Speech by Minister Dermot Ahern TD, at launch of Annual Report 2009
Chairperson, directors and members of the Press Council, The Press Ombudsman and Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for inviting me once again to the launch of the second Annual Report of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman.
As you know, a most significant recent development was the application by the Press Council to be recognised as the "Press Council" for the purposes of the 2009 Defamation Act.
As the relevant Minister, I was required by section 44 of the Defamation Act, to be satisfied that a number of minimum requirements were met by the Council as the applicant. Foremost amongst these requirements were that:
•The Press Council must be independent,
•The Press Council must have a majority of "public interest" directors and a system for their selection and appointment,
•Funding of Press Council must be by members' subscriptions,
•The Press Council must have authority (through a Press Ombudsman or otherwise) to receive, hear and determine complaints, and
•The Press Council must adopt a code of standards.
I was pleased to inform the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights on 31 March last that I was satisfied that the application for recognition met all the requirements. The Joint Committee very much agreed with that analysis and approved the motion.
Having secured the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas, I therefore signed the Order granting such recognition on 21 April last. The making of the Order completed the process of recognition under the 2009 Act and is an important milestone for the Irish print industry.
Both the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman made it clear to me and to the Government, that formal recognition under the Act was something they were very anxious to have in place, because this would strengthen their position and their capacity to work effectively with the print media. Most importantly, formal recognition now allows the press industry to participate fully in the press complaints system without fear of legal risk.
I have expressed the hope that this recognition will act as an incentive to encourage those newspapers and publications circulating within the State which have not yet done so to become member publications of the Council. I also believe that the recognition consolidates the merit of the code of practice and will encourage and assist the maximum adherence to it by publications.
Perhaps for the education of certain sceptics, it should be remembered that the code of practice of members of the Press Council relates both to the traditional "ink stained" print version of our newspapers and magazines and to their on-line versions. Defamation law, of course, also operates in a global fashion.
The question of whether publications existing "on-line" only, either now or in the future, wish to come under the umbrella of the Press Council - and abide by its code of practice - is a matter for those publications. Nothing in the Defamation Act precludes this. Neither have I noticed any express limitation of jurisdiction in the Articles of Association of the Press Council on membership by on-line publications. Some recent commentary from media experts seems to have missed this point.
So called "social media" will no doubt continue to grow in a broader news context. It may be that by its nature it is unstructured and not easily amenable either in capacity or inclination to becoming part of the Press Council. However, we shall watch developments with interest. As I said, defamation law applies here as well.
Formal recognition of the Press Council as you know will grant qualified privilege to the decisions and reports of the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman. This strengthens and underpins the system of press regulation in Ireland which can only serve to improve the service to the general public.
I note from the figures in the 2009 Report that the total number of complaints received showed a small increase to 351 over the 2008 figure of 335. This shows that complaints are running at a rate of about one a day over the whole year and appear to have remained more or less constant over the two full years of the Press Council’s existence.
It is a matter of concern that the greatest number of complaints received by the Council come under Principle 1 of the Code of Practice concerning Truth and Accuracy. Moreover, there is also a substantial number of complaints under Principle 5 concerning Privacy and in particular about the part of Principle 5 which requires publications to show sympathy and discretion at all times in seeking and publishing information in situations of personal grief, shock or bereavement.
The concentration of complaints under these categories will, I hope, be food for thought for editors. I note that the Council held a public seminar on privacy in Cork in January 2009 and the latest edition of the Press Council Newsletter includes a useful selection of decisions to illustrate some of the issues that arise in connection with privacy.
A notable feature of 2009, compared to 2008, was that the number of complaints successfully conciliated showed a 25% increase. This underlines that the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman’s service to members of the public is a viable alternative in many cases to expensive and time-consuming legal action.
It is appropriate that strong emphasis is being placed by the Press Council and Ombudsman on resolving complaints through conciliation or mediation. Moreover, the print industry is, in general, committed to the new press complaints initiative and has provided the necessary financial backing to support its operation. This cooperation is vital to the long term success of the new Irish press complaints system.
The new complaints system is, I believe, providing a useful efficient and cost free remedy for members of the public who are affected by breaches of the Code of Practice. A most important of the requirement is that publications that are members of the Press Council have to publish in full, decisions of either the Press Ombudsman or the Press Council, which uphold complaints made under the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Periodicals.
However, we must bear in mind that an aggrieved person, as is their right, may opt to pursue the legal route to seek redress.
The new system of independent regulation of the press has now been in operation for just over two years. Like any new system it has taken time to "settle in" and for the print industry and the general public to adjust to the new régime and to understand what it does. That said, I believe that in that relatively short period of time the Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman have made great progress and this is borne out in their second Annual Report.
I believe that today - on the launch of the second Annual Report and following soon after the final legislative requirement from the passage of the Defamation Act, the recognition of the Press Council - is indeed a fitting day to pay special tribute to Professor Tom Mitchell.
Tom will shortly conclude his term as Chairperson of the Press Council. He has worked tirelessly over the past 7 years to bring about a system of independent press regulation in Ireland. He has been a calm, authoritative and informed presence in the often turbulent debate.
Tom has worked closely with a number of Ministers for Justice - more perhaps than he thought he would have to - in the process that brought about the reform of our law on defamation. He led the work of the Press Industry Steering Committee which did so much of the ground work for the Press Council.
Tom, I think you can rightly take a bow and be proud of your involvement in completing the long march.
Let me conclude, by wishing the Press Council and its new Chairperson - whom ever that will be - continued success in the years ahead.
I also wish the Press Ombudsman John Horgan continued success in his operational role.