Press Council a good model and deserves support
Alan Shatter’s faint praise for council reflects broader political ambivalence
It was Leona Helmsley, the American hotelier, who was reported as saying that “only little people pay taxes”. Last week it became clear that only little people go to the Press Council if they wish to achieve redress for being wronged by the press.
Denis O’Brien is not one of Helmsley’s little people. When he feels he has been wronged, he goes to court because he can afford to.
O’Brien won a libel action against Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Irish Daily Mail, for an article critical of his appearance in RTÉ news reports on a relief effort in Haiti under the headline: “Moriarty’s about to report. No wonder Denis O’Brien is acting the saint in stricken Haiti.”
He claimed the article falsely portrayed his involvement in Haitian relief as a hypocritical and motivated by self-interest. In defending O’Brien, senior counsel Paul O’Higgins decided to go for the Press Council. Too much emphasis was being placed on “big people being brought to book”, he said.
In a comment that suggested O’Brien’s action was a selfless act on behalf of the little people, O’Higgins said that while O’Brien could afford to take the defamation case, most people hurt and damaged by newspapers could not, so here was Denis O’Brien taking on the media because he could afford to.
The reality is that those who cannot afford the legal route might actually get a speedy decision, their reputations might be addressed and the offending newspaper forced to publish the ruling of the Press Council. But when ordinary people go to the council with a complaint, the newspapers might “laugh all the way to the bank”, as O’Higgins pithily told the court.
Other than the bizarre spectacle of class warfare being fought between barristers for Denis O’Brien and the Mail, the irony is O’Brien is one of those who would seemingly be laughing all the way to the bank, as he is the largest shareholder in Independent News and Media, whose titles are Press Council members. One of his executives, Frank Coughlan, the deputy managing editor of Independent Newspapers, sits on the council as one of the industry representatives.
Another industry member is, ironically, Paul Drury, the writer of the article found to have libelled O’Brien. INM also helps fund the council.
The view of the council as offering little more than a slap on the wrist to offending publications comes only 10 weeks after the publication of the Leveson report into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. Lord Justice Leveson’s main recommendation for a press council to be established and underpinned by legislation was modelled on the Irish Press Council.
He was clearly impressed with our system, and while the British press screamed with horror at the suggestion of statutory underpinning, British newspapers with Irish editions are active members of the Press Council here.
Despite Leveson’s endorsement, politicians here have been reluctant to give full support to libel reform and a press council. Many TDs and Senators wanted strong privacy legislation. They agreed to hold off to give the new body time to work, only if then minister for justice Michael McDowell prepared privacy legislation, just in case.
Even at the launch of the council, the then minister for justice Brian Lenihan warned: “there are many sceptics out there.” Now, current Minister, Alan Shatter, has inexplicably taken out McDowell’s legislation and is dusting it down.
Why is not clear. There is already protection for privacy, in the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Irish law. In an interview for the Sunday Times Shatter found it difficult to think of anything good to say about the council, saying: “I’m not going to criticise the Press Council, I think there’s some very good people engaged [there]”. Faint praise.
It would be regrettable if the Press Council was brought to an end because of our political classes’ distrust of the press, just when the council was seen as a model to emulate.
It would be ironic if its demise was aided and abetted by a media owner whose lawyer clearly saw the council as ineffective.
One would have thought O’Brien would have supported the council, even if only to laugh as he ran to the bank.
Michael Foley is a lecturer in journalism at the school of media, Dublin Institute of Technology