Article by Chairman of Press Council in Irish Independent of 10 June 2017
There is a major anomaly, in Ireland as elsewhere, in the way in which organisations which provide news are treated. Newspapers and magazines and some online-only news publications are subject to a Code of Practice which is implemented by the Press Council, a body independent of Government and the press.
Broadcasters are regulated by legislation and by the Broadcasting Authority. Social media such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube are subject to no regulation or supervision, governmental or otherwise. This despite the fact that Facebook and Google are now the largest and most influential entities in the world of news business. It is estimated that about half of us in Ireland take our news from digital media.
The traditional Irish media - press and broadcasters - continue to provide a generally reliable news service and have an international reputation for adhering to high standards of journalism. In contrast, social media can and do carry offensive, inaccurate and inappropriate Irish content. Recently, for example, a video of a young woman, clearly in distress, was posted on Facebook and widely viewed. She took her own life shortly afterwards. In another example, social media grossly exaggerated the number of suicides in Cork, thereby risking copycats. And last week on the Facebook page of a local online-only news publication (not a member of the Press Council) a totally innocent person was identified as a convicted sex offender. He had to be rescued from a hostile crowd in Monasterevin, County Kildare, and given Garda protection to leave the area.
Nearly two billion people use Facebook every month, about 1.2 billion of them daily. It is in the top ten in the world of market capitalised public companies. It is the most influential entity in the news business, more than any newspaper or magazine in the western world. With other social media it is eating into both the circulation and the advertising revenue of the newspapers and threatening to put them out of business. One- hundred-and-ninety-eight local papers in the UK have closed in the last 10 years. In the US newspaper publishers have lost more than half their employees since 2001.
Newspapers in Ireland are unlikely to escape. They are competing on a very uneven playing field against gigantic digital competitors which provide news via algorithms rather than via professional journalists. Algorithms are closely guarded secrets and as the head of the US Columbia University’s Tow Digital Journalism centre has noted: “The single most controversial, influential and secretive algorithm in the world is the one that drives the Facebook News Feed.”
A recently published book “Move Fast and Break Things” by John Arlidge (Macmillan, London) argues that social media organisations are “abusing their monopoly power to rip us off and debase our culture – breaking the world”. His conclusion is that it is time for consumers to break back.
But how do we start the break back process and who should lead it? Arlidge asserts that the social media organisations disdain democracy and believe “they have both the brilliance and moral fortitude to operate outside the normal strictures of law and taxes”.
The rapid development of the internet has, of course, had enormous positive results but it now falls to all of us to deal with the significant negatives. News distribution is but one of a number of areas where the battle has to be fought.
Since 2014 the Government’s Law Reform Commission has been working to identify and recommend legislation for matters such as cyber-crime affecting personal safety, privacy and reputation including cyber-bullying. The Commission has recommended the creation of a new statutory oversight system: a Digital Safety Commissioner to promote digital safety and oversee efficient take-down procedure. Australia and New Zealand already have such offices which appear to be working well.
But, in addition, much more specific action is required in relation to the distribution of news. Initially, social media should devise their own code of practice and support the creation of appropriate independent machinery to supervise its implementation. This is what the press in Ireland and in most democratic countries have done. The alternative is the enactment of legislation to regulate the distribution of news by social media but this not only has legal problems related to extra-territoriality but also risks giving governments an unwelcome role in the management and distribution of news.
A free press is an essential element in the creation and maintenance of democracy. While the problem of social media has to be addressed, it is important that nothing is done to threaten the freedom of the press. To quote the American editor of “The Daily Beast”: “fixing the journalism problem is part of saving liberal democracy. Everyone, not simply press people, should feel like they have skin in the game”. We in Ireland, a home for many of the social media outlets, must use our influence to persuade them to deal urgently with the problem created by their innovation and enterprise.