Press ombudsman upholds complaint against Irish Independent

The Press Ombudsman has upheld a complaint by a coalition of national and international drug services against the Irish Independent for a column by Ian O’Doherty which described drug users as “vermin”, “feral, worthless scumbags” and which proclaimed that “if every junkie in this country were to die tomorrow I would cheer”.

The complaint was filed jointly by Harm Reduction International (aka International Harm Reduction Association), the Irish Needle Exchange Forum and the CityWide Drugs Crisis Campaign, and was supported by approximately thirty Irish drugs services and professionals.

The Ombudsman found that the column, titled Sterilising junkies may seem harsh, but it does make sense* (18 February 2011) “was likely to cause grave offence to or stir up hatred against individuals or groups addicted to drugs on the basis of their illness.”

The column was found in violation of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines, specifically of Principle 8 on Prejudice, which states:

“Newspapers and magazines shall not publish material intended or likely to cause grave offence or stir up hatred against an individual or group on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, membership of the travelling community, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age”

“We are extremely gratified by this decision," said Rick Lines, Executive Director of Harm Reduction International. "We believe this to be the first time that drug users have been identified by a media watchdog as an identifiable group, entitled to protections against hate-type speech in the press. In this sense, we think the decision of the Press Ombudsman has international significance."

"We hope that this decision will put a stop to the current wave of sensationalist journalism. Today's decision should help promote more responsible reporting of drug issues in the Irish media, something we all badly need," said Daithi Doolan, Coordinator of CityWide. "While the language used in the Independent column was particularly offensive, it is very much in keeping with the kind of stigmatising coverage of drugs and drug users seen across much of the mainstream press. Such reporting does nothing to promote sensible debate on drugs, but rather further stigmatises drug users, their families and communities."

"Drug use is ultimately a health issue and needs to be addressed as such," said Tim Bingham, Coordinator of the Irish Needle Exchange Forum. "Sensationalist media reporting undermines discussion of pragmatic policy on dealing with drugs, such as the scaling up of access to harm reduction services, and it makes people less willing to put their head above the parapet and come forward for services. We hope that the decision of the Ombudsman will play a role in reorienting the media discourse away from prejudice and stigma, and therefore promote a discussion based on evidence of effectiveness and on public health."

*The piece is no longer available on the Irish Independent website.

 via Harm Reduction International.

The full letter of complaint is embedded below.

Letter to the Office of the Press Ombudsman 7 March 2011