Press Ombudsman hopes for greater acceptance of journalistic standards online

Conference hears that a quality mark for online news providers would benefit credible and reliable sites

 

The Press Council of Ireland decision to accept the journal.ie as a member augurs well for the future of digital news providers in that it may lead to a greater acceptance of agreed journalistic standards of practice online, according to Press Ombudsman Prof John Horgan.

Prof Horgan said that the Press Council had had discussions with the journal.ie about how to apply Press Council complaint handling procedures and the journal.ie had “more than met us halfway” before the regulatory body accepted the online news provider as a member.

“I hope I’m not being too optimistic but I could see in the future an acceptance across the digital world that the best professional best practice of journalism can operate across the digital divide .... I see the journal.ie as kind of a bridgehead into that world for us.”

“We are on the cusp between the old world and the new and we are going to have to adapt - I feel very strongly that the core values of journalism transcend all platforms but as the digital world develops, quality will emerge and people will know which sites they can trust.”

Prof Horgan was speaking at a conference entitled “The Changing Landscape of Media Law” hosted by the University College Cork Law Society and sponsored by William Fry Solicitors and chaired by Mr Justice Bryan McMahon.

Prof Horgan’s comments were echoed by media lawyer, Andrea Martin who said she believed the regulation of the internet was going to be through a form of self regulation whereby news and current affairs providers will seek to establish credibility with internet users.

“To use a colloquialism, the cream will be seen to rise to the top and for the rest, well, let’s say the detritus will sink to the bottom as regards credibility - credibility will enhance commercial appeal to online advertisers and the commercial value of the online news providers.”

Ms Martin said she favoured the establishment, on a voluntary basis by a group of online news and current affairs content providers, of a form of “Q” mark for quality online content based on a set of minimum standards to which those providers would commit themselves.

“These minimum standards would encompass criteria such as the four principles underlying the Fairness Code - Objectivity and Impartiality, Accuracy and Responsiveness, Transparency and Accountability and where relevant and feasible, fairness in the coverage of current affairs.

Such a move would encompass the principles of responsible journalism articulated in the Press Council Code of Practice as well as a complaints mechanism whereby failure to abide by the standards to which they had committed could be referred to a supervisory body.

That supervisory body would have the contractually based right to remove the relevant accreditation from a news provider that consistently failed to observe the standards to which it had committed, she added.

Barrister and author of “The Law of Defamation”, John Maher BL told the conference that the Irish courts have shown that they can adapt to developments online even though the online world does pose new challenges for the common law principles of defamation.

“It’s now possible to bring an action against an anonymous person by taking an action against the service provider as a third person obliging them to provide what details as they have on the anonymous author while it’s possible to serve papers on an email address,” he said.

But Mr Maher pointed out the situation was changing and while hitherto, courts tended to the view that a website operator could not be held liable for online comment if they were not aware of it, a recent case at the European Court of Human Rights took a different view.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled last month that an Estonian website, Delfi, should have known that an article it carried on ferry operators would produce some defamatory comments and the ruling could have implications for website operators.

The ruling, which may still be appealed to the Grand Chamber, allows for damages to be paid to persons who have been defamed through anonymous postings beneath news stories and is an example of how the interpretation of the law is changing in the digital world, he said.