Academic calls for tighter media regulation at FitzGerald forum

Mon, Feb 13, 2012, 00:00

A LEADING Cambridge philosopher called for greater regulation of the media at the first annual Garret FitzGerald spring school on Saturday.

At the conference organised by UCD, Cambridge emeritus professor of philosophy Baroness Onora O’Neill told an audience of relatives, friends and colleagues of Dr FitzGerald that “serious democracy requires that citizens can judge what they are told”.

Baroness O’Neill, who is a crossbench member of the House of Lords and whose lectures on press freedom have been quoted in the Leveson inquiry in the UK, said that as a “powerful player in public life” she could see “no argument against more adequate regulation of the media process”.

While ruling out State censorship and control of content, Baroness O’Neill said journalists should be required to make declarations of interest and readers should be allowed to know sources in the majority of cases. “I don’t believe there is much to be said for democracy if it is based on the impossibility of citizens judging what they are told. Serious democracy requires not just informed but judging citizens,” she said.

“If we are to restore the possibility of trust in the way that Garret took it seriously, we must restore communication.”

Responding to her comments, Press Ombudsman Prof John Horgan said there were reasons why regulation was “not a quick fix for the trust issue”. While agreeing that the processes of journalism should become “more transparent”, he also called for greater accountability.

Prof Horgan said traditional media had the ability to “organise and filter in the public interest” so that people can make “informed decisions”. However, media outlets were “only scratching the surface of transparency” and could do more to inform “where their material has come from and why they decided to publish it”.

Speaking on the topic of “citizen participation in Europe” Oxford professor David Marquand said “pre-modern political communities and ancient provinces rediscovering their identities are chaffing against the states in which they live”. He said the consequence was “a crisis of the nation state in Europe”. The notion of multiple co-existing identities was something the political class “found difficult to grasp”. He said it was something Europeans “had to grasp if the European Union is to get out of the mess that it’s in”. Prof Marquand said German chancellor Angela Merkel “quite consciously wishes to move towards a federal Europe”. He hoped it was “not utterly out of the question” that a federal Europe could comprise states like Scotland, Wales or the Basque country.

In his response on the topic, former Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes said challenges posed by the current crisis could not be dealt with “only by technocrats”.

Mr Dukes, who is now chairman of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, said the European Union was “grossly in denial of the real issues” and said the fiscal compact was “utterly irrelevant to solving the problems we have today”.

He said that although the European Central Bank was “potentially one of the strongest instruments” to get through the problems, it was “utterly unaccountable” and “would not enter debate”. He said, however, the idea that the German chancellor “might begin to think federally” was “one of the most significant things to come out of this”.

Addressing the topic of “human rights and the common good”, London School of Economics professor Conor Gearty said human rights could do important work in politics but also “damaging work” by “appearing to insulate political decisions, inimical to freedom and justice, within the cover of human rights”.

He said the resurgence of “simplistic faith positions”, the resurgence of nation states and “return of radicalism” all posed challenges to human rights and warned of the need to keep both “a robust European convention of human rights and a European Court of Human Rights”.

In his response, president of the Irish Human Rights Commission Maurice Manning said the failure to establish a setting in which “scrutiny of Europe and engagement with Europe could be centred” had been the “single biggest failure of the Oireachtas over the past 50 years”. He said it was “ironic” that Ireland was seeking a place on the human rights council of the UN while our parliament had “not managed to even think of putting in place a meaningful committee to take a holistic approach to human rights”.

The conference was co-sponsored by The Irish Times.