THE PRESS Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman have been functioning successfully for more than a year, as the publication yesterday of their annual report makes clear. Intended to deal with public complaints about press practice in a way that is quick, fair and free of charge, they have built up a substantial body of investigation, conciliation and case findings without encountering any major contentious issues.
This is in good part because the model on which they are based is distinctive in the world of journalism, since it is neither exclusively statutory nor self-regulatory. Instead, as the Press Council chairman Professor Thomas Mitchell said yesterday, it is an “independent regulation that, in its operation, is free from any form of control or influence by either the State or the press industry”.
This gives the two organisations a growing legitimacy among public and participating media alike, which can now be further built upon. One obvious way this can be done is to encourage publications that are not yet involved in the Press Council to do so. On the evidence of this report the new procedures are cheaper and more effective than any recourse to law – although that option remains open to any complainant.
The Press Ombudsman Professor John Horgan emphasised another source of strength when he pointed out how critical for their work is the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Periodicals. It lays down basic principles arising from opening statements that “the freedom to publish is vital to the right of the people to be informed” and a working definition of the public interest as “a matter capable of affecting the people at large”. The code deals with truth and accuracy, fact and comment, fairness and accuracy, respect for rights, privacy, protection of source, court reporting, incitement to hatred, children and publication of Press Council and ombudsman decisions. As Professor Horgan said, editors have thereby “voluntarily applied standards to themselves which are in some respects considerably more stringent than those applied by the law of the land”.
Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern’s announcement yesterday that the Government is to proceed quickly with its promised Defamation Bill giving statutory recognition and qualified privilege to the two institutions is therefore welcome, since it will protect against expensive legal actions. But it is regrettable that he has resurrected the restrictive Privacy Bill which previous ministers indicated should not be necessary if the Press Council functions as well as this report shows.