Irish government forced the country’s newspapers to regulate themselves after a very real threat in 2003 by the then justice minister, Michael McDowell, to introduce statutory regulation along with a privacy law.
After intense lobbying by the press, the government held off and, as a compromise, allowed the industry to introduce an independent press council. It was established in 2007, and a former journalist, Professor John Horgan, was appointed as ombudsman. The 2009 defamation act, which updated Ireland’s draconian libel laws, and the government’s shelving of the privacy bill was a quid pro quo for introducing the Irish press council.
The Irish press regulation system is unique in how it operates. The regulatory body, while recognised in legislation, is not a statutory regulator. Newspapers are free to sign up or not (though all national newspapers are members, as well as virtually every regional paper).
So the 2009 act does not regulate the press; it merely enshrines in law what the press itself agreed to do by setting up the press council and ombudsman’s office.
The legislation stipulates the independence of the council, from both the state and from the press, with a majority of independent members representing the public interest.
Three broad criteria for a code of practice
Membership totals 13, with seven independent members, five members representing the interests of media owners, and one member representing the interests of journalists. The chair must be an independent member. The act also lays down three broad criteria for the code of practice, namely:
(a) ethical standards and practices; (b) rules and standards intended to ensure the accuracy of reporting where a person’s reputation is likely to be affected; (c) rules and standards intended to ensure that intimidation and harassment doesn’t occur and that the privacy, integrity and dignity of a person is respected.
All British newspapers with Irish editions subscribe to the code. And Lord Justice Leveson noted that they did not appear to have any principled objections to statutory underpinning.
Most of the complaints to the ombudsman’s office are settled informally and only in a small minority of cases has the ombudsman made a ruling. Some have then been appealed to the press council; others were referred to it by the ombudsman.
Professor Horgan has said his office has had a beneficial impact since it began its work. Irish newspapers initially had some reluctance in accepting they were wrong, but after four years editors are much better at engaging with his office.
In general, Irish papers believe the system has worked well, according to the Irish Times‘s managing editor and press council member, Eoin McVey.
He told me: “There are decisions newspapers don’t always agree with, but by and large it generally seems to be working well. If anybody thinks there’s money in it, they still go to the courts. We didn’t expect it would reduce our legal bill, and it hasn’t.”
The limits to the ombudsman’s powers
The powers of the ombudsman are limited, however. The office has no power to initiate inquiries of its own volition, and can only act on receipt of a complaint. The only sanction is a finding against a newspaper, which that newspaper must publish with due prominence. The Irish press has not been involved to the same extent in breaches of journalism ethics, gross intrusions of privacy, or the scandalous law-breaking in which some UK media organisations engaged.
However Irish newspapers are not without sin, and have pushed ethical boundaries in search of an exclusive, and in some cases engaging in nefarious activities in the pursuit of a scoop.
The largest libel damages in the history of the Irish state of €1.9m (£1.6m) were awarded against Independent News and Media in 2009 after its Evening Herald title falsely claimed a PR consultant had obtained public contracts because she was having an affair with a minister.
It was the publication of topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge by the Irish Daily Star in September 2012 that prompted the current Irish justice minister, Alan Shatter, to announce his intention to revisit the idea of introducing a privacy law.
Editorials in all the major Irish newspapers criticised the idea. However, the minister was not alone in voicing concern about media intrusion. The influential barrister and newspaper columnist Noel Whelan said the public needed protection from journalists who approach bereaved relatives seeking photographs and interviews, known in newsrooms as the “death knock”.
A council that’s a perfect fit for Ireland
While Whelan’s point is valid, it is also important to note that the reportage of tragic events is, in many cases, in the public interest. Some families want to talk to the media, and have their stories told.
The justice minister may be well intentioned in his attempt to protect citizens from gross intrusions by the media, but the problem with privacy laws – particularly gagging orders – is that very often it is not ordinary citizens they protect, despite the best intentions of the legislators.
Newspapers rightly argue that it is those with the means to hire teams of expensive lawyers, and use privacy legislation to gag newspapers from reporting on issues that are legitimately in the public interest, who benefit the most.
The issue will likely rest for the moment, but the Irish government will most certainly have one eye on Westminster, and the fallout from Leveson, when deciding on future action.
What Leveson has proposed – an independent, statutory body to regulate the press with the power to launch investigations and fine offenders for breaches – is significantly more far-reaching than what is in operation in Ireland.
No system of press regulation can account for a news organisation that decides to be reckless, or wilfully break the law. Future pressures on newspapers to tighten budgets and cut corners might lead, as the former Irish Times editor Conor Brady has suggested, to “lapses, errors and tendencies toward sensationalism”.
The Irish press council is not the perfect system, but despite its shortcomings it is finely balanced, culturally sensitive and country specific. Essentially, it is an exercise in soft power and arguably the right fit for Ireland.
*After Leveson? The future for British journalism, edited by John Mair, is published by Abramis. Available at a special Media Guardian price of £15 from firstname.lastname@example.org