It is commonplace today, especially among critics of the print media, to suppose that the advent of the internet has made the traditional media, and the print media in particular, irrelevant or redundant. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For one thing, the traditional media are still the main sources for a huge amount of what appears on the blogosphere. A recent US survey showed that the ten news outlets cited most often for original reporting in the American blogosphere included three of the major US newspapers as well as a number of news agencies and television stations. The next twenty news outlets included no fewer than 14 different newspapers. These newspapers must be doing something right – and perhaps repetition, as well as imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery.
For another, the traditional press now has an independent regulatory system that is wholly absent from the internet. In time, perhaps, web-based journalism may come to see the value of quality control and best professional practice. If and when it does – and at least one web-based news organisation has already been accepted as a member publication of the Council - we are ready to play a positive role in the light of our own experience and in support of the highest possible journalistic standards.
Although it is impossible to quantify, there is already some anecdotal evidence that some complaints which have been resolved by the Press Ombudsman, and by the Council on appeal, concerned matters that would, in an earlier dispensation, have ended up in the courts. Insofar as this is the case, it not only represents a saving for both newspapers and complainants, but will, together with the new Defamation Act, increase levels of accountability as well as enhancing press freeedom.
Newspapers are still– relatively speaking - inexpensive. The cost of a national daily newspaper in Ireland these days is often less than a minimum bus fare in Dublin, and rarely much more. This means that the work that goes into them can easily be devalued. We have, in the very recent past, lost two national Sunday newspaper titles. A country as well-endowed with newspapers as ours is may be able recover from this in the longer term, but newspapers are not all the same, and the disappearance of any title is the deeply regrettable loss of a voice, the loss of a distinctive perspective, a loss of diversity.
This is all the more important because the loss of a newspaper may weaken, rather than remind us of, the importance of the role of the media in a democratic society. This is why the Council has decided, this year, to mark World Press Freedom Day on 3rd May with a special function. The key speaker on this occasion will be Lal Wickrematunge, Managing Editor of the Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka, whose brother, then the editor of the paper, was brutally assassinated by an unknown death squad in 2009, and last year was named as a ‘Hero of Press Freedom’ by the International Press Institute in Vienna . The paper is also under continuous pressure from the Sri Lankan government. Further details of this event will be available in due course.
We should never take the freedom of the press for granted – and, in some countries, it is under permanent threat or is seriously curtailed. We in Ireland must play our part in helping others to achieve the freedom that we believe is important for ourselves.
One of the American founding fathers once famously said; “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." This may be going a bit far for some, and I have no doubt that some members of our latest administration will in time – if they have not done so already – cast as wary an eye on the Fourth Estate as their predecessors did. But this is par for the course, and wise politicians, as well as wise journalists, will take the inevitable rough patches in their stride.
For our part, in the Press Council, we inhabit an intermediate, but all-important zone. We are as committed to the freedom of the press as the industry which has, at a time of great financial difficulty for itself, established and supported us. But we are also as committed to accountability as any democratic institution, and the fact that our role in this regard has been formally recognized by the Oireachtas – without government or Parliament having any role in our deliberations or in our policies – has already set a headline for other countries that are grappling with the complex questions of independent press regulation.
In all of this, I would salute, in particular, the work of my predecessor, Professor Tom Mitchell, and the work of the Press Industry Steering Committee – whose facilitator, Maurice Hayes, is also happily with us here today.