Serious breaches of journalistic conduct, including the fabrication of evidence, mistreatment of staff, biased and unfair reporting, and damaging the reputation of students have been alleged against The University Times and its editor by members of the TCDSU leadership in an unpublished report, which has been seen by Trinity News. The report was prepared by the union forum, the committee of senior members of the SU, and submitted to the union’s board of trustees.
All the charges have been comprehensively denied by The University Times editor, Edmund Heaphy. The board of trustees has decided not to take further action or adopt any of the report’s recommendations which include appointing an oversight board to review the paper’s actions.
The allegations are also denied by editor-elect Sinead Baker.
Heaphy and Baker’s accounts have been contested by others involved in the report.
Fabrication of Evidence
The report says that “when interviewing one Entertainments candidate about a potential breach of election rules,” The University Times “informed the candidate that they possessed, and were prepared to publish, video evidence of him breaking these rules.” However, according to the report, when the electoral commission investigated the issue it was found that the video did not exist. The University Times also told this candidate that they had information regarding other infractions which had been provided by the electoral commission, but, according to the report, this was also untrue.
The Entertainments candidate is not named in the report but it has been confirmed that the person referred to is Caolán Maher. The University Times accused Maher of handing out “cans for votes” in Trinity Halls, and this is the incident referred to in the report. The electoral commission did not make The University Times’ alleged behaviour public either at the time or subsequently. The report also states that “one University Times writer threatened the Electoral Commission with an article.”
These charges are strenuously denied by Heaphy who says that “at no point did we say we had video evidence.” He also denied that his newspaper had told the candidate that they had information from the electoral commission about infractions, saying that “we would have known that other infractions were brought to the attention of the EC. That’s what we would have conveyed to the candidate but at no point would we have said that the EC officially told us that.”
With reference to the alleged threat to the electoral commission, Heaphy stated that “as far as I know there were no threats made to the EC. And I don’t know what the content of that threat would be.”
Baker was not involved in the paper during the election period because of her own campaign and so said she could not comment on the charges relating video evidence.
Molly Kenny, education officer, told Trinity News she believed that someone may have told Maher’s campaign that there was video evidence of Maher handing out cans, but that that person was not a member of The University Times.
Heaphy’s statement that The University Times did not claim to have video evidence has been contradicted both by Colm O’Halloran, chair of the electoral commission, and by Rob Cahill, Caolán Maher’s campaign manager.
O’Halloran confirmed that the electoral commission had learned that The University Times had told the candidate’s campaign that they were in possession of video evidence of Maher handing out cans in Halls. O’Halloran also confirmed that the commission had investigated whether or not the newspaper possessed the video evidence they claimed to have and discovered that they did not possess video evidence of the alleged event. O’Halloran is a member of the union forum, which produced the report. He confirmed that he had seen the report and he did not seek to alter its contents in relation to the charge of falsifying video evidence, though he did not vote on the report’s ratification as he is not a voting member of the forum.
Cahill substantiated the report’s finding regarding the video evidence, from the sections that were read out to him by Trinity News. He told Trinity News that he was approached by a University Times journalist, whom he named, who told him that the newspaper possessed video evidence of Maher giving cans to people at Halls.
Cahill also said that the journalist asked him to confirm that the electoral commission had reduced Maher’s electoral credits to zero (which would have meant that Maher would be ejected from the race). It was not the case, according to Cahill, that Maher’s credits were reduced to zero and they were, at that time, at 35 credits he said. He also questioned how The University Times would have had access to Maher’s electoral credit balance given that the balance “is confidential information between the campaign and the candidate.”
Mistreatment of Staff
The University Times, and its editor, Edmund Heaphy, are also accused in the report of mistreatment of staff.
The report notes that the newspaper “fired student writers for reasons unclear to those writers and to the SU”. It is not made clear in the report who was responsible for the sackings but the report does note that firing writers is “entirely at the discretion of the Editor”. The report goes on to note that it “is unacceptable to exclude students from voluntary student activity without proof of serious misconduct” and that the process of exclusion requires transparency.
Heaphy is also alleged to have placed “undue stress” on writers which led to them leaving the newspaper. The report notes that “initiatives such as the UT are intended as a resource for students to realise their potential and enhance their enjoyment of their time at college, and students should never feel forced to leave due to a lack of support.”
Heaphy and Baker deny these charges, and provided the fact that their staff had expanded substantially over the course of the year as proof of a good office culture. Both editors said that the nature of the newspaper business places stress on staff but that there was no “undue stress” placed on any person. “We had a lot of conversations with people throughout the year about how to manage their workload so I really don’t think that undue stress is a fair summation of anything that happened over the course of the year,” Baker said.
