Irish press council's autonomy vital, Leveson told

Sat, Jul 14, 2012, 01:00

THE INDEPENDENCE of the Press Council of Ireland from both the newspaper industry and the State was vital, Press Ombudsman John Horgan told the Leveson Inquiry yesterday.

Every major newspaper in Ireland, he said, had been the subject of critical, adverse findings in one form or another during the council’s five-year existence: “I can’t think of any, off-hand, that haven’t been.”

Nonetheless, said Prof Horgan, the body was respected by newspapers. “The public may not see it as seriously as they do, but in my experience editors take it extremely seriously and will take considerable steps to avoid finding themselves in that situation.”

When questioned about privacy by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, the Ombudsman said both he and the council “are guided” by Ireland’s cultural attitudes.

“Things may vary from country to country, but I believe that the interpretation of the privacy aspect of our code reflects fairly closely the cultural context of our country,” he said.

Asked if he has had to face complaints similar to those lodged by footballers in Britain accused of extramarital affairs, he said: “We haven’t had any complaints about the private lives of individuals being misrepresented by a newspaper or other publication under Principle 1. It simply hasn’t risen.” *

“Or maybe your footballers don’t create that sort of issue,” said Lord Justice Leveson, who will produce recommendations on the future regulation of the press in Britain.

“My view on that has to be wholly impressionistic, but culturally speaking there would be greater respect for privacy in Ireland than there would be in the UK. The problems don’t arise to the same extent, or to the same intensity,” said Prof Horgan.

The British press, said Lord Justice Leveson, believes that there “is a real and present danger” that statutory regulation will be imposed in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

“That is certainly how they see this. The issue is where the line should be,” he said, adding that he had “heard differing views” about the experience elsewhere.

Prof Horgan, when asked about the birth of the council, said it had followed warnings from the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats coalition government that statutory regulation would follow if better standards were not imposed.

“In other words, it behoved the press interests to come up with a solution that was less than the club that was being held over them,” commented Lord Justice Leveson.

“That is absolutely the case. This threat [elsewhere] has been the engine that generated, or promoted the establishment of press councils of the same kind in other European countries,” replied Prof Horgan.

Outlining the day-to-day operations of both his office and the council, he said complainants “are told gently, but firmly, that they must go to the newspaper to give the newspaper the opportunity to sort the problem out.

“Over the years our insistence on this procedure has had a couple of beneficial results. It has demystified the power of the press to complainants for some degree.

“All of our publications have considerably enhanced over the years independent complaint handling mechanisms, which from the time I was a journalist were primitive in the extreme,” he went on.

Members of the public retain the right to go to court if they are not happy with his decision or with the decision of the press council if they take the matter to appeal.

“I am aware of only one case in 4½ years where subsequent to a decision taken by myself, or the council, the complainant has taken legal proceedings,” he said.

Emphasising the need for a press council to be independent of both the state and newspapers, Prof Horgan told the inquiry’s counsel: “I think it is essential.

“I don’t think that the independence of the body as a whole, including myself, would be accepted by the public to any degree if another model was proposed.”

The majority of the members of the press council are independent of the industry, he said. “There has never been a split between the industry and public interest representatives on any issue. On every single issue, members of both groups have found themselves on either side of the argument.”

Better regulation of the press in Ireland might have occurred without the threat of statutory regulation, he told Lord Justice Leveson. “I think it might have but it would have taken a lot longer and it might not have been as satisfactory.”

* This article was amended on July 16th, 2012.