Launch of the Annual Report of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman 2008

Tuesday, 31st March 2009
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This is a significant occasion for the Press Council of Ireland as it reports on its first full year of operation.

The Press Ombudsman will highlight key elements of the work of his office over the past year. I will confine
my remarks to two general matters: (1) How the model is holding up and (2) what further steps are needed to make it work even better.

Ireland has taken a long time to produce an acceptable form of regulation for the print media. Discussions and studies have been going on for more than twenty years, But I think the result has well repaid that effort.

First of all we now have a Press Council which was brought into being with the full support of all print media associations, with the support of the then Minister for Justice, and to the best of our knowledge, with the support of the government as a whole. That consensus is a huge source of strength for the initiative.

Secondly, we now have a Code of Practice which identifies for the first time in Ireland, the basis ethical and
professional standards that should govern good journalism. The importance of such a Code is enormous. It
represents a consensus of editors and journalists about the principles by which the press must operate and by which its behaviour will be judged. It is both a safeguard of high standards in journalism and of the high place which a free press should hold in our society.

But perhaps most important of all, the long gestation of the Press Council of Ireland has produced a model of
press regulation that is in many ways unique and will be carefully studied around the world as an innovative third way that is neither self-regulation nor government regulation but independent regulation that, in its operation, is free from any form of control or influence by either the state or the press industry.

The issue of the independence of the Press Council was initially questioned by many, mainly on the grounds that the industry was funding the Council and had significant, though minority, representation on it. I do not intend to respond in detail to these concerns on this occasion or to rehearse again the extraordinary lengths to which the model goes to ensure independence.

But let me say this. Yes, the industry does fund the Press Council, but at an agreed level, and there is nothing in the model, nor to its credit has the industry ever sought to have anything in the model, that would enable it to influence the workings of the system.

Over the past year we have had some robust exchanges with members, and what diplomats like to call “frank discussions”, and we have learned from these, but no publication has sought to influence improperly the process of the Office of the Press Ombudsman or of the Press Council, and none has refused to accept the final outcome, even when it found the outcome unpalatable.

As for the members of the Council associated with the industry and chosen on the basis of their experience
and knowledge of the print media, they have proved an invaluable component. Their wide experience of
the system has added to the Council’s understanding of the issues and has also added to the credibility and
acceptability of Council decisions. And there has been no divide between independent and industry members.

The vast majority of decisions have been unanimous and when votes did take place, not once was the result along industry/non-industry lines.

I can say with confidence after the experience of the past year that any fears about the independence of the
system can be laid aside.

All this is not perfect however, and there is a number of things that we are anxious to see happen to enable the Press Council fulfil its mission more effectively.

The Press Council can only deal with complaints involving member publications. At present there are more than 200 such member publications, but there are still some significant newspapers and periodicals who have not become members. The Council wants to see that situation develop so that the Council and the Press Ombudsman can provide the fullest possible service to the public. I would like to take this opportunity to urge all sections of the print media to join the PCI and to sign up to the Code of Practice and to show their support for the impartial form of accountability that it represents.

The Press Council is also eagerly awaiting the passage of the Defamation Bill which is currently before
the Oireachtas. This legislation will not only give statutory recognition to the Press Council, but will give
qualifi ed privilege to all its decisions and to published statements regarding these decisions. It will therefore also provide important and valuable incentives to newspapers and periodicals to become members of the Press Council of Ireland, and will enable them to participate fully in our processes without fear of legal consequences. We know from conversations with the Minister that he wishes to see the Bill enacted, and that he is supportive of the work of the Press Council, and we greatly appreciate his presence here today.

Finally, we would like to ask all our legislators to work for the speedy enactment of this Bill.