Heaphy and Baker also stated that no firings took place, though they acknowledge that people left the paper for various reasons. Heaphy stated that they “had cases where people have decided to leave their position because of stress” and that there was one case where “where we moved someone to a different position at the same level of seniority it just fitted their skillset differently.”
However, Trinity News has spoken to some students who wrote for The University Times this year who contradict Heaphy and Baker’s account. One source told us that Heaphy had placed “undue stress” both on the source themselves and other members of staff. The source also said that they themselves had been effectively fired due to a personal falling-out with Heaphy and that many writers, rather than being reassigned to positions that better suited their skillsets, actually “resigned from their positions but they were reassigned positions to where they weren’t dealing with Edmund directly.”
Another source said that “There was undue stress, yes. Many people also resigned.” They added that some people were fired, but they didn’t know the details so they couldn’t comment on whether the firing was fair.
Both sources said that the mistreatment of staff was common but that writers were afraid to come forward.
The union forum report also accused The University Times of general bias in its reporting on the election. The newspaper’s reporting on the Dining Hall hustings was singled out for criticism due to the paper’s description of the presidential race, which contained three candidates, as a “two horse race”. The report also notes that: “This adversely affected the welfare of the Presidential candidate excluded by the writers of the article and a significant number of students criticised the nature and fairness of such reporting so early in the race. It is also worth noting that the two Presidential candidates praised by UT in this piece were former members of UT staff.”
Candidates and their campaign managers were asked by the SU to give anonymous feedback on their experience of the elections. The report notes that of the 12 who answered, 11 said that “the media coverage had been unfair, harsh, or biased.” Five respondents singled out The University Times for criticism. There was no specific criticism of Trinity News’ reporting and one respondent praised it for its fairness.
Speaking to Trinity News, SU president-elect Kieran McNulty said that, regarding the Dining Hall hustings piece, while he thought the coverage was “odd” he couldn’t “really remember off the top of my head if it was biased or not.” He added: “I feel that they represented the rest of the race quite objectively.”
Heaphy and Baker both deny that the coverage was biased in any candidate’s favour.
Damaging student reputation
Current students and graduates are, according to the report, “concerned for the potential damage to their reputation incurred by articles written in The University Times.” The report notes that this is particularly problematic for graduates who may have their ability to get desired jobs impeded by article, some of which are inaccurate. Some graduates who have asked for online articles to be edited or removed “to reflect the fully accurate nature of events” have seen their requests refused by Heaphy. According to the report, in one case, a person was refused in his request that a particular article “be removed or updated with information from the Junior Dean confirming his innocence in connection with [an alleged] sexual assault.”
Heaphy stated that the individual in question had requested the article be taken down, rather than amended. He stressed that “every year UT gets requests to take that article down and every year it’s declined by every editor. I can say that the article, having reviewed all of it again, was accurate, and none of the evidence presented countered what was published. I made an offer of correcting the article, if any inaccuracies were revealed.” Heaphy also stated that he had consulted with many parties including a lawyer and a journalist.
“Harsh attitude” to voluntary student activity
A point is made in the report regarding a review of a performance by the Choral Society written by Heaphy which was criticised by students and many members of the society as being “an unnecessarily harsh review of student activity and amateur performers.” Heaphy, the report notes, criticised the society’s performance for not being “of National Concert Hall standards which, many students pointed out, was an unfair parallel to draw”. The report states that a student “complained that an Editor elected by and paid for by students was using his position to unfairly criticise his peers” and also noted their “concern” about “this harsh attitude to voluntary student activity”.
Speaking to Trinity News, Heaphy explained his review by saying “that a newspaper is meant to hold people to account, hold people to a certain standard” and that the “choral society is known for its very high standard, it’s the oldest choral society between the UK and Ireland.” He explained: “I think all student societies and the work they do should be open to criticism, and that’s a core function of a newspaper.” He followed on by stating: “A lot of people assumed I don’t have music experience myself, when I’ve performed in orchestras, I’m a grade eight cellist, I’ve performed in choirs, so it not only came from my own perspective but it’s also an informed perspective.”
Baker stated she didn’t “think that was reflective of any sort of harsh attitude”, and noted how positive the coverage of events in Radius (a supplement of The University Times) generally is. She went on to say: “at times it’s extremely complimentary. The headline says that it was at times outstanding, it says that it was worth the price, all of these things. I suppose the important thing about the Choral Society is that it’s not even entirely student led. It has staff members, it has a reputation for producing outstanding work, and I think that when a society like that produces something, people have the right to review it and maybe to criticise it. I don’t think that it was unnecessarily harsh.”
