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History repeats itself as media bosses oppose change

8 November 2012

Michael Foley, veteran journalist and media lecturer

The British press have already accepted the legal provisions in the Irish regulatory system and have supported it since it was established. At the time the system was being debated, the proprietors of the British press in Ireland opposed a regulatory regime altogether.

The purpose of the Leveson Inquiry was to examine the British press and its ethics, and it is assumed the judge will recommend a regulatory system. Given how culturally specific the press tends to be, it might appear to be a fruitless exercise looking to see if the regulatory regime of one country would serve as a model for another. Looking to see if the Irish system would serve as a model for the UK might be an exception, given that many of the same newspapers are freely available in both countries, with many British newspapers, especially the tabloid ones, having Irish editions with Irish content mixed with British content.

It might be of interest to look at the reaction of some of those newspapers, which did accept and join up to a very different regime than that operating in the UK.

While most of the Irish media accepted the need for a regulatory system, albeit with reluctance in some cases, many of the British newspapers with a presence in Ireland were strongly opposed. A number of Sunday Times’ Irish columnists, for instance, wrote pieces opposing the Press Council. Others warned of the threat to press freedom.

The Irish Press Council and Press Ombudsman system was launched in Jan 2008, following years of debate and negotiation concerning the libel and defamation regime, considered even more draconian than that of the UK.

There were three groups involved: successive governments and politicians, journalists and finally, proprietors. Each had their own agendas. Politicians were unwilling to concede anything and could see no reason to relax or reform defamation. Some politicians, far from supporting reform wanted to make things more difficult for the press, by insisting on privacy legislation that would sit alongside defamation laws that were last examined in the 1960s. Journalists, through the NUJ, wanted to be involved in any regime that would emerge and not be sidelined as had happened in the UK. Proprietors wanted libel reform first and foremost and were willing to concede regulation to get that. Holding together a group that ranged from News International to owners of small family run local newspapers meant the proprietors were often less than united.

The council was launched in Jan 2008, following about five years of organisation and planning. The steering committee drew its membership from newspaper and magazine proprietors and the NUJ, and was chaired by a former Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, Dr Tom Mitchell. Some groups, particularly News International in Ireland, had to be more or less dragged to the table - it had a particular problem with the NUJ’s presence. At one stage the NI representatives did not even want to be in the same room as a trade union member.

The system that emerged was a hybrid, a mix of Britain’s press council or Press Complaints Commission and the Scandinavian ombudsman. One of the more urgent tasks of the Steering Committee was convincing the Government (and a sometimes sceptical public) that the proposed Press Council was independent and would not be a mouthpiece for the newspaper proprietors who were funding it. It was absolutely necessary to ensure there was a system were members of civic society, whose independence was beyond question, would be in the majority. In the event the Council ended up with a 13-member body of whom seven represented the public interest and six were, loosely speaking, industry representatives, one of whom represented the journalists.

It has a code and is chaired by an independent member. The Ombudsman since its inception has been John Horgan, a former professor of Journalism and a journalist at The Irish Times. He is also a former member of parliament and a member of the European Parliament. No doubt he brought to the office a unique mix of experience which has probably helped him gain respect from all sides - journalists saw him as one of theirs and likewise the politicians.

The system allowed complaints alleging breeches of the code of practice to be made to Dr Horgan’s office against member publications . He can then see if mediation is possible. This might be as simple as arranging a meeting between the aggrieved person and an editor, to a right of reply. If not possible, the Ombudsman makes a decision, based on the code of practice. If either side does not like that adjudication, it can go to the Council, which can either agree with the ombudsman or not. Publications are obliged to publish the findings. All findings are also published by the Council in a quarterly newsletter and on the website.

In April 2010, the Minister for Justice formally recognised the Press Council for the purposes of section 44 of the Defamation Act, 2009. This provision of the Act was something that caused a number of articles to be published, especially in British based newspapers, which suggested this was a slippery slope to government control. The reason recognition was deemed to be necessary - most proprietors or journalists did not oppose it - was for the purpose of the 'fair and reasonable publication defence' provided for in Section 26. A judge in a defamation case can now take into account the fact that a publication did or did not co-operate with the press council.  As one media lawyer said: "Section 26 thus gives the Code of Practice and the findings of the Press Council an unusual form of quasi-enforceability in the courts.” (Andrea Martin, 2011, QuickWin Media Law Ireland, Oak Tree Press, Cork).

There was, and probably still is, huge suspicion of the press on the part of politicians. There were a number of instances where politicians believed the privacy of a colleague had been invaded. In the previous Fianna Fail/ Green Party coalition there was believed to be a hard core in Cabinet opposed to any reform of defamation without a corresponding privacy law.

At the launch of the Press Council the then Minister for Justice, Brian Lenihan, said the privacy legislation, which has been approved by Cabinet, would be parked, "in order to allow the Press Council the opportunity to prove its effectiveness in defending the right to privacy from unwarranted intrusion by the media.

"I don't think I am breaching any state secrets when I tell you that not all my colleagues had boundless enthusiasm for this approach. I would not for a moment dismiss their reservations and, indeed, concern about media intrusion is not exclusive to those of us involved in politics." There was the threat, which theoretically remains in place.

It is too early to say if the system has worked. However, there does seem to be general acceptance of the rulings of the Council. Newspapers, so far, appear keen to be seen to be onside.

In recent times the current Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, has again called for privacy legislation. It is not clear why, given he spoke against it in the past. It might be that the Irish Daily Star published the topless pictures of Kate Middleton.

The third annual report, published in April 2011 showed a small decrease in the number of complaints, down from 372 to 315. The majority of complaints come under the head of truth and accuracy, though the number concerning privacy is rising. Increasing number of complaints are being handled by the Ombudsman through conciliation, which is what was hoped when the system was established. There is, however, a general disappointment that only one Internet-only publication has joined, though the newspaper members include some of the most popular news websites in the country, including www.irishtimes.com.

Michael Foley is a lecturer in Journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology. Michael is the co-ordinator of a Masters programme in International Journalism and teaches news-writing and reporting and media ethics to both undergraduate and post graduate students. He is also a media trainer and education consultant and has worked for the BBC World Service Trust, IREX, the International Federation of Journalists and UNICEF in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Africa. Michael is also a member of the NUJ Ethics Council.

Tags: leveson, regulation, press council of ireland, ombudsman