Speech by Professor John Horgan, Press Ombudsman, at launch of 2009 Annual Report

Monday, 24th May 2010
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“The success of the Office of the Press Ombudsman in providing a fair hearing for complaints about newspapers and periodicals is highlighted by the fact that virtually half of all the decisions made by the Press Ombudsman either upheld complaints or concluded that the publications concerned took or offered to take sufficient remedial action to resolve the complaint,” the Press Ombudsman, Professor John Horgan, said today (Monday 24 May 2010).

“At the same time,” he added, “it should be remembered that a decision by the Press Ombudsman to uphold or not to uphold a complaint is really just the tip of a fairly large iceberg.”

“The work of conciliation that goes on behind the scenes is a vital component of a system that works actively to increase trust between journalists and readers, to reduce misunderstandings, and in this way to enhance the whole system of public accountability of which the press forms such a vital part,” he said, speaking at the launch of the 2009 Annual Report of the Press Council of Ireland and Office of the Press Ombudsman in the Mansion House, Dublin.

Professor Horgan pointed out that while formal decisions made by the Press Ombudsman or by the Press Council were slightly up on 2008, more than a quarter of all complaints formally investigated in 2009 were successfully conciliated between his Office and the editor of the publication concerned.

More than 200 of the 351 complaints received by the Office of the Press Ombudsman in 2009 presented prima facie evidence of a possible breach of the Code of Practice. Of these complaints, 53 were either successfully conciliated or decided upon by the Press Ombudsman or Press Council.

Most of the remaining complaints that presented prima facie evidence of a breach of the Code were not pursued beyond a preliminary enquiry by the complainant, or were informally resolved between the complainant and the publication prior to the Press Ombudsman’s Office getting formally involved.

It was never envisaged that the creation of a Press Ombudsman would mean that newspapers would cease dealing directly with complaints. Indeed, the more successfully they deal with complaints directly and informally, the better the system as a whole will work, and the less time will have to be spent by editors in dealing with my Office or, indeed, with the much more serious challenges posed by legal actions.

In this context, the new Defamation Act, to which the Chairman has already referred, has launched all of us into uncharted waters, but it can safely be said at this juncture that it puts a premium on the ability of publications to negotiate satisfactory resolutions of their readers’ grievances, with or without the involvement of my Office.

In particular, the new facility for newspapers to apologise without having thereby to accept legal liability represents a sea-change that has the possibility to create new levels of trust and credibility between publications and their readers. This is not to say that an apology is the easy way out, although there are occasions when it may seem to be. Not all mistakes require public apologies, although historically this tends to lead the list of requests by aggrieved parties.

The cooperation of newspapers and periodicals has also been a major factor in securing a wide measure of public acceptance of the Office of the Press Ombudsman and of the Press Council. At a time of major economic challenges to the industry, their commitment to, and willingness to fund, this independent system of dealing with complaints is an important measure of how seriously they take their responsibilities not only towards individual readers but towards society at large.

It is also important to point out that a major impetus towards the institution of the Office of the Press Ombudsman, and a fortiori of the Press Council itself, was that these new structures should be an alternative to expensive legal action, for complainants and publications alike, and not an adjunct, or a preliminary to legal action.

Of course every citizen has a constitutional right to access to the courts of justice, and this is in no way being interfered with. Equally, if people get legal advice that the only appropriate remedy for whatever injury or insult they feel they have received is financial compensation, then the courts of the land are the place for them.

For this reason, I would suggest that complainants, before they approach my office, and irrespective of whether they get legal advice or not, should be aware of the cooperative and non-confrontational ethos of our procedures, of our desire to facilitate win-win resolutions of issues whenever possible, and should recognise that the best possibility of a satisfactory outcome in their own case is for them to take up our offer of conciliation in the same spirit. This applies equally, of course, to editors.

The legal profession can play its part in this by advising their clients that our procedures are cost-free, quick, and without the substantial financial and other risks of a drawn-out legal action even at Circuit Court level, and by helping them to identify possible non-monetary resolutions of any issues involved that might suggest an appropriate utilization of my Office and its procedures.

All in all, I believe that this, our second Annual Report, demonstrates not only the strength of the foundations on which this new enterprise has been built, but the positive response of editors and public alike to a significant, creative and positive initiative in Irish society that will also evolve, as society itself evolves, to better meet the challenges it faces in the future.