Speech by Press Ombudsman Professor John Horgan at launch of Annual Report 2008
The function of an Ombudsman is, I am sure, well enough understood in the Ireland of today for it not to
require anything substantial by way of explanation here. This Annual Report, however, is significant not only because it is the first of its kind and outlines our activities during the first year of operation, but because it also indicates clearly the parameters within which I as Press Ombudsman work.
This initiative by the press industry has not only involved our setting up a new Office - independent in all its operations - and appropriate procedures. It has also involved publications of all kinds developing or streamlining and making more efficient their own, internal, complaint-handling mechanisms.
Few people are fully aware of the pressures under which editors operate. The sheer speed of information gathering and information-processing in today’s world beggars belief. I sympathise with editors in that the
existence and activities of my Office can on occasion be an additional source of pressure. At the same time
it is important to acknowledge that they have borne this additional pressure with good grace, and only a very occasional passage of arms.
However, it is not just a question of pressure. If we succeed in our enterprise, the outcome will increasingly
be win-win solutions. The willingness of publications to correct and clarify where necessary will add to their reputation in a world where the vital channels of public information increasingly risk being clogged by a torrent of misinformation, unverifiable allegations and downright lies. The public as a whole will benefit from the knowledge that serious complaints are taken seriously, and that they can increasingly rely on their print media for relevant, useful and reliable information about the world in which they live.
The function of my Office, I must emphasise, is not to support all complaints regardless of merit, or to
defend the press against all comers. We try fi rst of all to help complainants and newspapers work out a
reasonable and mutually satisfactory solution to their problems, and this is frequently what happens.
We have a way to go. It is still not possible for newspapers to apologise for genuine errors - even though
they may want to do so - without exposing themselves to potentially horrendous and unquantifiable legal
and financial consequences. A change in this situation, as is promised in the current Defamation Bill, will
actually add to the credibility of the press as few other measures could. It will hugely benefit my work as Press Ombudsman, as well as affording complainants the possibility of a solution that does not involve the highstakes lottery of the legal system.
Of critical importance in all of this is the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Periodicals. Although editors
have devised the Code – and monitor its effectiveness through the Code Committee - its interpretation and
application is not in the hands of editors, but in the hands of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council.
It is also very important to note that, in this Code of Practice, editors have voluntarily applied standards to
themselves which are in some respects considerably more stringent than those applied by the law of the land.
Intrusion by reporters at a time of grief is not a breach of the law of the land: but it can be a breach of the Code of Practice. Causing grave offence to individuals or groups on the basis of their race, religion, nationality or a number of other factors is not an offence under Irish law: but it can in certain circumstances amount to a breach of the Code of Practice. Failure to take reasonable care in checking facts before publication may not be a breach of any statutory or common law provision: but it can be a breach of our Code.
These are important, self-imposed limitations on the freedom of the press, and they are as important as the freedoms which are defended elsewhere in the same Code.
These actions and responses by the member publications of the Press Council underline the fact that my Office is not a substitute for or an alternative to complaint-handling by publications, but an adjunct to it. And one of the effects of setting up this Office, according to at least some anecdotal evidence, is that publications in many cases now handle complaints much more efficiently and expeditiously than was the case in the past.
In such cases, complainants may never even have to approach my Office or, if they do, find that their complaint is addressed so satisfactorily and rapidly by the publication concerned that my Office is involved only very briefly and is not called on to make any decision in the matter. This is, I believe, primarily because the establishment of the Office and of the Press Council itself has not only empowered complainants, as citizens, but has also helped to develop the culture of accountability within the press itself.
Many of these satisfactorily resolved complaints will never appear in our statistics, precisely because they
have been solved by people working together to achieve a desired result. But some do, and here I must pay
tribute to the work of my Case Officer, Bernie Grogan, and my PA, Miriam Laffan, whose wide range of skills and sensitivity to the many and subtle dimensions of complaint-handling have been invaluable. The number of cases that are satisfactorily resolved through conciliation is, I believe, a tribute to all concerned – including the complainants and editors.
Only when agreement on a solution is not possible do I make a formal decision – and our Report shows that
these decisions are divided almost equally between complainants and editors. This is by accident rather than by design, but it does show, I think, that the Code of Practice is an effective instrument and that its interpretation is remarkably even-handed.
At a time of increased financial pressure and cost containment strategies on the part of publications generally, our new regulatory structures have been an additional financial and administrative burden for many in the newspaper industry. But they are also an important investment in the future of the freedom of the press, which is literally priceless.
Under our structure, which is as far as I know unique, there is a positive and mutually beneficial balance
between the work of my office and the work of the Press Council. In this context I would like to pay particular tribute to the Chairman of the Council, Professor Tom Mitchell, to the other members of the Council, for their support and encouragement during the year. In a very real sense, we are all in this together, and I have every confidence that these new structures will, in the years ahead, continue to enhance and improve the essential service that the print media provide to the Irish public.