Remarks of Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney at launch of 2016 Annual Report
Launch of 2016 Annual Report of the Press Council of Ireland and Office of the Press Ombudsman - Remarks of Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney
For many years now media commentators have been predicting the shift in importance away from “traditional” media (print, broadcasting) towards social media. Rapid growth in this shift was evident in 2016 with the greatly increased use of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as a means of political communication. The best example of this is obviously the Presidential elections in the USA. It is noticeable too that since his inauguration President Trump has continued to use Twitter as a means of communication with his supporters. He has added to his use of Twitter by “rubbishing” print and broadcast journalists, describing them as purveyors of fake news. President Trump has characterised traditional media as the “enemy”.
So, where stands print media today in Ireland? There is mounting evidence that public confidence in the media (as traditionally defined) is in decline. The shift to social media as the primary source of information is both a threat and an opportunity for traditional media. It’s a threat because more and more of advertising revenue is shifting from print (and indeed broadcasting) to the Googles, Twitters and Facebooks of this world. This has undermined the business model of print and broadcast journalism and has called into question how quality journalism can be funded in the future.
But there are also opportunities as more and more people are beginning to realise that social media is frequently inaccurate, irresponsible and influenced by unseen political and commercial considerations. If the public requires access to accurate information and informed analysis then there may well be a return to print and broadcasting where there are far more checks and balances, where traditional values of good journalism, accuracy, impartiality, depth and context are more likely to be found. The Facebook organisation is itself fully aware that its own credibility is at risk from its posting of inaccuracies, lies, hate speech, images of violence, etc. but it is struggling to come up with a means of regulating its content which is sufficiently sophisticated to cope with the diversities of culture and values which influence its users. It is also having difficulty in finding the balance between valuing freedom of speech with awareness of the importance of traditional journalistic values.
The Office of the Press Ombudsman has a role to play in maintaining standards and ensuring that public confidence in print and online journalism strives to and attains the highest standards. I include online here because increasingly it is online journalism that is the subject matter of complaints. Four of the nine publications that had complaints upheld against them last year were online. Our offices contribute to public confidence in our members’ publications by providing a means of redress for members of the public who feel that something has been published which breaches one or more of the Principles of the Code of Practice of the Press Council. We provide an independent means of redress, firstly through conciliation and mediation services, and then through formal decisions of the Press Ombudsman that are fair and fast (usually the time between receiving a complaint and a resolution of that complaint is about one month if conciliation is sufficient to resolve it and two months if a Press Ombudsman’s decision is required). Our complaints handling process is also free to the complainant – an important consideration given the potentially swingeing costs involved in defamation proceedings.
A noticeable trend we observed in 2016 was the increased willingness of editors to address complainants’ concerns at as early a stage as possible. On many occasions editors agreed to publish clarifications or remove articles from online platforms after the complainant, following advice from the Office, contacted the editor directly. If newspapers, magazines and online-only publications wish to fight back against the encroachment of social media they must retain and win back the confidence of the public. This means? that editors must place an overwhelming emphasis on the quality of what they edit, that they ensure accuracy in both news and analysis and that they remain accountable and transparent in the services they provide.
If you look at our Annual Report you will see that for the first time we provide information on each of the upheld complaints. We have decided to include this in our Annual Report not to name and shame the newspapers, but to assist editors in seeing what kinds of complaints are upheld and hopefully to provide guidance in how similar complaints can be avoided in the future.
There were nine complaints upheld in 2016. Entirely accidentally these complaints were upheld against nine different publications, which means that no publication had more than one complaint upheld against it in 2016. Surely this must be a strong indication that member publications are providing a service to their readers which is largely compliant with the requirements found in the Code of Practice.
Four Principles of the Code were found to be breached in 2016: there were six breaches of the Principle protecting children (four of these related to the same court case), there were three breaches of the Principle relating to Privacy, two breaches of requirements in regard to Truth and Accuracy and one breach in regard to Fair Procedures and Honesty.