A renamed Press Council should be given the ability to levy fines of up to €25,000 on publishers, while broadcasters such as RTÉ should be eligible to join it, according to the body that represents the public relations industry.
The Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) also called for internet service providers (ISPs), search engines and social media platforms to be given clear statutory timelines on how they handle defamation complaints.
In its submission to the Department of Justice's review of the Defamation Act 2009, the PRII also said defamation trials before the High Court should only be tried before judges, rather than juries.
The PRII, which represents almost 1,000 public relations and communications professionals in Ireland, said its members have “unique exposure” to “both sides of the defamation coin” and were well-placed to offer their views on the legislation.
“On one side, they are conscious of it in terms of the protection it offers to their client or employer’s reputation, but on the other side, they are exposed to it in terms of their own publishing on social media, in press releases or website content,” the body writes in its submission.
The profession should be represented on the Press Council, it said, while this organisation should be given an expanded remit and a new name to reflect the evolution of the media and encourage members from beyond the newspaper sector to join.
“Very few” PRII members reported using the Press Council as a means to defend their client or employer’s reputation.
Some 85 per cent of PRII members believe the Press Council should have powers to levy fines on publishers, prompting the public relations body to suggest that fines of up to €25,000 could be incorporated in future amendments to Ireland’s defamation legislation.
Although some online-only publications, including TheJournal.ie and Evoke.ie, are members of the Press Council, the PRII said the legislation should be updated to take account of how divisions between different types of media have blurred even since 2009.
“Even its name reflects an era of publishing which has radically changed,” it said in its submission.
“The legislation, and the organisation’s name, should be clear that membership of the Press Council is open to all publishers of regular content in Ireland.”
It highlighted that while RTÉ’s broadcasting operations were regulated by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, its online publishing operations were not regulated by anyone.
Social media platforms
PRII members have particular concerns about defamation that occurs online, with some believing that social media platforms are “very difficult to deal with” when attempting to have defamatory comments removed. Remedies need to be faster, the body said.
Under Section 27 of the legislation, the defence of innocent publication is used by ISPs, search engines or social media platforms where they can prove that they were not the author, editor or publisher of the defamatory content.
Although the PRII believes this defence should continue to be available, it believes there should be “standard principles and timelines” for the handling of complaints.
While standards are being developed through legal precedent, they should be replaced by statutory rules, according to the PRII, which said this would “provide certainty” to ISPs, search engines and social platforms as well as “greater clarity” to those alleging defamation.
There should be a statutory review of the legislation every three years, as is the case for the Regulation of Lobbying Act, it added.