Google, Facebook are a threat to democracy, says Press Council chair

Press freedom ‘under pressure’ from legal costs, fake news and digital competition

Press freedom in Ireland is threatened by the relentless growth of social media and by the disproportionately large financial awards made against newspapers in the courts, the chair of the Press Council Seán Donlon, has said.

Speaking at the launch of the annual report for 2016 of the council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman, Mr Donlon said companies such as Facebook and Google were making further inroads into circulation and "hoovering up" advertising.

The proliferation of fake news on digital platforms should be a cause for concern for everyone, he said. “These people are a threat to the freedom of the media and the press. Frankly, in some instances democracy is threatened.” He cited recent false reports of multiple suicides in Cork and the online posting of intrusive video footage of a young woman in distress who subsequently took her own life as examples of fake news and offensive material appearing without any restriction.

Welcoming the review of the Defamation Act which is currently under way, Mr Donlon said courts were making generous financial awards under the Act which were out of line with other European countries. Legal actions or threats of action by individuals and companies whose financial resources were manifestly greater than those of the press also posed a significant threat to press freedom, he said. Reforms suggested by the council and others would result in the possibility of lesser financial court settlements and more frequent use of the services of the Ombudsman and the council.

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten expressed confidence that the review of the Act would produce satisfactory results for all parties. However, he said, it was impossible to try to regulate fake news on digital platforms, and that meant it was even more important for people to be able to find reliable sources for their information. "There is a public service element to what the press do," said Mr Naughten, who added that a new funding model was required for public service content He looked forward to hearing proposals from the Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which is currently considering the issue.

The Press Ombudsman, Peter Feeney, said there were signs that public trust in traditional media was rising due to a reaction against fake news sources.

According to the annual report, the Ombudsman’s office received 261 complaints related to articles published in national and local newspapers, magazines and online-only news publications in 2016, down from 278 in the previous year. The Ombudsman made 23 decisions, down from 34 the previous year and nine complaints were upheld against nine different media titles.

Hugh Linehan

Hugh Linehan

Hugh Linehan is Arts and Culture Editor. He also presents the weekly Inside Politics podcast