Address by Minister Lenihan at Official Launch of Press Council

Wednesday, 9th January 2008
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Members of the Press Council, Press Ombudsman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me here today to the official launch of the Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman.

It is a great privilege to be associated with this significant development which, like the reform of our defamation laws, has been long in the making, but is very much welcome.

Of course, the launch is the easy part: all the hard work on the setting up of the Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman had been done by the time I became Minister and I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor Michael McDowell whose great energy and considerable intellectual talents made an enormous
contribution on behalf of the government to this major reform in the operation of the media in Ireland.

I am also aware that it was no easy task to reach agreement among all the elements of the media industry to the code of conduct and this complaints mechanism.   Credit for this considerable achievement is due to the Irish Press Industry Steering Committee which brought together the representatives of the national and regional newspapers, as well as the UK newspapers with Irish editions and the periodical publishers. The Steering Committee, under the Chairmanship of Professor  Tom Mitchell, now of course, Chairman of the Press Council, devoted much effort over the past 4 years or so to bringing the concept of self-regulation of the press to fruition and I congratulate them on their success here today.

As a result of their efforts, I know that the print industry is now very committed to the new press complaints initiative and has underpinned this commitment by providing the necessary financial backing to support it.

The Government will play its part: as some of you here will be aware, shortly after my appointment as Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform, I undertook a short, focussed consultation on the Defamation and Privacy Bills that had been published by the last Government. Arising from that review, the Government  accepted my proposal to park the Privacy Bill in order to allow the Press Council the opportunity to prove its effectiveness in defending the right to privacy from unwarranted intrusion by the media.

I don’t think I am breaching any state secrets when I tell you that not all my colleagues had boundless enthusiasm for this approach. I would not for a moment dismiss their reservations and indeed concern about media intrusion is not exclusive to those of us involved in politics. Members of the public are also concerned about this tendency and I am bound to make it clear to you that if the media fails to show respect for the right to privacy as specified in its own Code of Practice, the Government will have no choice but to proceed with its privacy legislation.

I am keen to move ahead with the early enactment of the Defamation Bill and to bed down the much needed and long recommended reform of our libel laws. This Bill which will underpin the activities of the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman, removes the liability previously associated with an apology. This change will strengthen the hand of the Press Ombudsman and the Council in dealing with complaints against journalists and editors.

Membership of the Press Council and adherence to its code of practice will also strengthen the entitlement in a defamation action to the defence of fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest, which is a new defence in the Bill. The defence essentially codifies in statute the jurisprudence developed over the past number of years by both the Irish and UK courts in this area. This is an important development in terms of the ability of the media to investigate and report matters of public interest. But I would point out that this is not an easy defence to plead and is not for use in trivial circumstances.

The Defamation Bill completed Seanad Committee stage last month and I expect Report Stage to be taken early in the next session. The debate was my first opportunity as Minister to get the views of Senators on the subject of libel law reform and I have to say I was struck by the hesitancy and in some cases down right
resistance of members on all sides of the House to this reform. The fact is that politicians of all persuasions and, I would suggest, many outside of politics as well, are very wary of the power of the media and the manner in which it is exercised. I was interested to hear the Press Ombudsman say in his contribution that journalists and editors may not always be aware of the extent of their power.

Let me assure you that others are acutely aware of the power and influence of the media and that is why it is essential that the new arrangements for accountability get off to a good start and gain the confidence of the public.

The world of journalism, as so many other areas of public life, must be open to public scrutiny. It is essential that people have recourse to retraction and redress not just for inaccuracies but also for the manner in which journalists conduct their business and glean their information. The Code of Ethics sets out clear guidelines and they must be observed if these new arrangements are to work. The determinations of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council must have the full and unequivocal support of publishers, editors and journalists. And, if I may say so, those who make complaints, whether they are public figures or not, should feel free to do so without fear of being singled out for further media attack.

I know that in the world of politics there is a widely held belief that you should never attack or criticise the media because they will reap their own revenge.  Any perception that there is such an unhealthy and unscrupulous use of power by the media would be detrimental to the high calling of the fourth estate to hold the rest of us to account and would ultimately be damaging to democracy.

But today is a good day for the media and for democracy. There is now in place, for the first time in this country, an agreed Code of Practice which reiterates the importance of the freedom of the press and also urges journalists to be fair, accurate, and truthful and to respect the right of all individuals, including public figures to a private life.  That is a major breakthrough and I know that getting all the elements of the print media in Ireland to sign up to that code agreement was very challenging.

Freedom of the press is essential to our democracy but it cannot be unfettered and equally essential to our democracy is an effective system of press regulation. There has been much comment in the media recently about the perceived ills of self regulation. Notwithstanding the independence of the Press Council and its Chairman and the eminence of the Press Ombudsman,the model of accountability we are launching here today is, by any regulatory standards, on the light side of the scale. Essentially, the Press Council will be relying on its moral authority and I do not mean in any way to slight that authority. But, be warned: there are many sceptics out there. You would do well to prove them wrong at an early date.

There is a lot at stake but I am optimistic that this new initiative together with the provisions of the Defamation Bill, will signal a new era in the operation of the press in this country. I am also hopeful that the traditional high standards of Irish journalism will hold firm in the new globalised media market.

Let me once again congratulate the members of the inaugural Press Council, the Chairman Professor Tom Mitchell and the Press Ombudsman, John Horgan, at the official commencement of this historic endeavour. I wish you all well and every success in your important work.