Fermanagh and Omagh District Council has been searching the email accounts of its councillors and staff to find out who leaked information on its free food to this newspaper, it can be revealed. 

Internal correspondence shows how Chief Executive Alison McCullagh wrote to all councillors last week to confirm that the council is reporting The Impartial Reporter to The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and the Information Commissioner after we reported how a vote to increase its hot food servings was held in secret.

Ms. McCullagh has also suggested that individual councillors “may, in their own right, choose to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner (on the data breach) and the Independent Press Standards Organisation on the articles”.

Last week Sinn Féin’s Sheamus Greene, who first proposed extending the provision of hot food to committee meetings, said he had reported this newspaper to IPSO for a “nasty and childish” article after his face was superimposed on the body of ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ from the book of the same name. He has described the coverage as “trolling” and “fat-shaming” – a charge rejected by The Impartial Reporter.

Councillors voted for hot meals for all its meetings ‘confidentially’, meaning no public record of who proposed the vote - or voted - to have a choice of meals including chicken curry, quiche and chips, beef stew, peppered chicken, and soup and sandwiches exists.

At the time, the council declined to provide details when asked, citing “personal information” in which “disclosure of the information would breach one or more of the data protection principles”. They even redacted key information when this newspaper requested details under Freedom of Information legislation.

But information obtained by The Impartial Reporter provided more details – and this week we can reveal how the council is now actively trying to track down the source or sources.

“We have undertaken an initial trawl of all related email and electronic communications.

 “This is continuing and is being further refined to concentrate on the smaller pool of email recipients and meeting attendees,” wrote Ms. McCullagh in an email marked “Private and Confidential” last week.

She confirmed that an internal investigation is now underway explaining that an assessment of the council’s Data Protection Officer is “that there have been at least two breaches”. The first, the minutes of the confidential council and committee meetings at which the catering arrangements for councillors were discussed; and the second, details from emails relating to confirmed catering arrangements for specific meetings.

“The Impartial Reporter states that it received this information from "a leak within the Council" and while it is possible that there was more than one source for the paper, our current working assumption is that all information was provided by a single source.”

Ms. McCullagh explained that in parallel with this, the council is “also preparing a formal submission to the Information Commissioner”.

“Where any additional evidence can be found further to the lines of enquiry, we will consider a formal report to the Information Commissioner. At this stage, it is unclear how the Commissioner will assess the breach but may take a view on the end use of the information by the newspaper.”

The chief executive, who last year received a payment package of £148,393 after pension allowances in 2022/23, added: “Notwithstanding the inappropriateness of publishing information which was appropriately considered by the Council ‘In Committee’, you will also be aware that there are a number of inaccuracies in the articles” – but she did not provide details of these in her email.

“In this context, we are also preparing a complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation. We know from previous experience that they are likely to suggest that we seek an informal resolution with the paper in the first instance. I think it is unlikely that the paper will facilitate this, but we will have to conclude this step before the IPSO will give further consideration to the matter.”

Ms. McCullagh said she anticipated that “we would have our investigations complete, or certainly at an advanced stage, to enable a more substantive update to be provided at the May Council meeting”.

“Separately, we will need to give serious consideration as to how collectively and individually we can provide appropriate assurances that matters that meet the legislative requirements of confidential material exempt from publication will be treated as such.”

National Union of Journalists (NUJ) General Secretary Séamus Dooley has said the original article by The Impartial Reporter “is a matter of public interest”.

“Decisions on public expenditure are demonstrably a matter of public interest and should not be taken behind closed doors”. He said it is now up to the council “to defend its actions and to explain the rationale for all decisions”.

“A questioning, challenging media is central to a functioning democracy. At a time when many local papers are ignoring or restricting local government coverage, the Editor deserves credit for bucking that trend”.

Mr. Dooley said it is “important that those paid to manage and administer local authorities respect the role of the local press”.

“There will always be tensions between those who exercise power and those who seek to hold part to account. That is inevitable and desirable,” he said.