Remarks of Chairman Sean Donlon at launch of 2017 Annual Report

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Thursday, 24th May 2018
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Remarks by Mr Seán Donlon, Chairman, The Press Council of Ireland at the launch of the 2017 Annual Report for The Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman in the Maldron Hotel, Pearse Street, Dublin 2

24 May 2018

Two significant threats to press freedom in Ireland today relate to defamation and social media.  The first is the delay in the review of the 2009 Defamation Act.   The second is that social media platforms are not subject to any form of regulation or supervision, governmental or otherwise.   

At this time last year, I welcomed the fact that the Minister for Justice had initiated a public consultation as part of a proposed review of the Defamation Act. The Act requires a review after five years and while the public consultation took place and submissions were received, we haven’t yet seen any sign of the review.   It is now seriously overdue.

The Press Council of Ireland was among the organisations to make a detailed submission to the Department of Justice following its call for submissions to inform the review.  Our focus was on amending the Act in the interests of press freedom.  This was because erratic and disproportionate defamation awards, together with their associated legal costs, have a chilling effect on press freedom and upon the right of the public to be informed of issues that the press considers significant.   A free, independent and vibrant press, holding governments and those in authority to account, should not be constrained by damaging defamation laws.

It is a source of considerable disappointment that some 15 months after the closing date for submissions, there has been no response from the Minister and no apparent progress in the overdue review of the Act.

Meanwhile, in June 2017, the European Court of Human Rights described the high level of damages in one Irish case as representing “a violation of freedom of expression”.

When can progress on reviewing and, hopefully, amending the Act be expected? The ball is entirely in the Government’s court.

Dealing with the role of social media is more complex. Election and referendum campaigning in Ireland has, until now, taken place in a largely regulated environment.  The press is subject to the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.   Broadcasting is subject to the codes and standards of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.     Advertising is subject to the Code of Standards of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland.  Even election posters are subject to regulation.   However, in the current referendum on the Eighth Amendment it became clear that a lot of campaigning was taking place in entirely unregulated and opaque social media platforms.

The recent decision by Facebook to ban advertising relating to the referendum that was funded by advertisers based outside the State, and the subsequent decision by Google and YouTube to suspend all advertising relating to the referendum, was a recognition by both Facebook and Google that their social media platforms could be an influential factor in determining the outcome of elections and referendums, and that their practices lacked transparency and accountability.

Against that background it is essential that governments and international organisations such as the EU now address the disproportionate and unaccountable power of social media. There has to be an acceptance that responsibility goes with power.  If tech giants like Facebook and Google do not themselves take action to ensure that they do not undermine democratic systems then governments will have to bring in measures to ensure that they will be subject to supervision and/or regulation comparable to that which currently exists for the press, broadcasting and advertising.