The Irish Press Ombudsman made a historic decision on 12th June, deciding in favour of 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 proclaimed that “if every junkie in this country were to die tomorrow I would cheer”.
The complaint was filed jointly by Harm Reduction International, 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 be 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."
"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."