Considerable work awaits the fledgling Press Council

Sat, Jan 12, 2008, 00:00

This week was heralded by many in the media as marking the beginning of a new era in their industry because of the establishment of a Press Council and Press Ombudsman in the State, and the publication of a new code of conduct for print journalism.

This code reiterates the importance of the freedom of the press, requires journalists to be fair, accurate and truthful in their reporting and to respect the right of all individuals, including public figures, to a private life.

The Press Council has a lot of work to do. One had to look no farther than the front pages of some daily national newspapers this week to find examples of inaccurate news reporting, as well as another disturbing case of a gross intrusion into an individual's privacy.

The New Hampshire primary presented difficulties for all Irish newspapers as they went to press on Tuesday night because the actual results were not available until early the following morning. Most newspapers dealt with this dilemma by running cautious stories reporting how polls indicated that Barack Obama would beat Hillary Clinton.

One newspaper however went further, boldly reporting as fact that Barack had trounced Hillary and that Clinton's campaign was reeling after the New Hampshire defeat.

Inaccurate reporting of the outcome of the New Hampshire primary, while peculiar, is not that significant in the context of the accountability of the Irish print media. No real harm was done and one has to have some sympathy for the editors or subeditors involved, given the extent to which the opinion polls wrongly pointed towards a decisive Obama victory.

Readers have more reason to be concerned however by the fact that on Wednesday and Thursday of this week several national newspapers, (although notably not this newspaper nor most of the national broadcast media), ran front page stories in which it was alleged that a man, who happened to be an associate of the Taoiseach, had committed a serious criminal offence.

In addition, these newspapers published detailed accounts of how the man had spent the days before and after this alleged incident, including the fact that he had been hospitalised in recent days. His wife from whom he is separated and his current partner were both contacted by some of the newspapers seeking a comment on the story.

While the newspaper reports did say that the man strenuously denies the allegation, the very fact that it appeared on front pages means that even if ultimately unproven, or withdrawn, his name will be smeared with this allegation forever.

If the individual were ever to be charged arising from this allegation then his prospects of getting a fair trial have been significantly damaged, in particular by the reporting of the fact that he was previously the subject of similar allegations which were not proceeded with.

Indeed, the widespread republication of the latter fact alone could render it difficult, if not impossible, for the authorities to bring this matter to trial (even if the evidence otherwise merited it), which means these newspaper reports could actually have undermined the alleged victim's right to justice.

It would be interesting to see whether this week's events would be regarded as a breach of the new press code. The code recognises that public persons are entitled to privacy, but provides that "where a person holds public office, deals with public affairs, follows a public career, or has sought or obtained publicity for his activities, publication of relevant details of his private life and circumstances may be justifiable where the information revealed relates to the validity of the person's conduct, the credibility of his public statements, the value of his publicly expressed views or is otherwise in the public interest".

Even though the man was previously a member of a local authority, and holds a position to which he was appointed by the Government, it is arguable whether he is a public figure. In any case the allegations, even if subsequently proven to be true, in no way relate to the validity of his conduct or his statements in those roles.

The fact that he is a friend of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern does not justify the reporting of this allegation at a stage where he has not been, and may never be, charged with an offence and can never justify the publication of details of his health.

On Wednesday night Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan was the guest of honour at a special event held to mark the establishment of the Press Council.

He proved a somewhat impolite guest because, while welcoming the council and the ombudsman, he pointed out that many people were sceptical about whether the new regulation would work.

He told the gathering that the Government would park its own Privacy Bill in order to allow the council the opportunity to prove its effectiveness in defending the right to privacy from unwarranted intrusion by the media.

The scepticism about the new regulatory regime is justified. In recent years many in the media have been to the forefront in pointing out that self-regulation is no longer adequate for other professions or for politicians. At the same time the media itself has - at least for the present - successfully thwarted the imposition of a statutory code of independent regulation for its profession.

The real weakness in the new code is that there is no real sanction for any breach. The media organisation is merely required to publish the finding. There is no power to impose fines or to suspend or even strike off practitioners who repeatedly breach the code.

However, it is best to see the glass as half-full. The Press Council has been blessed in its choice of Press Ombudsman in the appointment of John Horgan.

He has a large task before him in seeking to establish credibility for this new regulatory regime.

The events of this week have not made his task any easier.