Address by Press Ombudsman at the launch of the 2022 Annual Report of the Press Council of Ireland and Office of the Press Ombudsman
Hard times have become normal times for the press in Ireland. But there is no greater threat to the freedom of the press than the intimidation of journalists, and there is no greater threat to the truth the press exists to tell than the spreading of disinformation, and these are issues with which we are now also faced, as recent scenes outside the Houses of the Oireachtas made all too clear.
The Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman stand with our member publications in resisting these efforts to undermine our press and thereby our democracy. We do so by insisting that our members uphold the principles they signed up to that are contained in the Press Council’s Code of Practice and by urging the public to use our complaints system to call out bad journalism and support journalism that is demonstrably good. Our Code also covers journalistic behaviour – journalists working for Press Council publications are required to treat people with respect.
The Chair has referred to the difficulties which are being experienced by member publications of the Press Council. When revenue falls, there is pressure on editors to cut the budgets available to produce the kind of journalism that is envisaged in and required by the Code of Practice.
The Code is exacting – it does not require editors to produce the best journalism they can afford – it requires them to produce journalism which is accountable to the public in terms of the highest professional and ethical standards. I commend our Code Committee of editors for drawing up the Code and keeping it under constant review.
In these circumstances, the role of the Press Ombudsman is a vital one, seeking to balance press freedom and press responsibility at a time when both concepts are under challenge from people who believe in neither. The press holds the government and other Irish institutions to account – the Press Ombudsman enables the public to hold the press to account.
Our office is small, with just two full time and one part time staff member. I wholeheartedly agree with the Chair that we must have the funds we need to do our work freely and independently of both the industry and the government, and I appreciate his declaration that he will be vigilant on this front.
There are many advantages to joining the Press Council, and I urge all publications who are not currently members to join us. I welcome the inclusion in the Government’s forthcoming Defamation Bill of a clause requiring solicitors to inform those contemplating suing the press of the alternative route of making a complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman. I also hope and expect that Coimisiún na Meán will insist that publications applying to its Media Fund for resources must be members of the Press Council. Above all, you will enjoy the solidarity of those committed to journalistic excellence.
Next year my Office will launch a public awareness campaign to encourage people to use the Office of the Press Ombudsman effectively, and we will engage with a wide range of groups in Irish society, from prisoners to politicians, business platforms to community groups.
Everyone is entitled to go to law, but I want to propose to politicians and others in high office that they should seriously consider using the Office of the Press Ombudsman as a powerful alternative system of redress. One course of action does not rule out the other – my office does not consider complaints while a legal case is ongoing, but there is nothing to stop a person making a complaint under the Press Council’s Code of Practice and following it up by going to law if they so wish.
Why not? Our values are those that are at the core of our democracy.
All who work in the public interest strive, as members of the Press Council do, to be truthful and fair, and to uphold the rights contained in the Irish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. All who believe in social solidarity reject, as members of the Press Council do, the ideas and behaviours of those who seek to stir up hatred on the basis of race, religion, nationality, colour, ethnic origin, membership of the traveling community, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness or age.
The services of the Office of the Press Ombudsman are available to everyone, the Press Council’s Code of Practice is wide ranging, supple and rigorous, and our procedures are robust. Our service is free and fast. Many cases are resolved to the satisfaction of both parties through conciliation initiated by our case manager, Bernie Grogan. Our members publish prominently any finding against them.
The Press Council’s membership includes national newspapers, magazines, local newspapers, and online publications. Membership involves demonstrating an active and ongoing determination to uphold the Code of Practice and it is open to the Press Council to expel members who fail to do so.
Journalists are by and large respected in Ireland. We must learn from the crisis at RTE and ensure that the loss of confidence it has given rise to will not afflict our press. We must protect our press and our journalists.
For press enquires please contact the Press Ombudsman, Susan McKay.