Address by Professor John Horgan at Public Forum on Crime and Media

Thursday, 17th April 2008
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There is only one brief reference to anything relating to crime in the Code of Practice for Newspapers and
Periodicals, which is the gold standard for the operation both of the Press Council of Ireland and of the
Offi ce of the Press Ombudsman. However, this is easy to understand. It doesn’t make any more sense to
include rules for crime reporting in a general code of practice than it would to include rules about fi nance
reporting or sports reporting. At the same time, the coverage of crime provokes a debate which has been going on for many years.

Much of the debate in the Dáil about the Censorship Act of 1929, for example, focused on newspapers
which devoted an undue proportion of their space to crime. As DCU lecturer Mark O’Brien has pointed out
in an excellent essay, Professor Michael Tierney, then a Dáil deputy and later president of UCD, declared
that “there was a kind of tendency among even quite respectable periodicals, even among the periodicals of
this great and sainted country, where the press is beyond all suspicion, to specialize a little too much in the
collection and publication of details of all kinds of sordid crimes apart altogether from sexual crimes.”
Most Deputies in that debate, however, ignored the Irish newspapers and concentrated on the imported press, at that time considered to be the source of most of the moral evils that affl icted us. Their complaints and criticisms led to the inclusion in that Act of a new provision allowing for the banning of any publication that “devoted an unduly large proportion of space to the publication of matter relating to crime.” Unsurprisingly, at least six imported newspapers had been banned for this reason by late 1930. More surprisingly, that section of the Act has been repeated in many subsequent pieces of legislation, most recently in the 1994 Health Act, and is still in force today.

Many journalists, I am sure, genuinely believe that highlighting crime and its effects helps to bolster public opinion against crime, that the publicity attached to convictions for crime acts as a powerful deterrent, andthat the revulsion evoked by news of violent crime and sexual crime in particular is in the public interest and a contribution to the war against the ungodly.

There are, however, two problems about these assumptions. One is that there is no evidence of which I am
aware that repeated, graphic and condemnatory media coverage of crime has any effect whatsoever on the crime rate or on the motivation of professional or aspirant members of the criminal classes. Indeed, there are anecdotal suggestions that younger criminals, in particular, regard media attention, no matter how critical (and perhaps the more critical the better) as a kind of macho validation of their status and something that enhances their appreciation by their peers.

The second is that there is some evidence that fear sells, that increasing competition for our attention encourages scare-mongering, and that, according to at least some experts, our brains are, in evolutionary terms, always more ready to accept and process scary stories than they are to give time to the harder task of understanding data presented in non-narrative form. Scary stories? We must be among the most frightened people on earth, or at least in the EU. A Eurobarometer poll in early 2006 found that ten per cent of the Irish public thought it “very likely” that they would be victims of crime, compared to an EU average of six per cent. Another Eurobarometer poll in the same year found that 54% of the Irish public identifi ed crime as one of the two most important issues facing us – more than twice the European average of 24%.

If we were twice as much at risk from crime as our EU neighbours, these fi gures would be understandable,
even defensible. But there is no evidence that we are, and some evidence that we aren’t. In 2004, for
example, there was a three per cent increase in headline crime but – set against the fact that our population actually went up by 5% in the same period - this means that the incidence of crime was actually falling, or at least that the chances of being affected by crime were statistically decreasing.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that newspapers and other media should abandon reporting
crime and the courts. Crime in all its forms is part of what used to be called the rich tapestry of human life
and newspapers and other media will, and should, continue to pay it due attention. In particular, crime that is violent and repellent will always claim its headlines. But what forms should that due attention take?

I realize that I am here treading on diffi cult ground. As Press Ombudsman, I am charged with examining
complaints about the print media. I therefore generally refrain from commenting on things over which I
have no remit, on the grounds that such comments may generate expectations that cannot be fulfi lled. So
what I have to say is by way of refl ection rather than by way of instruction or even of warning.
Above all, I do not advocate the incorporation into our Code of Practice of an even longer list of highly
detailed rules about what the press may or may not do. The Code should be understood, particularly by
journalists but also by the general public, not as a cage for the press, but as a framework of best professional practice which can be developed freely and creatively in ways that serve the public interest better.

