Speech by Professor Tom Mitchell, Chairman Press Council of Ireland, at launch of 2009 Annual Report

Monday, 24th May 2010
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Welcome, I want especially to welcome the Minister. It is very appropriate that he should be here for the launch of this Annual Report, since one of the major developments of the past year affecting the Press Council has been the enactment of the Defamation Bill and the subsequent recognition of the Press Council of Ireland under the provisions of the Act. We are most grateful to the Minister for bringing all of this to a conclusion, and for his supportive attitude towards the Council since he became Minister for Justice.

The Defamation Act is, of course, a most important piece of legislation in that it brings badly needed reform to the libel laws, but it also, in significant ways, ensures a stronger and more effective Press Council of Ireland. The PCI now has the sanctions of statute law, all its decisions and communications related to the handling of complaints have qualified privilege. The Act enables publications to offer an apology without risk that this could be taken as an admission of liability. It also enables a court to take into account membership of the Press Council and the record of a newspaper in complying with the Code of Practice when considering a defence of fair and reasonable publication.

All of this means that the Press Council is further strengthened by having formal legal standing and that its members can respond more freely to complaints with greater prospects of conciliated outcomes. They can also expect, if involved into a legal action, that their record in collaborating with the PCI will aid defence.
In view of all this, I would like to make an urgent plea today to all newspapers and periodicals or magazines, to become members of the Press Council. Surely it is now evident that there are substantial benefits for all publications in showing that they are amenable to an appropriate, responsible form of press regulation. They should also think of the fact that their readers are entitled to have available to them this quick and easy form of redress if they have a complaint. This whole process, which has been created with much effort and goodwill on the part of both the media and government, will work best if all of the print media plays its part and gets involved.

The Press Ombudsman will provide more detail about other features of the work of the past year. I would like, from my perspective as someone who has been involved in the creation and early operation of this model of Press Council, to review briefly how well the model has been working, what its strengths are and how it might further improve its performance.

It is, to the best of my knowledge, a unique model and it has attracted considerable international interest. I believe there are five features of it that give it particular strength and that these must be carefully protected.
First, it has a clear mission, It starts from the premise that freedom of speech and thought and information, and especially information about bodies whose work impinges on the public good, are basic freedoms and the foundation stones of a healthy democracy. It is worth recalling that when the world’s first democracy was established in Athens about 2500 years ago, two words, parrhesia and isegoris, meaning freedom of speech and the equal right to speak, combined with the concepts of transparency and accountability in the work of government, were seen as encompassing the essence of the democratic ideal. Nothing has changed. A free society must have freedom of speech, thought and information. A democracy must be conducted with transparency and accountability. Transparency is essential for accountability. As Anthony Lewis once said, “there can be no accountability in the dark”. A robust free press is the best means we have, and will ever have, despite the internet, of ensuring that the public has access to adequate, accurate information about what is happening around them, and the only means we have of ensuring there is no darkness surrounding the work of government.

But when the press fails in its fundamental duty to report with accuracy and fairness and respect for individual rights, there has to be a mechanism to hold it accountable.  So the Press Council has a twin mission, to promote and protect press freedoms, but also to provide a check on press behaviour by giving those who feel wronged by the actions of the Press, a simple, comprehensive mode of redress. It is a clear, unequivocal mission, designed to serve the public interest, and it should, and I believe it does, command the general support of the public, and of government, and of the media itself.

The second strength of the PCI is that it is indisputably independent and impartial, despite all the early scepticism. I will not rehearse all the safeguards of its independence that have been built into this model, but I can say with confidence that there is no Press Council in the world better protected from external influence, and none more fiercely protective of its independence.

The third strength is in the ethos and methods of the system. It works through what I call the three C’s, conciliation, co-operation, and consensus. It is not a watchdog ready to pounce on errant editors. It seeks most of all to resolve complaints through conciliation. It works on the basis of a Code, which I believe encapsulates very well the standards that should govern good journalism, a Code that has been fully agreed by the print media itself. It avoids the formality and legalism and adversarial ethos that necessarily attaches to legal actions and it wants the least possible involvement with lawyers. It is a clear alternative to the courts, focused on fair, and wherever possible, friendly outcomes.

The fourth strength is the Office of the Press Ombudsman, a structure that few Press Councils share. But Ombudsmen have worked well in Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman is working very well indeed. It is accessible and approachable, and offers procedures that are un-bureaucratic, user-friendly, and resolutely fair to all parties. We are especially fortunate in the current personnel, but the institution in itself is a major strength of the system.

The fifth feature that has impressed me is the composition of the Council. It has an independent majority including the Chair, but also strong representation from different elements of the industry, including the National Union of Journalists. In my experience, the presence of the media representatives has proved a great strength. The work of the council is complex. It benefits greatly from the expertise of those who work in the media, and their participation enhances the credibility of decisions. The mix has not created any divisions. I have never seen a vote split along industry/non-industry lines. There has been unity of purpose, to achieve the mission, and the mission as I said is clear.

At this stage you may be wondering if we believe there is any room for improvement. We are not so naive or complacent as to think we have got it all right. As we come to the end of the first term we are gathering input from many sources, including editors, and all ideas and all aspects of the structures and procedures of the Office of the Press Ombudsman and of the Council will be carefully reviewed.

We certainly need to do more to inform the public more fully about the work of the PCI. There is a special need to raise public awareness of the complexities surrounding press coverage of areas such as crime, suicide, situations of grief and personal tragedy, privacy in its many different aspects. The Press Council is well placed to facilitate public airing of these issues. It has already held a number of seminars on some of these matters, but plans to do a lot more.

But I think a good start has been made and there are lots of people I want to thank. Some I will be able to thank on another occasion, but today I want to thank especially the Minister and also his predecessors, Brian Lenihan and Michael McDowell and to the responsible official at the Department of Justice Brendan McNamara. I would like to thank the members of the Steering Committee who deserve enormous credit for producing such an innovative and effective model, and prominent in that committee as facilitator was Maurice Hayes. Cullen Communications have given tremendous support to the initiative down the years and Frank Cullen has been a tireless promoter of the project. The Appointments Committee of Miriam Hederman O’Brien, Maurice Manning and Kevin Murphy were a wonderful team and gave a lot of hours to ensure we got a first rate Council. I also want to thank the editors for their co-operation during the first term of the PCI.

It has been a pleasure and a privilege and a great learning experience for me to work with all of these people and to have been associated with such an exciting and valuable project.