Lack of oversight
There is no mechanism currently provided for in the constitution that allows for oversight of the editor’s behaviour, the report claims. In interviews with Trinity News, Molly Kenny, education officer, and Aifric Ní Chríodáin , communications officer, stated that the board of trustees is capable of convening an oversight committee if they believe complaints regarding The University Times warrant such. In this case, Ní Chríodáin told Trinity News “they didn’t feel it was necessary”.
There is in fact an oversight commission which is mandated to ensure that sabbatical officers follow their election promises, but the commission has no power to compel the University Times editor to follow their promises. According to the union forum report “Members of the Commission who sought to interview the Editor regarding these promises for their own annual report were turned away.” The report concludes that this “arguably defeats the purpose of electing an Editor to the University Times and provisions must be made in order to see that they may be held accountable for their promises.”
In response to this particular claim, Heaphy stated: “I never received any contact from the oversight commission whatsoever, but again the oversight commission has no oversight powers on the UT editor because the UT is editorially independent.”
Further, the report claims there is no current mechanism for the impeachment of the newspaper’s editor in the case of “misconduct or dereliction of duties.” The report recommends that The University Times must implement a mechanism for dealing with complaints concerning the newspaper’s coverage of student affairs and of the treatment of students. This recommendation was not followed up on by the board of trustees.
The report notes that though “the newspaper is independent, it is nonetheless funded by the Students’ Union and student welfare and well-being must remain a priority. Students should be encouraged to grow and reach their full potential during their college years, and should not have to live in fear of a newspaper they pay for via fees. Students have a right to ensure that the Editor they elect each year is fulfilling their duties in full, and with the best interests of students at heart.”
Lack of transparency in reporting and disciplining mechanisms
The document seen by Trinity News was written by individuals within the union forum and presented in early March to that same body, which is the executive committee of the union consisting both of the union’s sabbatical officers and senior non-sabbatical officers. This action arose after a decision by the union forum to look into possible disciplinary actions against The University Times, following a number of issues and complaints which arose against the newspaper and its editor over the course of the year. The union forum then decided to submit the report to the union’s board of trustees in early April, who met just prior to Trinity Ball.
The complaints were brought to the attention of the board of trustees with a view to convening the oversight board of The University Times. The board of trustees did not choose to form the oversight board, nor did it implement any of the report’s recommendations such as encouraging the newspaper’s staff to undergo dignity and respect training.
Neither the specific complaints nor the report to the union forum and the board of trustees have ever been made public by any SU body or representative, and only became known to Trinity News through the action of a whistleblower. It is not known whether it was ever intended for any body or representative to make any complaints officially and publically known.
Both Heaphy and Baker say that they were not contacted at any stage during the making and the consideration of the report. They both feel that it was entirely inappropriate to conduct the report and the investigative process without informing them and giving them the right to comment and to answer the charges.
Baker said that she envisaged further separation between The University Times and the SU going forward: “So going forward I suppose there’s no immediate action to be taken, but I think that as we move forward we should constantly be looking at the relationship, making sure that the lines remain distinct, probably moving further and further away from the Union rather than anything else obviously, and I know that I myself am setting ambitious goals in terms of advertising revenue so that we can try to distance ourselves further financially.”
When asked if there should have been more transparency surrounding the report, Ní Chríodáin said that “when realistically nothing much actually comes of the board of trustees’ decision it’s hard to say what we actually should be transparent about, it’s hard to say how much is this report actually worth if nothing major is going to come of it.”
Kenny said that “the reason why the report went to the board of trustees was because we realised that constitutionally we didn’t have anything there in order in place to have the checks and balances with The University Times” in relation to cases such as where someone is fired.
Kenny described the report as “piles of rumours”, a comment which was echoed by Lynn Ruane, president of the SU, who told Trinity News “There was no actual person coming forward saying “this has happened to me, I want it to be investigated.” It was a number of people complaining about coverage and this, that, and the other. And UT is not accountable to the SU so there wasn’t a lot that we could do to intervene in what the UT writes. So it was asked whether the oversight committee should be convened and it was decided that it shouldn’t.”
Regardless, Kenny said that they are “looking into” putting into place a procedure for dealing with complaints about The University Times. She added that “the newspaper is still funded through the student’s union and the newspaper is still accountable to students.”
We strongly welcome additional comment or response by concerned parties.
Additional reporting by Lia Flattery, Matthew Mulligan, Una Harty, Michael Foley, Luke O’Reilly and Caoimhe Brennan
This article has been updated to reflect that Cahill did not see the TCDSU report, but had sections of it read to him, along with increased quotation from Ruane. Original quotation from Ruane: “There was no actual person coming forward saying “this has happened to me, I want it to be investigated.”