‘Real crisis’ in newsroom resources a concern, says press ombudsman

Press Council reiterates dismay in delay to Defamation Act review

Chief Justice Frank Clarke (left) with Press Council chairman Seán Donlon and press ombudsman Peter Feeney. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Chief Justice Frank Clarke (left) with Press Council chairman Seán Donlon and press ombudsman Peter Feeney. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

A “real crisis” in news media is contributing to errors in coverage, according to press ombudsman Peter Feeney.

Mr Feeney said there was “a constant struggle” in the newsrooms of national and local newspapers to maintain standards at a time when the resources available for “proper journalism” were reducing.

“We have seen one or two examples in the last year of complaints where it was quite evident to us that the journalist assigned to the subject matter didn’t have enough time or resources to go out and check what they were writing,” Mr Feeney said.

“This is a concern and it is a direct consequence, I think, of the reduced resources due to declining circulation and decline in commercial revenue as the social media giants hoover up so much of the online advertising revenue.”

The ombudsman was speaking at the launch of the annual report of his office and the Press Council of Ireland.

Mr Feeney, a former head of broadcast compliance at RTÉ, said he had “huge sympathy” for proprietors, editors and reporters.

“With reduced resources, you still have to fill your newspaper, and there is a real crisis, I think, where a journalist cannot leave his or her desk,” he said, describing it as “depressing” that successful applicants for the small number of positions that will remain at Times Ireland would be expected to file four to six stories a day.

“The answer isn’t to do less. We need newspapers,” he said. “Journalism is critical to democracy, and I just really worry about it. I understand that it is moving online, but I also worry about the way in which people get their information online. It is often much more fleeting, much less in-depth and much more opinion-driven than good old-fashioned traditional journalism.”

Defamation issues

Press Council chairman Seán Donlon noted that members of the public could avail of its free and independent complaints-handling and mediation services as an alternative to “lengthy and costly” legal actions.

Mr Donlon reiterated the Press Council’s dismay at the lack of progress on the promised review of the Defamation Act 2009. The Press Council has sought a limit on costs and potential awards, which news media companies consider to be disproportionate in some instances. It has also suggested there should be a limit to the role of juries in defamation cases.

“We have no idea why the Department of Justice is delaying on that.”

Chief Justice Frank Clarke, a guest speaker at the event, agreed that news media companies’ legal costs would be lower if cases were completed faster. The “first port of call” on this would be the Government’s review of the administration of civil justice, chaired by High Court president Mr Justice Peter Kelly.

“Part of its focus is to try and address cases that are taking too long,” he said. It wasn’t always easy to shorten the length of trials, he added. “But pre-trial procedures can be devised that make cases run more efficiently.”

Mr Clarke said the cost of litigation was “not ideal from anyone’s point of view” and the work of the Press Council in avoiding the need for some cases was “a win-win”.

The Chief Justice also pointed to “opportunities” for the Republic in the area of international litigation, arising from Brexit.