Contribution to OSCE Conference on Safeguarding Media Self Regulation through Freedom of Expression given by Mr Martin Fitzpatrick member of Press Council of Ireland, in Baku, Azerbaijan

Monday, 6th September 2010
Filed under:

I would very much like to thank the organisers of this important Conference for the opportunity to outline Ireland’s experience over the last three years in the establishment and consolidation of the Press Council of Ireland, one of Europe’s newer attempts to self-regulate the print media. While the process was under way there were many lessons learned. Some, I hope, will be of value in guiding the actions of at least some members of this audience in the future.

I must emphasise at the outset that freedom of opinion and freedom of expression have always been an essential priority in the conduct of Irish affairs. Since my country achieved independence in 1922, strict Constitutional guarantees on liberty of expression have underpinned press freedoms. We have also had the widest circulation and the widest possible readership of newspapers and magazines from around the world.

However the complexity of modern media, in Ireland and elsewhere, inevitably led to demands over the years for a modern system of regulation. Media diversity along with the emergence of profit-driven media business empires have dramatically changed the picture and a legislative base that was appropriate to a quieter and more sedate print industry needed serious up-dating. Some ten years ago this debate intensified in Ireland to the extent that the Government setup a working party to examine what regulatory changes would be needed. This group reported and argued strongly for a State-run press regulatory mechanism.

The Irish print industry, which comprises a significant number of national titles, along with as a country-wide network of regional newspapers and dedicated Irish editions of leading British newspapers, immediately reacted to this suggestion with alarm.
No one, apart possibly from some politicians, found any attraction in the idea that the State would have a role in determining what should appear in Irish newspapers and what should not. And if all this was not difficult enough, elements of the Government were professing their keenness to also introduce a Privacy Bill – a nightmare prospect for many who cherish press freedom.

Galvanised into action by this threat, a Steering Committee representing the entire press industry, immediately set to the task of creating a truly independent framework for regulation. It was a painstaking task and took nearly three years to complete.

The first promise of the Committee was that whatever structure that would be created would keep the public interest paramount. Consequently the industry, including the managers and editors of the national and provincial newspapers, the magazine publishers, the UK newspapers circulating in Ireland and journalists through their trade union, the National Union of Journalists, made a commitment that pledged support for independent scrutiny of the press’s accuracy, fairness, the respect of privacy and all the obligations that stem from the privilege of enjoying a free press.

A Code of Practice was written by a team of senior editors and journalists. This is now the standard against which the work of journalists is regularly assessed by the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council.

The basis of the deal with the State was that the industry would create and fund the new system of transparently independent press regulation and the quid pro quo from the State was that a new Defamation Bill would be passed which would provide a statutory basis for the Press Council and would reform libel laws which had, for years, been an increasingly onerous and costly burden for the press. It took a while for the deal to be nailed down but eventually the then Government Minister agreed.

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 truly independent and would not be a mouthpiece for the newspaper proprietors who were funding it. Much efforts was therefore put into the creation of a system that would ensure that members of civic society whose independent-mindedness was beyond question, would be in the majority on the Council – and that these independent people would, at all times, call the shots. In the event the Council ended with a 13-man body of which seven members represented the public interest and six were, loosely-speaking, industry representatives, one of whom represented the journalists’ trade union, the National Union of Journalists.

As I mentioned earlier the key element in the negotiations with Government was the promise, by the politicians, of legislation to change our draconian laws on defamation. This did not happen with anything like the pace or the smoothness which was first planned. When I say a General Election intervened, I am sure that most of you will now be smiling knowledgeably and know what’s coming next. The best laid plans can always be turned on their heads when the public is asked to have its say. The Minister who promised the reform of the defamation legislation lost his job and his seat in parliament, while his political party’s collapse at the polls meant that it quickly folded too. His successor made all the right noises about pursuing a Defamation Bill and sidelining any idea of a Privacy Bill. But he did not last long in that job, being quickly promoted to Finance Minister. The third Minister with whom we had to deal, took some persuading but eventually the Defamation Bill 2009 was published and came into law this year.

It is important to point out that libel has always been a civil matter in Ireland. There was an offence called criminal libel which has been abolished by the new Defamation Act.

The truth of course is that no living person can remember when a charge of criminal libel was successfully pursued in the Irish courts.

As far as the Press Council is concerned the new Defamation Act has major benefits. Member publications are assured that courts can take cognisance of their membership and their adherence of the Code of Practice when they make decisions involving freedom of the press and the rights of individuals. And while in the past the publication of apologies for errors was an admission of legal liability, with horrendously expensive and unavoidable consequences, the new Act ensures that apologies can now be used to reduce penalties on newspapers, rather than to increase them.

The formal recognition in the new Act of the Office of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council does not mean that the State now funds them in any way.
Also the State has no input into the policies, decisions or the personnel of the new bodies. Recognition also endorses the critically important role of these new structures in negotiating the resolution of complaints and agreed apologies where appropriate without any recourse to expensive legal procedures, remedies and penalties.

Our experience over the past three years has already demonstrated the value of these new structures, both in protecting the freedom of the press and in providing members of the public (ranging from people with criminal records to one Government minister!) with speedy procedures for dealing fairly with legitimate complaints against the press on the basis of our Code of Practice.

Before I finish, you may be interested to know that the Defamation Bill did throw up one significant matter that delayed the passing of the Bill for a few months. It was the matter of blasphemy which is subject to a very firm and decisive prohibition in the Irish Constitution.

Short of a Constitutional referendum to change the blasphemy laws (which might not be won, given the Irish people’s traditional and fundamental respect for religion and religious practice) blasphemy had to be mentioned in the Bill. The Minister met this requirement in his own special way which ensures that the risk of anyone in Ireland ever being prosecuted for blasphemous libel has two chances. Slim or nil. Back home we call it an Irish solution for an Irish problem.