Extract from remarks by Prof. John Horgan at UCC.

Wednesday, 6th February 2008
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Extract from remarks by Professor John Horgan, Press Ombudsman, at a debate organized by the Law Society and the Journalism Society, University College, Cork
Wednesday, 6 February 2008, 8 pm

Independent regulation of the print media in Ireland is basically about managing change. In every generation the print media encounters new challenges. The challenge of the current era is that of accountability and transparency.

It is fair to say that on many occasions in the past our newspapers and periodicals have not always acquitted themselves well. But this does not mean they are unaware of their shortcomings, or that they lack the common sense to deal with them.

The new Press Council and the Offi ce of the Press Ombudsman provide tangible evidence of a desire to
change on the part of the newspapers. It is, of course, early days. Neither the Council nor the Ombudsman
has, as yet, a track record that can be held up to inspection and evaluated. But that will come, and it will, I
hope, contribute to a productive public debate about media standards when it has become an ongoing part of the public record.

Not everyone will agree with all our fi ndings. Nor would I expect them to. But it is hard to imagine any area in which public debate, argument and controversy is more valuable. The media do more than merely refl ect our world; they also help to shape it, and that is why they - and their standards – are too important to be taken for granted.

The need for change applies both to newspapers and magazines and to the people who read them. Where the print media are concerned, the past has been sometimes marked by a sort of “never apologise, never explain”, mentality. The nature of our libel laws has often been advanced as an explanation for this, but it has not always been an adequate explanation.   The public, for its part, has too frequently taken refuge in conspiracy theories, in unsubstantiated accusations of bias, and in general abuse, when what was needed was intelligent analysis and criticism, and a willingness to accept that journalists, like anyone else, can make honest mistakes.Now that there is a new mechanism for examining complaints against newspapers, there is a degree of accountability that didn’t exist before. 

But the new structures on their own are not enough. Newspapers and other publications which support the
Press Council and the Press Ombudsman can help themselves, and the general public, by being prepared to
recognise, more frequently than I think they did in the past, that many complaints have merit (although perhaps not always as much merit as the complainant believes). They should also be prepared to recognise that complaints which have some merit can often be dealt with expeditiously and civilly by agreement with the complainant on a course of action which avoids recrimination, apologies, condemnation. And that they can be resolved without expensive recourse to the profession of which so many of you no doubt hope to become well-paid members.

The Offi ce of the Ombudsman exists to facilitate precisely this sort of outcome.
But members of the public will also have to be prepared to change. Those of you who are already familiar
with our procedures will know that we ask everyone to fi rst of all make an attempt to sort out their diffi culty with the editor of the publication concerned. In the past, many complainants were unwilling to do this, fearing perhaps that the paper concerned would turn and bite them on the leg, would ridicule their complaint in public, or simply ignore it. And this did undoubtedly happen. I am often amazed at the way in which a large organisation which can generate lists of the names of the participants in an under-12 football game – all spelled correctly – can at the same time manage to mislay simple items of correspondence, or fail to remember that they ever arrived.  But that is by the way. Our requirement that complainants should fi rst of all contact editors is not just work avoidance on our part. It is based on a belief that people, as citizens and as readers and purchasers of newspapers, have a right to expect that their concerns will be taken seriously by editors. They should expect other agencies to act on their behalf only after their own reasonable efforts to get satisfaction have been unsuccessful.

In the past, they had no recourse to anything except legal action if their honest attempts to secure satisfaction failed – and legal action was not always appropriate or, even if it was appropriate, affordable. With the new structures behind them, in reserve should they be needed, readers can now be assured that their direct contact with the editors and journalists of the newspapers and periodicals they read carries more force and can be engaged in with conviction and a sense of entitlement.

Editors and journalists will know, for their part, that responding quickly, directly, honestly and fairly to
readers will engage readers’ loyalty and commitment more effectively than any giveaways or any number of focus groups. If readers’ attempts to secure satisfaction by direct negotiation fail, our structures and procedures come into play. In considering complaints we aim, in the fi rst instance, to resolve the matter as quickly and fairly as possible by a process of conciliation involving both parties. If the conciliation process is not effective, then it falls to the Ombudsman – or, in certain circumstances, the Press Council – to decide on the merits of the case.

Adjudications, which might favour either the complainant or the newspaper, will of course always be important, but they will represent only a relatively small part of our activity. The British Press Complaints commission receives over 4,000 complaints a year. Of the eligible complaints, which amount to something less than half of this total, only a couple of dozen have to go to a full adjudication in any given year. If we believe in the basic reasonableness of human beings, this should not be a surprise.

It is, after all, not before time that the profession – the fourth estate – which has in the past frequently called for better regulation and accountability of so many other professions, is now prepared to accept independent regulation for itself. This is not just because governments and critics feel that it should, but because it is the right way to go, and because it enhances its claim to be a vital part of any modern democratic society.