THE PRESS Ombudsman has upheld a complaint against a column in the Irish Independent earlier this year which described drug users as “vermin” and “feral, worthless scumbags”.
The article by the newspaper’s columnist Ian O’Doherty was headlined “Sterilising junkies may seem harsh, but it does make sense” and commented favourably on a suggestion by a doctor that such people should be sterilised.
It also voiced the writer’s opinion that “if every junkie in this country were to die tomorrow, I would cheer”.
Campaign groups including Harm Reduction International, the Irish Needle Exchange Forum and the City Wide Drugs Crisis Campaign complained that the article was likely to stir up hatred against drug users on the basis of their illness.
The groups sought a formal apology and right of reply from the newspaper.
In its response, the Irish Independent said that while it supported the right of its commentators to write robustly, it recognised that a right of reply would be appropriate and offered to publish a letter to the editor from the complainants. This was turned down by the complainants.
The ombudsman said that publications were entitled to publish what they considered to be news without fear or favour and to comment on it.
However, the ombudsman also ruled that the article breached the principles of its code of conduct relating to prejudice, which state that publications “shall not publish material intended or likely to cause . . . hatred against an individual or group”.
In response to the decision, Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International, said the groups were “extremely gratified”. The decision showed that drug users were “entitled to protections against hate-type speech in the press”, he added.