Call for press watchdog after newspaper apology

The Government was urged to introduce a press complaints body tonight as a Sunday newspaper publicly apologised to the family of former TD Liam Lawlor over coverage of his death.

There were reports the former Fianna Fáil politician, who spent time in prison for refusing to comply with the Planning Tribunal, may have been with a prostitute when he died in a car crash in the Russian capital Moscow.

But his family described the allegations as a barrage of inaccurate, reckless and vindictive coverage.

Mr Lawlor and the driver of the car were killed in the crash on the way from the airport on Saturday, while a female Ukrainian interpreter who was with them was injured.

Today the managing editor of Independent Newspapers Michael Denieffe publicly apologised to Mr Lawlor’s family and promised an immediate investigation into how the story was published.

“First of all, on behalf of the company can I take this opportunity to apologise profusely to the family of the late Liam Lawlor on the manner of the coverage, which must have been extremely distressing,” he said.

He told RTE Radio the story had come from a reputable journalist in the Moscow area and at the time of publication the Sunday Independent was satisfied the report was correct.

“Obviously at the end of the day the story was inaccurate and caused enormous distress and we’ll have to look at our procedures and how we check facts and so on.

“We are definitely going to put procedures into place to ensure this will never happen again,” he said.

Aileen Gilson, the sister of Mr Lawlor’s wife Hazel, said yesterday had been the worst day of the family’s life having to endure all the newspaper reports.

“If anyone had heard Niall Lawlor ringing from a lonely hotel bedroom in Moscow last night and the tears and crying he went on with at the horror the poor lad was faced with in Moscow, they wouldn’t be as quick to write the horror that they wrote about his father,” she said.

She told RTE’s Liveline the apology by the Sunday Independent was too little, too late for the family.

Mr Lawlor’s brother-in-law Fred Barber said the reporting was a disgrace and the former politician’s wife Hazel was very upset by it.

“You can imagine the distress and anguish first of all at the tragic news of her husband so far away and what happened and then again to be addressed with such dreadful reporting and completely inaccurate, reckless reporting – it didn’t help I can tell you.

“We’re dealing with two very bad issues at the moment,” he said.

Labour Senator Kathleen O’Meara, a former journalist, said she would have concerns about privacy laws, but that yesterday’s headlines showed there was a need for curbs on a free press.

“There is no question but that the Lawlor family has been wronged,” she said.

“The publication of sensational and lurid material about the circumstances of Liam Lawlor’s death was clearly done without a fundamental checking out of the facts.

“There was a touch of ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ about it,” she said.

Ms O’Meara said one of the most objectionable elements of the way the story was reported was that the family had no formal mechanism for seeking redress for the publication of inaccurate and offensive material.

“The existence of a Press Council would give the public – which is the media’s customer after all – a place to go with a complaint, when they feel wronged or that the media is not telling their story correctly,” she said.

The Justice Minister Michael McDowell has said he wants to see the introduction of an independent press council with statutory recognition as part of a proposed defamation bill due to be published early next year.

The National Newspapers of Ireland steering committee is due to publish its proposals for a press council within a matter of weeks, and is expected to recommend self-regulation of the industry by a press council and an ombudsman.

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