Address by Chairman at official launch of Press Council

Wednesday, 9th January 2008
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It is my pleasure to welcome you to this special occasion to mark the commencement during the past week of the full operation of the Press Council and Office of Press Ombudsman.

I especially want to welcome Minister Lenihan. We greatly appreciate his presence.
The Irish public now has available to it a new procedure for dealing with complaints against the print media that is independent, accessible, simple, quick and free. I believe this is a significant development and a good news story. It is right and indeed necessary in today’s world, that members of the public, when aggrieved by what they read in the papers should have access to a more straightforward and less forbidding mode of redress than the courts.

It has taken a long time to get us this far, but the issues surrounding freedom of the press and press regulation are not simple. There is general recognition throughout the free world, well supported by judgments of the courts, that a vigorous free Press is a vital bulwark of a healthy democracy. It remains the indispensable means of keeping the public informed and holding rulers accountable, and is the surest way of maintaining what Wolfe Tone famously called a jealous vigilance of freedom, which he considered essential in any republic. But there is also a general recognition that press freedom cannot be absolute and that it should be subject to an appropriate form of regulation.

But that raises the famous question first asked by Juvenal almost 2000 years ago. Quis enim custodiet custodies? Who will watch the watchers? I think it is fair to say that the watched should not regulate the watchers, and neither should the watchers regulate themselves. So neither the State nor the industry can be seen as ideal regulators of the Press.

These were the issues that had to be addressed by the Steering Committee set up by the industry in 2004 to devise a model for a Press Council, which I had the privilege to Chair. It did its homework carefully, drew on a range of expert advice, looked at a variety of international models and consulted regularly with the Department of Justice and the then Minister - Michael McDowell - to ensure adequate input from the state. The Committee’s goal was to produce a model that would be workable, strongly independent, and with the authority to be effective and command public confidence.

Particular efforts were made to ensure the Press Council would be independent to the greatest degree possible of both the State and the industry, while retaining the cooperation and goodwill of both. The model reflects these efforts.    

The Press Council has been constituted as an independent company. It has an Ombudsman, who will be the first port of call for complaints, who is appointed by the Council, reports only to the Council and is free of any dependence on or control by the industry. The Council itself has an independent majority, an independent Chairman and six other independent members appointed by a distinguished, independent Appointments Committee. The Council also has six prominent members drawn from the media world, whose appointment was also approved by the Appointments Committee, and who bring expert knowledge of the workings of the Press and who will add balance and acceptability to the Council and its decisions.

It is in many ways a unique model and represents an innovative third way, avoiding the potential dangers to the freedom of the Press inherent in any form of statutory regulation and also avoiding the taint of conflict of interest inherent in voluntary or self-regulation.

The Press Council and its Office of Press Ombudsman will draw its authority from many sources, first of all from its independence, from the ability and standing of its members and from the distinction of its Ombudsman. But its authority will also be strengthened by the fact that it undertakes its work with the support of all the print media organisations, who have accepted a carefully formulated Code of Practice, built around best practice throughout the free world, and have committed themselves to observing its provisions. The Council and its Code also has the support of the NUJ, and it is our intention as well to invite all independent publishers of newspapers and periodicals to become members of the Press Council and support its work.

Furthermore, the model for the Council was developed in a constructive dialogue with the Department of Justice and Minister McDowell, and it is anticipated that the Defamation Bill, which has been helpfully reintroduced by Minister Lenihan, will bring the Press Council recognition in law and will significantly expedite its operations.

The Council will not derive its authority from any quasi-judicial powers to impose penalties such as fines. Its approach to its task will be cooperative and consensual rather than adversarial.

One of the most important aspects of its work will be to highlight the importance to society of a free Press committed to its task of reporting and keeping watch in the public interest, and we will seek to work in cooperation with the media to maintain the traditional high standards of Irish journalism and to have its support in remedying mistakes and combating bad practice. Those who violate the Code or fail to take corrective action when transgressions occur will be exposed, and will face the damage to their professional standing and credibility. But it is our hope that, when the Ombudsman or Council makes such judgments, they will have the backing of the industry as a whole.

We also plan to work cooperatively to develop further the Code of Practice and to evolve agreed guidelines in areas of special concern to the public. The Minister recently mentioned one of these, the sensitive area of funerals and bereavement.

In the final analysis, the Council and the Press have a common objective, a high quality free press that provides a valued public service and enjoys the confidence and support of the public.

High standards will always be the best protector of the place and freedom of the Press. The Press Council and Press Ombudsman will be working hard to try to enhance both.