Independent ombudsman needed for a free press


SOME may say that if you want the media to talk about you, your best bet is to start talking about the media - they find any discussion of their own affairs irresistible.

And if your criticism hints at overweening power or hidden influence, so much the better. The practitioners, if not the proprietors, relish the whiff of danger. Enough to make them interesting, though not enough to attract the attention of the law or the boss.

I'm sure this wasn't what Mrs Maire Geoghegan Quinn had in mind when she wrote that surprising notice of her intention to quit politics last week. But the effect was never in doubt.

She hasn't been out of the news since Monday, when, as she later told Sean O Tuairisc in an excellent interview on TnaG, she'd listened to the first reports of her resignation with a growing sense of relief.

The shabby treatment of her son's expulsion from school, first in the Sunday Independent, then in the Star and the Daily Mirror, was probably not the sole, uncomplicated reason for her decision.

Indeed, colleagues and commentators seemed to agree that, in a career which had had its frustrations and disappointments as well as its undoubted successes, the intrusion into her family's affairs was the final straw.

But it led to the undeniable conclusion - a point well made in the TnaG interview and taken up with enthusiasm by many in public life - that it was time for the media generally and the press in particular to take stock of themselves.

The thought occurred simultaneously to several members of the Seanad, most of whom shared Mrs GeogheganQuinn's opinions, though some, predictably, went on to make more radical criticisms.

Fine Gael's Mr Tom Enright sought a debate, not only on the coverage of politicians' families but on the dumping of British newspapers in this State. (The issue is scarcely contentious - a Bill to deal with below cost selling is being prepared.)

Mr Pat Magner, of Labour, considered far more important than dumping "the dominance in the indigenous market of one group whose influence far exceeds the collective influence of members of this House".

"This group," he said, "can target a person, set him up and take him out. This is a most unhealthy state of affairs in any democracy, so it is time we debated the ownership of the Irish newspaper industry, which is concentrated unfairly in very few hands - we all know whose hands I am talking about."

AND the leader of the Seanad, Mr Maurice Manning, to whom these observations were addressed, suggested that the report of the Commission on the Newspaper Industry might provide a structure for a debate which included a discussion of privacy and journalistic ethics.

In the meantime, Mrs Geoghegan Quinn plans to return to her theme; Mrs Mary O'Rourke is preparing to question the Taoiseach; and Mr Gay Mitchell is waiting for a response to his suggestion that the Ceann Comhairle should become involved in discussions with the newspaper proprietors and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

But the issues of press freedom, privacy and diversity of opinion are far more complicated than some politicians may imagine.

And they may be taken more seriously by the public than some of the journalists who shout loudest about "the public's right to know" care to believe.

In my subjective judgment there are now four major influences on print journalism in this State which make it more difficult for journalists to play as full and free a part in public life as might be desirable.

These influences are: the laws of libel; British competition; the absence of agreed standards; and the overwhelming dominance of Independent Newspapers.

If politicians wish to take a hand then it's for them to change the laws of libel and defamation, in particular to remove the threat of heavy penalties now liable to be imposed for inadvertent breaches, entirely lacking in malicious intent.

The case for change has been made time and again, most expertly by the authorities in this area, Mr Kevin Boyle and Ms Marie McGonagle; and most recently by the Commission on the Newspaper Industry.

The commission also supported the case advanced by the National Newspapers of Ireland on the question of British competition - to which the coming legislation on below cost selling is at least a partial response.

But my concern here is with freedom of expression and the editorial rather than the commercial side of newspapers. And to judge by what journalists have had to say about Mrs Geoghegan Quinn's complaints, they hold outside competition responsible for lowering standards here.

And it's on the issue of standards that most politicians now fasten their attention - though many, and not only those on the left, seem to share Mr Magner's views about the dominance of the Independent group.

INEVITABLY, influences overlap. It's difficult to make a case for more liberal laws on libel while there is no evidence of agreed standards of professional behaviour.

It's all very well to claim diversity, but the claim wears thin when you remember that 95 per cent of the Irish papers sold here on Sundays are produced by the same group.

The newspaper commission, on which I served, took the view that the standards of Irish newspapers, when it came to respect for privacy, were generally good and seen to be good - and there was research to prove it.

I wasn't convinced then that this was so. And I'm even more sceptical now. Nor do I believe that when standards fall, this can be attributed wholly or even mainly to competition from outside.

We are capable of making our own mistakes, of being careless or cavalier with the facts - even when we're not caught by the curse of inadvertent libel.

The commission considered "the desirability of a mechanism for complaint and adjudication" and came to the eminently sensible conclusion that what we needed was not a press council along British lines but an independent press ombudsman.

This was something which did not call for action by the State but by the industry, a case of self regulation through an office established and funded by the national, regional and British news papers in consultation with the NUJ.

It would set its own guidelines, providing the entirely independent ombudsman with his or her terms of reference. The commission recommended that a committee representing the interested parties be established to get the project under way.

My own view was that the statement of principles of the Australian Press Council offered an example we might follow: "The freedom of the press to publish is the freedom of the people to be informed. This is the justification for upholding press freedom as an essential feature of a democratic society.

"This freedom, won in centuries of struggle against political and commercial interests, includes the right of a newspaper to publish what it reasonably considers to be necessary without fear or favour and the right to comment fairly upon it.

"Second, the freedom of the press is important more because of the obligation it entails towards the people than because of the rights it gives to the press. Freedom of the press carries with it an equivalent responsibility to the public. Liberty does not mean licence.

The commission reported in June of last year. As far as the industry is concerned, the rest is silence. {CORRECTION} 97012900004