In contributing to this debate, journalists and members of the public alike might usefully consider a few
general questions:
• Is there a disconnect between the fear and the sense of risk engendered in the public mind by some aspects
of crime reporting, and the actual danger to the public from the kinds of crime which are prioritized
in the media, and, if so, does this matter? Our children are probably safer from violent crime than
in any other era in human history, and safer here than in many other regions of the world. But if media
coverage serves primarily to elicit the fearful response: “It could have been my child!” are we either
the better or the wiser for it?
• Is there a good journalistic reason – in addition to an understandable commercial one – why murder,
which accounted for .009% of overall crime in one 1999 survey, accounted for 15.8% of crime stories
in that year?
• Is there a risk that certain emphases in media coverage results in whole communities being stereotyped
as irredeemably criminal, or beyond social and political redemption, and that pays insuffi cient attention
to the task of identifying, discussing and remedying the social and other problems, the failures in
planning, and the lack of social resources that breed criminality? I am not suggesting for a moment
that criminals should not be held personally responsible for their actions, or that they should not be
dealt with fi rmly by the law. But they are not personally responsible for the –neglect and disadvantage
in which criminality grows like a weed.
• Journalism devotes a great deal of resources to one; should it devote more to the other? One of the
most devastating analyses of social conditions in Limerick was published by the eminent sociologist,
Fr. Liam Ryan, forty-one years ago. It was a study of South Hill, and it was called “Social Dynamite:
A Study of Early School Leavers”. Forty-one years ago! I found myself asking: what do you have to
do in Limerick to get attention for your problems? Are the media sometimes – to adapt a well-known
phrase – tough on crime, but soft on the causes of crime?
• Should the benchmark in crime reporting simply be a decision to publish everything that does not
expose the journalist to legal action? When you think about it, journalists often refrain from publishing
material that they have every legal right to publish, out of a commendable restraint and a concern for
the position and the feelings of vulnerable people. Is this sense of restraint less evident than it might be
when it comes to crime reporting? Crime has many victims – not only those directly affected, but innocent
witnesses, the families of the victims (and indeed the families of the criminals), and others who
get caught up in the media whirlwind that accompanies violent criminal activity. I am not suggesting
self-censorship – simply an extension of journalistic professionalism to protect some of those who
might be particularly vulnerable and who may be completely unaware of the effects that unexpected
media exposure can have on their already diffi cult lives.

Do these issues also affect people who are not journalists? For example, are they not also relevant for journalists’ sources? The police, for example, have a primary duty to protect vulnerable people. In crime situations the appetite for facts, and for details, both on the part of the public and on the part of the press, is
enormous. In situations like these, investigators may fi nd themselves under considerable pressure to release information unoffi cially, perhaps because they want to facilitate hard-pressed journalists. But do they not bear an equal responsibility, in such circumstances, for the disclosure of information that may have the unintended effect of exposing vulnerable private individuals to intense and unwelcome media reportage?

Which leads me to an even more diffi cult question: do criminals have rights? Or, more specifi cally, what
rights do criminals have, in relation to the media?

The one reference relevant to crime reporting in our Code of Practice, is in Principle 7 on Court Reporting,
which requires journalists, among other things, to ensure that “the presumption of innocence is respected.” Only the other day the Gardaí, in what to my mind was an unprecedented statement, publicly called on the media to be more restrained in publishing information about people who might have been arrested or questioned but who have not, at the time of publication, been charged. Whether journalists disagree with this implied criticism or not, is it enough for them simply to shrug their shoulders and say: “So what? It’s legal, isn’t it?”

And what about people who have actually been convicted of crime, and punished?

There are some countries, you may be surprised to hear, in which defendants in criminal trials are not identified in the media at all, even after their conviction, unless there is an arguable public interest in naming them. In at least one I can think of, they are referred to only by their initials. In some instances, this is not because of state censorship, but because of voluntary codes adopted by journalists themselves.
Irish journalism would be almost unrecognizable if such practices were adopted here, and I do not for a moment think it likely. However, the business of naming and shaming does raise some issues which are not as easy to answer as might fi rst appear. Let me identify some of them.

Although the question of whether the fear of publicity is a deterrent to criminals is an open one, is publicity for the misdeeds of the convicted criminal an additional punishment, one not contemplated by the law, and over and above the sentence passed by the courts? And although such publicity is always legal, is that the only question that needs to be addressed?

Is there a possibility that this publicity will sometimes be experienced as a sort of punishment, humiliation, and public exposure not only by the criminals but by the families of their victims and indeed by the families of the criminals themselves – all of them innocent third parties? It is a short step from a culture of condemnation to a culture of revenge, but revenge can be a very blunt instrument, capable of much collateral damage. Is there a possibility that the repeated identifi cation and abusive coverage of convicted criminals, especially after they have served their sentences, makes a nonsense of any idea of rehabilitation or re-integration into normal society, and makes it increasingly likely that they will simply return to their old ways?

Nobody can pretend that the re-integration into society of criminals, particularly those convicted of repellent and violent crimes, is an easy task. Indeed, it is a task not often attempted with anything like the skill and resources that are required. But is the alternative acceptable – an alternative which condemns the criminal, after paying what used to be called his debt to society, at best to a life of public and media suspicion and disapproval, at worst to rejection, ostracism and perhaps even exile? If every saint has a past, is it not the case that every sinner has a future – or is at least entitled to the hope of one?

Journalism has the right to its own opinions, about crime and criminals as well as about everything else. It
also has a civic mission not just to tell the truth but also to give the public the contextual information that is vital if the public is to be able to evaluate facts and opinions. And it also has the right to entertain the public: life would be altogether greyer if it did not. But in the area of crime reporting, does it always strike the right balance between giving the public what the public really needs to know, and merely attempting to satisfy an insatiable public curiosity by any and every legal means? I would be most interested in hearing your views.