Press Council of India and the Irish Print Media: Cooperation and Coordination

          The Minister for Justice established the legal advisory group of defamation in 2003 which recommended that the defamation laws be reformed and a statutory press council be established. Though the newspaper and magazine industry welcomed the reform, there was significant opposition to the concept of a statutory press council. Therefore, the industry came together and formed the Press Industry Steering Committee comprising of National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), Regional Newspapers Association of Ireland (RNAI), Periodical Publishers Association of Ireland (PPAI), National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Irish Editions of UK Titles. This committee had one key objective i.e. to agree a model for an independent press complaints mechanism. Their first meeting was held in January 2004 and ever since, the Press Industry Steering Committee has worked over many meetings towards agreeing a model for the establishment of an Office of Press Ombudsman and Press Council. A Code of Practice was decided upon by representatives across the industry. Breaches of this code will form the basis of complaints by the public to the Ombudsman. Over several meetings, the Press Industry Steering Committee maintained contact with the Minister of Justice and his officials to ensure the Departments’ views were taken into consideration. With the establishment of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council of Ireland, and with its objectives achieved, the Press Industry Steering Committee ceased its work in 2007. At this time, neither the Press Council nor the Press Ombudsman has any statutory or governmental recognition. The Defamation Bill in 2006 was published by the Department of Justice which was intended to overhaul the law of defamation in Ireland. This Bill which allows for the recognition of the Press Council as well as providing it with certain legal immunities has yet to become law and does not appear to be a priority for the government. The Press Council’s website points out that prior to its existence, aggrieved newspaper readers have two potential avenues opened to them: they could either write an angry letter to the editor or issue legal proceedings for defamation. While dealing with complaints, the press ombudsman will decide whether it is valid and if it breaches the industry’s Code of Practice. This code stipulates that the complaint must be made within three months of publication of the offending article and cannot relate to ‘an issue of taste or decency’. Also, no complaints can be pursued with the ombudsman if legal proceedings have been issued. Once satisfied, the ombudsman will ask the editor of the publication in question to respond to the complaint. Potential solutions include: explanation, publication of a correction or apology and a private letter from the editor. There is however no facility fro payment of damages. For example; the United Kingdom has the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) established in the early 1990s. The statistics relating to the PCC work are readily available and in 2006, they received 3,325 complaints of inaccuracy in reporting and ‘intrusion into privacy of some sort’. Like its Irish counterpart, the PCC does not have the power to levy financial penalties, although in the worst cases it can force publication of an apology or clarification. Code of Practice: It is intended to work in progress and is expected to continue evolving in light of experience and in response to changes in public opinion and perceptions. The Code of Practice was prepared by the Press Industry Committee and will form the basis for adjudications by the proposed Ombudsman and Press Council for Irish newspapers and periodicals. It comprises of elements from the code of Practice of the British Press Complaints Commission, the Statement of Principles of the Australian Press Council, and the Publishing Principles of the German Press Council. It is based on the work of Prof. Kevin Boyle & Ms Marie McGonagle and incorporates the views of the wide range of newspapers, periodicals and journalists represented on the Press Industry Steering Committee which is preparing the scheme for an Ombudsman and Press Council.The freedom to publish includes the right of a newspaper to publish what it considers to be news, without fear or favor, and the right to comment upon it. However, freedom of the press carries responsibilities and hence the members have a duty to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards which this code seeks for. In dealing with complaints, the Ombudsman and Press Council will give consideration to what they perceive to be the public interest. The principles are: Truth and Accuracy, Distinguishing Fact and Comment, Fairness and Honesty, Respect for Rights, Privacy, Protection of Source, Court Reporting, Incitement to Hatred, Children, and Publication of the Decision of the Press Ombudsman. The printing press came to Ireland in 1550 and news sheets appeared a century later. The first commercial newspaper was the Irish Intelligencer which began in 1662, and the country’s first penny newspaper, the Irish Times began in 1859. Irish newspapers are divided into two categories: the national press and the regional press. Today, roughly 460,000 newspapers are sold each day with 130,000 evening newspapers.In the 1990s, Ireland earned the nickname ‘Celtic Tiger’ for its robust economic growth in media. The largest Irish media company is Independent News and Media PLC. Although the Irish Constitution does not mention privacy per se, the Supreme Court has said, “The right to privacy is one of the fundamental personal rights of the citizen which flow from the Christian and democratic nature of the State.” Legislative measures to protect privacy include the Data Protection Act of 1988, which regulates the collection, use, storage, and disclosure of personal information that is processed electronically. Because there is no press council or ombudsman for the press in Ireland, the main way to deal with complaints about the Irish media is to go to court. Irish libel laws leave the media vulnerable to defamation lawsuits, which are common. Libel suits are hard to defend against, so the press often settles out of court rather than go through the expense of a trial and then pay the increasingly large judgments that juries award to plaintiffs. Defamation suits cost Ireland’s newspapers and broadcasters tens of millions of Euros every year. As a result, lawyers are kept on staff to advise on everything from story ideas to book manuscripts. “When in doubt, leave it out,” has become editorial wisdom. The media keeps one eye on the courtroom and the other on distributors and stores, some of which have refused to carry publications for fear that they too could be sued for libel.The truth of media reports can be hard to prove. For instance, in 2002, John Waters, a columnist for the Irish Times, sued The Sunday Times of London for an article written by gossip columnist Terry Keane. The article was about a talk that Waters had given before a performance of the Greek tragedy Medea. Keane called Waters’ talk ‘a gender-based assault,’ and added that she felt sorry for Waters’ daughter: ‘When she becomes a teenager and, I hope, believes in love, should she suffer from mood swings or any affliction of womanhood, she will be truly goosed. And better not ask Dad for tea or sympathy… or help.’ Waters said that the article tarnished his reputation as a father, and the jury agreed, awarding him 84,000 euro in damages plus court costs. This shows that journalists do not hesitate to sue for libel in Ireland.Politically, the media in Ireland is as free from government interference as it has ever been. The government has also granted the media far wider access to its records. Until recently government records in Ireland were presumed to be private and unavailable to the public. But with the Freedom of Information Act of 1997, the press, or any Irish citizen, can now make formal requests to see government records, and with very few exceptions, those requests will be granted. The Freedom of Information Act has had the effect of encouraging more investigative reporting.In 2007, John Horgan was invited to become a founding member of the new Press Council of Ireland by a panel of distinguished persons. He believed that the Irish print media industry was genuinely interested in having a truly independent forum that, while upholding the freedom of the press, would hear complaints about breaches of good journalistic standards in an open and transparent way. The code, an excellent piece of work, carefully took a middle course between the dangers of over-prescription and vagueness. The Press Ombudsman and the Press Council will have some latitude but little difficulty in interpreting and applying it.His experiences are in voluntary dispute resolution, gained over 12 years in the Labor Court and a lifelong career in industrial relations. Therefore, in the absence of any other proposals, he took the initiative in January 2007, to circulate amongst colleagues a draft set of procedures which he suggested might form the basis for a discussion as to how they might go about making decisions. One of the proposals was that all members of the Press Council would strive to reach unanimity when deciding whether or not a particular publication had breached a provision of the code of conduct. However, he also suggested that when such unanimity was not possible, those members who found themselves in the minority should be allowed to record their dissenting views along with the majority decision. This was not to be.There are precedents on both sides of the argument. The Supreme Court, for example, usually has a multiplicity of views in ordinary cases, but is prohibited from expressing them in cases where the constitutionality of a Bill is being decided. The Labor Court is prohibited by law from disclosing even the existence of minority views but the procedures of the Employment Appeals Tribunal require that minority views be recorded in its decisions. Similarly, press councils in some other countries appear to act only by consensus, but others have no difficulty in being open and frank in revealing how they reach their decisions. For example, the New Zealand Press Council in a decision in Case Number 1060: Trina Stevens against Woman’s Day, states: “A majority of the Press Council upheld the complaint, with a minority view being expressed in the dissent below.” The finding names the members in the majority, along with those who held the dissenting view.In Case Number 768: C Hall against Northland Age, involving politically incorrect jokes, the finding states openly that while the majority did not uphold the complaint, “the complaint was vigorously debated within the council and a minority view is offered by those who favored an upheld complaint, the chairman, Sir John Jeffries, Sandra Goodchild, Dinah Dolbel and Denis McLean”. This, Horgan thought, the new Irish Press Council should follow. It should be making determinations based on interpretations of the code of conduct and it be important that it builds up a body of case law on which the industry and public can rely. It should also be subject to judicial review.The new Press Council needs to establish its credibility, and it does nothing to achieve that by holding up a facade of unanimity where such may not exist. It should, above all, be the last one to suppress minority or dissenting opinions for the sake of collegiality. Articles 45 and 49 of the Human Rights Convention provide that judges in the European Court of Human Rights, when they are not unanimous, are entitled to deliver a separate opinion. Perhaps the key question is how effective the Press Council will be in the face of the most egregious examples of press misconduct. Will the victims of serious invasions of privacy really be satisfied with an apology, no matter how prominent? Advocates of the Press Council have argued that the existence of an alternative forum for resolving complaints will reduce the number of actions taken for defamation or invasion of privacy by the press. This is debatable – the UK experience suggests the contrary. The existence of the PCC has done nothing to halt the development of a rigorous, much-litigated, action for invasion of privacy in the UK courts and writs for libel continue to flow. However, the experience of the United Kingdom should not be over-emphasized. One notable aspect of Irish journalism is the manner in which it already exercises self-restraint. Admittedly, this is in part due to the fear of the libel writ, but the ‘tabloidization’ of the Irish media is a relatively new phenomenon. There has not yet been a case comparable to the Naomi Campbell Case. But if there is one thing to be learned from the UK example, it is the PCC exists, at best, as an adjunct to the traditional remedy – the writ.                                     Bibliography: Farrell, Brian. Communications and Community in Ireland. Dublin: Mercier, 1984.Horgan, John. Irish Media: A Critical History Since 1922. London: Routledge, 2001.Kelly, Mary J. and Barbara O’Connor, eds. Media Audiences in Ireland: Power and Cultural Identity. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1997.Kiberd, Damien, ed. Media in Ireland: The Search for Ethical Journalism. Dublin: Four Courts, 1999.Woodman, Kieran. Media Control in Ireland, 1923-1983. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.