Speech by Seán Donlon at Journalism seminar in University of Limerick
Extract from speech by Séan Donlon, Chairperson of Press Council of Ireland delivered at
UL JOURNALISM SYMPOSIUM
APRIL 20, 2017
Thank you for the invitation to speak this morning. Most of you are generally familiar with the Press Council of Ireland and all relevant information is available on our website. I would emphasise only that we are independent of the press and the Government and that all the national and most local papers, the Irish editions of UK papers and the main magazines voluntarily subscribe to our work and specifically agree to abide by our Code of Practice.
The recent and current experience of the Press Council is that the press in Ireland are sensitive in their reporting of suicide. The Code of Practice in Principle 5.4 says “in the reporting of suicide, excessive detail of the means of suicide should be avoided”. Other Principles of the Code are, of course, also relevant, including the Principle on Privacy and the Principle on Respect for Rights.
In preparing for this symposium I looked up the Government’s report of the expert group on mental health policy published just over 10 years ago. It has a section on suicide and suicide prevention but, interestingly, it contains no reference to the role of the media, good, bad or indifferent. This would suggest that then as now the press was not seen as contributing to the problem.
About three years ago the Samaritans contacted us expressing concern about some of the suicide reporting in Irish newspapers in the context of the reporting of the death by suicide of the actor Robin Williams. There were two concerns. One was that there were a number of articles which appeared to justify suicide by glamorising it and making the victim a hero. The second concern was that some of the coverage gave details of the means used in the suicide and thereby ran the risk of encouraging copycats. The Press Council looked at the international practice and held a seminar at which it invited a suicide expert to speak. As a result it was agreed to add a specific guideline to the Code of Practice. On the advice of the Samaritans the wording used in the UK code was adopted and hence Principle 5.4 “In the reporting of suicide, excessive detail of the means of suicide should be avoided.” It is worth noting that even though we have highlighted the new guideline on a number of occasions, so far, no complaints have been received about possible breaches of this guideline.
In relation to the three high profile Headline stories referred to by Claire Sheeran, the Press Council did not exist in 2007 so there was no involvement in the Innes and Dunne family cases. In regard to the Hawe case in 2016, Professor Arensman approached the Council expressing concern at the nature of the press coverage. In response to her concern, we issued an Advisory Notice to editors and attached to it a briefing document which the National Suicide Research Foundation had prepared on Murder/Suicide and media reporting.
This episode highlights a feature of our work which may not be well known, namely the issuing of Advisory Notices to editors. We do so in specific cases, either on our own initiative or following approaches by or on behalf of people directly impacted by such events or by individuals or organisations with an established, relevant reputation. Advisory Notices are prepared and circulated to editors promptly and it is important to acknowledge that the response of editors has to date been uniformly positive.
As mentioned by other speakers the emergence of more and more online news sources has made the task of regulators significantly more complex. The Press Council in Ireland currently regulate a small number of online only news sources including, for example, Thejournal.ie and Evoke.ie. We are currently working to add some more.
The major online news sources such as Facebook and Twitter present a particular difficulty in that they are global and until now they appear to be beyond any effective regulation, voluntary or governmental. Facebook is a giant in the world of news from social media and it is generally accepted that more than 50% of people get their news from social media. But Facebook refuses to acknowledge that it is a publisher and it refuses to recognize that the use of algorithms to monitor and edit material is no substitute for employing qualified journalists.
At a time when these global giants are increasing in popularity, eating into revenue traditionally available to the press and thereby threatening the very survival of print newspapers it is clear that action is urgently required. Why should the press in Ireland have to compete with news sources which are subject to no regulation and which are hoovering up their traditional sources of revenue? There is widespread concern internationally about the role of the new providers of news but so far there has been no effective action. There have been moves in some countries particularly in relation to companies whose social media platforms do not respond swiftly enough to complaints about illegal content relating to hate speech, terrorist propaganda and fake news. In Germany, for example, there is a proposal to introduce fines of up to €50 million for such obvious offences. There has also been agreement on a limited voluntary code of conduct by a number of companies including Facebook, Google and Microsoft aimed at fighting the spread of hate speech online. While this and other measures are to be welcomed, we are a long way from having an effective internationally agreed mechanism which will ensure that editorial decisions are made not by machines but by people who understand notions of public interest and have an understanding of the essential values of journalism, accuracy, impartiality, humanity, transparency and accountability.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the new social media will not on their own take the required action. Nor is it appropriate that regulation should be a matter entirely for governments and intergovernmental organisations. Governments do, however, have a role in using the stick approach as the Germans plan to do. In other words, heavy penalties should be introduced nationally for breaches of good journalistic practice. Hopefully this might encourage the big international news providers to come together and agree a code of best practice and create the machinery necessary to implement it. Without action now the press as we have known it will no longer be able to function and in particular will no longer be able to continue to play its vital role in the promotion and maintenance of democracy.
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