Privacy issue tops media complaints list, study shows


NEWS REPORTING in the Irish media is virtually free of gratuitous racism, a symposium on ethics and journalism heard yesterday.

Journalist Dr Simon Bourke told the conference at Dublin City University that no complaint of racism had ever been upheld by the Press Council or Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC).

However, he noted, these bodies dealt only with single articles and there was no mechanism to deal with the long-term effects of repeatedly negative coverage.

"For example, each individual story of a fight following a Traveller funeral or the knifing of one Lithuanian by another might be scrupulously accurate and fair, but if these are the only stories we read about Travellers or Lithuanians, the long-term effect is bound to be negative."

Dr Bourke presented to yesterday's meeting his analysis of ethical controversies involving the media since 1973. Allegations of invasion of privacy emerged as the single largest issue, accounting for 71 of the 140 cases identified.

Some 36 cases involved charges of intrusion upon grief and 14 of malicious misrepresentation, distortion or fabrication. A large majority of complaints of "so-called unethical journalism" had no identifiable ethical basis, he concluded.

The most complained about news organisations were RTÉ and Independent News Media, each accounting for 27 per cent, and Associated News, with 9 per cent. The most complained about titles were RTÉ 1 television (14 per cent) and the Sunday Independent(12.5 per cent), while The Irish Timesattracted 4 per cent of complaints.

However, Dr Bourke stressed that not all complaints were upheld, adding that the number of complaints tended to rise with the listenership or readership figures.

Paul Drury, managing editor of the Irish Daily Mail, condemned the "insidious craze" for privacy legislation, which would only serve to muzzle the press and damage democracy. Mr Drury, who described himself as an "unashamed muckraker", singled out the pursuit of Charles J. Haughey, Martin Cullen and Bertie Ahern by papers he edited as intrusions that were justified in the public interest.

Séamus Dooley, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said journalists had to be prepared to apply to themselves the same standards they applied to everyone else. "If journalism is to retain credibility we need to look at our obligations to consumers."