Leveson model a stronger system for press regulation
We Irish love when others flatter us by imitation. We have actually not been bad at designing new regulatory or public sector structures.
This week Lord Leveson flattered the Irish model of press regulation by suggesting it could work in Britain albeit if some issues were first resolved.
In 2003 a legal advisory group established by then minister Michael McDowell recommended that our defamation laws be reformed and that a statutory press council be established. There was also much talk at the time from ministers about the need for privacy legislation.
Forced to act, press owners and the National Union of Journalists set about designing an alternative system themselves. They managed to persuade the government to accept, at least on an interim basis, a press council and press ombudsman system which, while press-funded, would be independent of the press in its operation.
The 13-member Press Council includes seven independent members appointed in the public interest, five representing the interests of media owners and one representing journalists.
However, the system is also anchored in legislation. As Leveson points out on page 1,708 of his report the “broad framework” for the Irish Press Council is set out in the Defamation Act 2009 and specifies “some fairly detailed requirements for the structure, coverage and operation of the Press Council”.
In fact in Ireland the Oireachtas passes a resolution to enable the Minister for Justice to certify by regulation that the Press Council is structured and will operate within the legislative requirements. Only the Oireachtas can reverse that certification.
Having undertaken the most comprehensive examination ever of the British press and found fundamental flaws in both its culture and regulation, Lord Leveson recommends that it be regulated in a manner similar to that operating in Ireland. While he doesn’t comment directly on the merits of the Irish system, Leveson, in detailing the system he proposes for Britain, by implication identifies both the strength and weaknesses in our system.
Leveson recommends that the press owners and journalists themselves take the initiative in organising the precise detail of the regulation system, as they did here.
He argues for a new press board with a truly impartial chair independent of the press and of politics, and suggests that the chair and other members of this board be selected by an independent appointments committee. This has been the case in Ireland since the Press Council was established in 2007.
In what has proved the most controversial aspect of his report politically, Leveson recommends that while voluntary and independent, the new system in Britain should be anchored in legislation and include some means of certifying that in its make-up and operation the press board conforms with the requirements of the legislation.
The regulation system detailed by Leveson in his report differs from the Irish model in three important respects, however.
Leveson says that a minority of the press board should include “people with experience of the industry who may include former editors and senior or academic journalists” but he recommends this should not include any serving editors. In contrast the Irish Press Council currently includes a managing editor of this newspaper, the deputy editor of Independent Newspapers and a member who was managing editor of the Daily Mail until last year.
In his report Leveson notes that the Press Council here deals only with individual cases but has no power “to conduct on its own initiative investigations, and has no specific remit to tackle serious or systemic problems”.
He recommends that the proposed press board in Britain should allow people other than those directly affected to make complaints. He also recommends that the board have authority to examine issues on its own initiative.
Third, while the only sanction available to the Irish Press Council is to require errant publications to prominently publish its decisions, Leveson recommends that the press board have the power to impose fines of up to a maximum of £1 million or 1 per cent of the publication’s turnover, whichever is less.
In a statement to mark the publication of the Leveson report, the chairman of the Press Council Daithí Ó Ceallaigh, while recognising that no system of regulation could be perfect, expressed satisfaction “that the experience of the structures which had existed in Ireland since 2007” demonstrated that Ireland had “a firm foundation on which to build for the future”.
Ó Ceallaigh’s statement suggests that the Press Council recognises that although much has been achieved there is still room for improvement. It should, and no doubt will, look at the Leveson report as a road map.
While it includes basic tenets of the Irish model, the Leveson model is a stronger system. The lack of power to initiate its own inquiries, the inability to levy fines and the inclusion of serving editors are weaknesses in our Press Council.