an ellipsis.

The story as a whole is a farrago of slanted language: the IPSC “force”, “target”, “warn”. (Eventually one of them is given a chance to “deny”.) The reporters even go so far as to sort-of suggest that Dervish may have been deceived:

The group said they have opted out of the tour because they were unaware there was a cultural boycott in place when they agreed to the performances. In fact there is no official boycott of Israel and artists are free to play in the country if they wish.

It would hardly come as a surprise to Dervish, “artists” or Irish Times readers that they are “in fact” free to travel to and, if so inclined, to play in Israel. Dervish had, after all, successfully booked concerts there without any “official” interference. It is of course the nature of boycotts that they are voluntary, not “official” - when they become “official”, as eventually happened after decades of boycott campaigning in relation to South Africa, we call that “sanctions”.

This sort of prejudicial and, frankly, dumb language is, however, secondary to the central problem with this story. The Irish Times, with the full facts of the matter at the paper’s disposal, took an ambiguously worded letter from one member of a six-person group - a letter issued separately from, later than and in different circumstances from the full group statement - then ripped it out of its extraordinary context and dressed it up as an unambiguous part of the band’s withdrawal statement, never even reporting that there were two statements a day apart. And having committed that gross act of misinterpretation, it ignored the hundreds and hundreds of visible Facebook comments that might have put a different slant on the story.

In correspondence with the Press Ombudsman on foot of the IPSC complaint, Irish Times editor Kevin O’Sullivan ignored what had occurred between the two statements and said it was fair for the Irish Times to treat Jordan’s statement as just “a more up-to-date reflection of her and the band’s position”. But perhaps the readers might have been given an opportunity to decide if that was really the case. At no time, either in this story or in the weeks of subsequent coverage, did the Irish Times in its news reporting either clarify this distinction, or even state that there had been no further clarification from Dervish or Jordan on the matter of why they had cancelled the tour and what exactly they meant by their dual statements.

That first story appeared on a Friday. On the following Sunday, the Sunday Independent had a piece by Jerome Reilly that misnamed the IPSC and featured heavy-duty condemnation of the campaigners by the justice minister, Alan Shatter. It was clear that neither Shatter nor Reilly knew anything about the situation other than what they had read in the Irish Times, though at least Dr Raymond Deane of the IPSC was allowed into the final paragraphs to explain the reality of the story - which was more than the Irish Times allowed him to do for quite some time.

The narrative took off from there, appearing repeatedly in the Irish Times throughout May, taking the extraordinary series of turns that are documented in the IPSC’s complaint, and in the organisation’s reply to the Irish Times defence of the coverage. Eventually the Irish Times tracked down an artist, novelist Gerard Donovan, who did actually complain, directly and unambiguously, of being “intimidated” by the IPSC about a proposed trip to Israel. The newspaper didn’t bother to quote the open letter to him that constituted the only source of this “intimidation”: it is painstakingly polite, almost to the point of being bureaucratic. One journalist even squeezed a condemnation of the (non-existent) intimidation from the Palestinian ambassador to Ireland.

No report, however, came close to admitting how shaky were the foundations of the story that started it all off. The nearest thing was Mary Fitzgerald writing that Jordan’s “venom” was “presumably a reference to the torrent [sic] of messages left on Dervish’s Facebook page and other websites [sic] calling for the band to pull out”. Presumably, indeed.

The Press Ombudsman

As the documents that accompany this story indicate, all of this was complained about at the time, and then, when that failed, at quite considerable length by the IPSC as part of a formal complaint process - the length made greater by the instruction from the Office of the Press Ombudsman that each story had to be complained-of separately. The IPSC barely got its long complaint finished in time for the three-month-after-publication deadline. In fairness to Kevin O’Sullivan, the response from the Irish Times, while dismissive, was also quite comprehensive. However, the minor errors that he confessed the paper had made were trivial and tangential to the complaint, and the IPSC appear to have deemed the offer of a meeting with a pair of senior journalists to be an irrelevance in the context of the newspaper’s firm rejection of their plea for a correction.

That left the case in the hands of Press Ombudsman John Horgan, professor emeritus of journalism at DCU and before that a senator and, for many years, a journalist at the Irish Times. 

The Ombudsman’s process involved no further investigation of the matter in question, simply an examination of the documents now available here. There were no interviews, no hearings, no meetings. But he certainly had plenty to mull over.

