Extract from remarks by Professor John Horgan

Friday, 1st April 2011
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The fact that the public’s use of our new structures has been consistent over the past few years demonstrates, I think, that the creation of these structures was extraordinarily timely. Put simply, people were ready for them – waiting for them, even – and have learned to use them with a natural sense of entitlement and with confidence.

All of us, I think, feel immensely privileged to have been involved, from the outset, in a great cooperative venture in which newspapers, institutions of the State, and indeed the public, have all played centrally important roles. And it is important to remember that both my Office and the Press Council are governed by the Articles of Association of the Press Council and by Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines, not by our personal predilections.

Each element in this structure has the responsibility of exercising judgment in the light of that Code. And it is worth while remembering that this Code, while its Principles require the newspapers to accept certain voluntary restrictions in relation to important matters like privacy, also contains a Preamble which offers a doughty defence of the freedom of the press. This, it declares, “includes the right of a newspaper to publish what it considers to be news, without fear or favour, and the right to comment upon it.”

The Council and the Press Ombudsman alike, therefore, are entrusted with the task of balancing the rights expressed in the Preamble against the rights of individual and collective members of the public as expressed in the principles of the Code itself.

The freedom of the press, however, also includes the freedom to – on occasion – offend people, including people who would prefer to be portrayed in the press as rather better than they actually are. The publication that never offends anyone is probably not doing its job properly. But just because someone has been offended doesn’t mean that the offender has to be punished. We live in a rough old world of give and take where things are not perfect, taste is not always exquisite, language is not always polite, and, as long as the power of the press is not abused, grown up people should be able to live with that and take their chances.

At the same time, it is important to recognise that the freedom of the press does not exist for the press itself: it exists and is exercised for and on behalf of the public. Some recent examples are relevant. Would the phenomenon of child physical and sexual abuse still be under wraps if we did not have a free press?
Those who have read the small print of Judge Moriarty’s report will note that he singles out two instances of information disclosed by the media – one in print, the second in the broadcast media – which prompted him to extend his investigation in significant ways. This is journalism in the public interest, in the most classic sense of the word.

Because the two main strands of the activity of my Office over the past year, and as detailed in this Report, continue to be in relation to privacy and to truth and accuracy, I would like to add a few remarks about these two specific aspects of the Code.

Privacy is not an absolute right, because it can sometimes be qualified by what is in the public interest. And the truth sometimes hurts individuals. But the Code’s voluntary restrictions on the right of the press to publish make it clear that editorial sympathy as well as discretion will always qualify the right to publish, and that gratuitous amplification of grief, shock or distress is to be avoided.

I can give you one very simple example of this. Frequently nowadays, the newspapers report court cases involving the re-possession, by lenders, of family homes. The details are often harrowing. In virtually all cases, however, the names and addresses of the families involved are not published, although they form part of the proceedings in open court and there is no legal bar to their publication. This is a classic – and entirely justifiable – example of editorial sympathy and discretion at work. In journalistic best practice, sympathy and discretion go hand in hand with courage, risk-taking and exposure.

In relation to truth and accuracy, it is important to recognise that these concepts are not synonymous. Inaccurate statements can be accurately reported, even if they are untrue. Think of how boring life would be, and how inadequate journalism would be, if the press did not occasionally publish rumours, conjectures, or unconfirmed reports- and the Code of Practice specifically envisages that this is a normal part of the press’s activity, as long as such matters are accurately labelled.

Sometimes these matters are published as much for their entertainment value as for any other reason. Sometimes, they are the only way of drawing public attention to more important matters that merit further investigation. But here, too, best practice is always qualified by the requirements of the Code to strive for truth as well as for accuracy at all times, and to take reasonable care in checking facts before publication.

It is not always possible to check all facts before publication. However, because verification is always high on any journalistic agenda, a publication’s responsibility to truth as well as to accuracy, as expressed in the Code, is not limited to whatever appears in print on any given day. There is no shame or disgrace in a newspaper being half-right today if it can be wholly right tomorrow. David Broder, the great American reporter for the Washington Post who died only very recently, put it most succinctly three or more decades ago:
“I would like to see us say over and over until the point has been made... that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we heard about in the past 24 hours... distorted despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you... to read it in about an hour. If we labelled the paper accurately then we would immediately add: But it's the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected updated version.”

An Irish journalist of a very different generation over a century ago, J.B. Hall, recorded the views of a contemporary celebrity on the press (including a few Shakespearean allusions) as follows:

The Press is a queer little monster, half angel, half octopus. It is ‘backed like a weasel’; it is ‘very like a whale.’ Its eyes are countless like the stars, yet it is sometimes blind. Its ears are keen as the wind, yet it is often deaf. Its utterance is louder than the storm, yet it can speak in a still, small voice. It has nimble feet, made of wire, with which it skips from point to point of the earth’s surface, annihilating distance. It has arms so long that it can wrestle with and embrace the whole universe. It devours paper, it drinks ink. It has a consummate brain, an uncertain temper, a magnificent heart – and it never goes to bed.

It’s difficult to improve on that, even a century or more after it was written. I commend it to you. And I would like to record my thanks to the Council for its support and encouragement during the year, to my PA, Miriam Laffan, who is also PA to the Chairman, and to our Case Officer, Bernie Grogan. In a small and busy office such as ours, the commitment and teamwork of all concerned remains a core value.

Thank you very much.