Ireland does not need Leveson-type structures

Tue, Dec 4, 2012, 00:00

Opinion:When the political posturing over the Leveson report finishes at Westminster it will be apparent that the world of the UK press is not going to be turned upside down.

A reformed and strengthened press complaints commission will probably emerge. The Cameron-Clegg coalition will not fall on the issue. Life for editors and journalists may be slightly more uncomfortable but it will hardly be unbearable.

The princes and barons of the industry have not been sitting back awaiting their fate. They have been busy formulating counter-proposals and lobbying. Prime minister David Cameron did not take his stance against Leveson’s findings last Thursday on a sudden whim.

A meeting between Tory culture secretary Maria Miller and the national newspaper editors is scheduled for today. Miller is not having the editors in to present Leveson as a fait accompli but to tell them that they had better come up with something themselves.

What will emerge may indeed look something akin to our own Press Council. The Press Ombudsman, Prof John Horgan, appeared before Leveson in July and outlined how “the Irish model” operates. The inquiry was impressed.

But some references linking “the Irish model” and Leveson’s proposals have been misleading. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg pointed to the Irish Press Council as an instance of the statutory underpinning of a press regulator. He had not heard complaints, he said, of a “deeply illiberal press environment across the Irish Sea”.

A comparison is not valid. What operates here differs significantly from what Leveson envisages in several respects. Leveson wants a press regulator to have power to impose fines of up to £1 million on newspapers. Our Press Council has no power to levy financial penalties.

Leveson also envisages a press regulator that would be wholly independent of the newspaper industry and which would itself be supervised by Ofcom, the regulatory authority for broadcasting and telecommunications.

In contrast, the Irish Press Council is funded by the newspapers themselves and is not answerable to any other authority or to government.

Do Leveson’s proposals have any implications for us? Do they warrant any reassessment or revision of the arrangements put into place in 2008 or of the Defamation Act 2009?

The answer is probably not, and certainly not yet. It is early days but, by and large, they have proven fit for purpose.

In 2011 the ombudsman processed 343 complaints, the vast majority against national newspapers. A great swathe of what might have translated into slow and costly litigation has thus been dealt with. A great many complainants have had satisfaction without having to carry the risk of going to law.

As promoter Louis Walsh demonstrated last week, that option is there. He received an apology at the High Court and damages of €500,000 from the Sun over its coverage of Garda inquiries into a false allegation of sexual assault made against him.

It is arguable that no code of ethics or regulatory body will be effective where a newspaper chooses to be utterly reckless or decides wilfully to break the law, as allegedly happened in the hacking scandals in the UK.

Critics who feel that Leveson’s proposals go too far, such as former editor Max Hastings (in the Financial Times), point out that the scandals that led to the establishment of his inquiry are criminal matters. They are the business of the police and the prosecuting authorities. He argues that to build a regulatory structure, separate from the courts, but sufficiently powerful to deal with deliberate criminality, must carry risks to the general freedom of the press.

That is a valid argument. And I think that in taking the position he does on Leveson’s proposals, David Cameron believes so too.

Cameron has been accused of seeking to curry favour with the discredited press. But in blunting the thrust of Leveson, the prime minister has set himself against other powerful interests. It cannot be doubted that opinion across the political and administrative elite would greatly favour a good kicking now for the Fourth Estate.

The behaviour of sections of the press has been reprehensible and wicked beyond words. But Cameron also understands the importance of the love-hate relationship between the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus and his newspaper – whether it be a red-top tabloid or a posh broadsheet.

He does not want to go down in history as the prime minister who ended the tradition of a free British press, often unlovely and frequently intrusive, but willing to stick it to the rich and powerful.

I doubt that we would want Leveson-type structures here either. Would we wish to see some retired judge handing out hefty fines every time there is a lapse of taste in a newspaper or when some journalist takes an ignorant tilt at someone prominent in public life?

The deliberative processes of the Press Council, with input from people both within and without the newspaper industry, seem to be appropriate to Irish needs just now.

This does not mean that they should be seen as immutable for all time. As traditional business models falter, there are increasing pressures on editors, programme-makers and journalists to bring down costs, to go for cheaper content and to cut corners.

Things may get worse – both here and in the UK – before we can discern the future shape of the news business. As pressures increase, as resources dwindle and as the internet encroaches, there will be lapses, errors and a tendency towards sensationalism as editors strive to hold market share.

It is worth remembering that the system we now have came into existence as an alternative to the threat of much harsher privacy laws. There are many in the political establishment who would happily revisit those proposals.

So it is in newspapers’ own interests here to make the present system work. For the moment, that seems to be happening.

Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Times from 1986 to 2002

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