As far as the IPSC were concerned, however, Kevin O’Sullivan’s reply had, by insisting (inaccurately, as it happens) that the Irish Times had merely accurately reported statements without actually suggesting that they were true, made it an open-and-shut case. As they wrote in their follow-up submission:

At no point does Mr O’Sullivan allege that Dervish were, in fact, subject to venomous social-media bullying by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists in the IPSC, nor that Gerard Donovan was subject to intimidating threats. The absence of a defence claiming that the stories were substantially true does not come as a surprise to us, since we knew all along that they were not.... Can Mr O’Sullivan really pretend that a reasonable person reading the Irish Times during this period would not have formed a false impression... that there was in fact such “venom” from the IPSC and its supporters? ...

If the Ombudsman agrees that such an impression was reasonable based on the stories that appeared, then he can surely conclude that our complaint has substantial merit in relation to the stories that created and reinforced that impression. The Irish Times, in the form of Mr O’Sullivan’s letter, no longer asserts what it plainly reported in May, and should therefore correct those reports as quickly and prominently as possible.

Members of the IPSC submitted the complaint more in hope than expectation, but they were nonetheless shocked at the casualness of Prof Horgan’s negative decision when they received it in October. Many thousands of words had been written in the complained-of stories. The correspondence on the complaint ran to many more thousands. Far from taking each story one at a time, he dismissed the whole lot in a mere 550 words, many of which were devoted to what looked a lot like mockery of the IPSC’s demands for their length and tone:

The IPSC demanded a front-page retraction - the essential details of which it specified at some length – of the matters it claimed were in breach of the Code of Practice, and, in addition,  an admission by the newspaper that, because of these alleged breaches, it was not worthy of the trust of its readers.

The Press Ombudsman failed to note that since the original offending story was in fact on the front page of the newspaper, the front page was exactly where such a retraction belonged. He seemed inordinately impressed with the Irish Times offer of a meeting, which Prof Horgan characterised as being “on the issues in dispute”; but the Irish Times had offered the meeting, begrudgingly, only so the IPSC “can give voice to their concerns”, not as a substantive negotiation.

The Press Ombudsman’s decision, in short, showed no evidence of respecting the very real concerns voiced by the activists in the IPSC about the damage to their reputations, and to the truth, in the Irish Times stories. It handwavingly avoided actually adjudicating on the accuracy of any of the stories. It also never even addressed the broadly unfair treatment of the BDS campaign (many artists are pleased to learn about the boycott from campaigners, as strange as that might seem after the Irish Times coverage) nor the extraordinary personal abuse to which Raymond Deane was subjected in a number of the complained-of stories.

At 550 words, the Press Ombudsman's decision was some 150 words shorter than one Prof Horgan issued in November about whether the Sunday Times was justified in calling a man a “bottom-pincher”.

The process of complaining to the Press Ombudsman is meant to be an alternative to taking legal action, though it doesn’t preclude the latter route at a later date. But it lays all the detail of dozens of complaints every year at the door of one busy retired lecturer and journalist. The even-more-busy people who comprise the membership of the only appeal route, the Press Council, are far less likely to be in a position to treat the matter seriously and comprehensively, and they can only be requested to intervene on narrow procedural grounds. That’s exactly what the IPSC did, but this time in neither hope nor expectation. As Prof Horgan himself told the Leveson inquiry, the council only overturned one of his decisions last year. Reading through the IPSC's carefully worded appeal in the light of its rejection must leave any reasonable observer in some doubt about the robustness of the Press Council's Code of Practice, and whether its principles really mean what they appear to mean.

This does not mean the system is entirely without merit. A dozen or more complaints are upheld each year, and a number of others are resolved through conciliation. But if neither the Irish Times, Prof Horgan nor the Press Council could see what was wrong with the erroneous and damaging story about the IPSC’s efforts to stand up for Palestinian rights, then clearly the press-complaints procedure in Ireland, despite all the flattery from the British in recent weeks, is not what it’s cracked up to be.

Correction, 11/12/2012: This article originally stated, erroneously, that the statement by Cathy Jordan on 1 May appeared only on the band's Facebook page and not on the Dervish website. The statement was in fact carried on both the band's Facebook page and the band website, but was later deleted from the latter. The piece has been amended to reflect this.

IPSC cover letter - Complaint to Press Ombudsman

Complaint regarding misleading coverage of the IPSC campaign

Cover letter sent with Irish Times response to IPSC complaint

Irish Times response to IPSC complaint

IPSC response to the Irish Times

Ombudsman's decision regarding IPSC complaint against the Irish Times

IPSC appeal to Press Council regarding Ombudsman's decision