Speech by Sean Donlon to Association of European Journalists
Speech given by Seán Donlon, Chairperson of the Press Council of Ireland, to the Association of European Journalists in Ireland on 13 October 2017
You don’t need me to tell you that the press in Ireland is threatened as it has never previously been threatened. There are two main threats viz. as is the case worldwide, the press is threatened by the social media, particularly Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube.
More than 50% of everyone in Ireland and probably a higher percentage of young people now take their news online and particularly from social media. Unlike the Irish media the social media are not subject to any regulation, voluntary or legislative. They are hoovering up the advertising revenue on which the traditional media depended and they are not employing trained journalists or editors, relying instead on non- professional news gathering and secretive algorithms. The head of journalism at Columbia University in the US has noted that “the single most controversial, influential and secretive algorithm in the world is the one that drives the Facebook news feed.”
These big tech companies like to give the impression that they are run by altruistic Californian hippies in jeans. They are, in fact, rapacious capitalists some of whom believe that their tech utopia- a place with no governments and no check on capitalism – is not only achievable but preferable for all mankind. They want “to throw out the bum politicians and replace them with engineers”. That’s a quote from a recent book by Franklin Foer entitled “World without Mind: the existential threat of big tech”.
The second threat to the press in Ireland is home grown viz. our legal system and in particular, the application of our defamation legislation. I noted with interest two recent interventions from unexpected sources. The first was from the newly appointed Chief Justice Frank Clarke who pointedly referred to the prohibitively high cost of legal action in Ireland, a cost which in defamation cases falls heavily on the press. The second intervention was from Paul Tweed, a leading libel lawyer who has called for “controls on Ireland’s cripplingly high defamation awards”. He went on to claim that “the multimillion euro sums handed out in damages are discrediting the law and threatening the very existence of newspapers and other publishers”. I’m glad he has now, however late, arrived at that conclusion.
In this jurisdiction the relevant legislation is the 2009 Defamation Act. Towards the end of last year, the Minister for Justice initiated, as required by law, a review of that Act. Along with many others, the Press Council made a submission in which we suggested, inter alia, that defamation actions should be heard in the Circuit Court where there are limits on damages. We also suggested that the role of juries in such and all cases should be curtailed. In cases where higher damages are sought, we suggested that the Commercial Division of the High Court where there are no juries should be used. Part of the background to this was the award of euro1.25 million to Monica Leech in her action against INM, an award which the European Court of Human Rights subsequently ruled “was a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression”.
In Ireland, as elsewhere, democracy needs a free press to act as a check on state and corporate power. The health of an independent press is inseparable from the state of all democratic and civil rights.
To function effectively newspapers, need a degree of financial comfort. That does not exist here today. Local newspapers are closing and the 78 that remain are not always in a position, for example, to cover the proceedings of the local councils or of the district courts in the detail that was their hallmark. While this may seem unimportant, it has emerged in London that there was almost no coverage of the local authority meetings which sanctioned the controversial renovation of the Grenfell flats, a renovation which may have contributed to the fire and huge loss of life. If local papers here are strapped for cash, the same is true of the national papers. There is clearly a decline in investigative reporting, understandable given the limited financial resources and the threat of expensive libel actions.
The message to the Government today is twofold. One, get on with the overdue review of the Defamation Act. The proposals made by the Press Council are reasonable and are in line with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights on the size of awards. The views of the Chief Justice on the matter of legal costs should also be borne in mind and remedies which have been canvassed to reduce legal costs in recent years should be taken into account. Secondly, the Government should accept and implement the recommendation of the Law Reform Commission and set up a Digital Safety Body to promote digital safety and in particular to oversee efficient take-down procedures in relation to inappropriate online material. Australia and New Zealand have such bodies and they appear to be working well.
As far as the social media are concerned, I cannot help but feel that my remarks to them will have as much effect as the Skibbereen Eagle’s warning to the Emperor of Russia in 1898. You will recall its famous editorial pointing out that “truth, liberty, justice and land for the people are the solid foundations on which the Eagle’s policy is based” and reminding the Emperor that the Eagle was keeping its eye on him to ensure that these principles were observed in Russia. Anyway here goes.
Firstly, the social media should voluntarily come together on a global basis and devise a voluntary code of practice similar to that to which most European print media subscribe. And they should support the creation of international, independent machinery to supervise the implementation of that code, again similar to the national press councils in European countries.
In summary, democracy in Ireland as elsewhere needs a free, independent and well-resourced press. There is a serious and immediate threat facing us today. Local papers are closing and those that survive are financially strapped. National papers are also in financial decline. In a profit warning in July, Independent News and Media referred to declining circulation, falling advertising revenue, poor digital growth, heavy libel costs and uncertainty from Brexit. Not all of these matters can be easily dealt with but let us at least deal with the issues that are within our own national control and deal with them without delay.