25 May 2017 - Maldron Hotel, Pearse Street, Dublin 2
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I'm pleased to be here today to launch the 2016 Annual Report of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman.
I’d like to thank the Chairman of the Press Council, Seán Donlon and the Press Ombudsman, Peter Feeney, for inviting me. I’d like to acknowledge the work which members of the Press Council and the Code Committee conducted over the course of the year and the significant work too of the Press Ombudsman and his staff.
Looking back at the establishment of the Office
The Council and Ombudsman might not have been established in January 2008 had Michael McDowell, the then Minister for Justice, not threatened to introduce legislation on the protection of privacy.
The industry, which has always been quick to react to any possible curtailment of press freedom, or right to freedom of expression, was of the view that statutory regulation of the press was a step too far.
The alternative to direct statutory regulation is of course self-regulation. At the time public confidence in self-regulation had diminished.
One of the country’s most distinguished public servants, Professor Tom Mitchell of Trinity College served as the Press Council’s first Chairman. Writing in the first Annual Report of the Council Professor Mitchell wrote:
“The Irish model has sought to find a third way that would be neither statutory nor self-regulatory.”
At the time, a Press Council wasn’t provided for in legislation, but such a body was recognised in the 2009 Defamation Act, which set out the minimum requirements and principle objectives of a Press Council and Press Ombudsman.
This provided the “third way” which Professor Mitchell referred to.
Providing a means of redress
The importance of a free press in a democratic society is fundamental.
Today, in often difficult circumstances all those of you involved in this work, must strike the right balance between the public-interest aspect in freedom of expression, and preventing unwarranted intrusion into the rights of individual citizens.
You are guided throughout this work by the extensive, voluntary Code of Practice, set out in your Report. It's a Code that aims to set and guarantee the highest standards of ethics and professionalism in newspapers and magazines in Ireland. Crucially, you work to make sure that good policy becomes and remains good practice.
The importance of independence and impartiality when handling complaints is key. In the UK its Press Complaints Commission closed three years ago because of a perceived loss of confidence in its independence and its effectiveness due to a dominance of the press.
The Press Council in Ireland and the Press Ombudsman have managed to maintain their independence, and ensure their effectiveness. At this stage I’d like to recognise the buy-in from the newspaper editors and journalists, which allows for a smooth and speedy resolution of complaints.
On average, the Press Ombudsman receives around 350 complaints every year (over 3,300 in total since its establishment). Considering the number of column inches and extent of journalistic activity in Ireland combined with our national fascination with what makes the papers I would say this is a relatively modest number. This is good news for the reader and of course the Press itself.
Ensuring Freedom of Expression and Professional Standards
Our media write a lot about standards in public service. But our journalists themselves can provide an invaluable service to the public.
I’d particularly like to recognise here this morning the pro-active work which the Press Council has undertaken in relation to the reporting of suicide.
Suicide sadly is something that we are too familiar with in Ireland. Your leadership on this issue is commendable. By ensuring that suicide reporting is carried out in compliance with the Code of Practice and supports identified in articles where people may be affected by the subject is a leading example of journalistic public service.
Privacy and Dignity of the Individual
Since the establishment of the Press Council and Press Ombudsman and the reform of the Defamation Act, concern regarding the breaches of individual privacy by the Press is no longer a live issue. This concern has migrated to online platforms, which are of deep concern to me and I know this concern is shared by the Council, the Ombudsman and the industry as well. I am currently looking at establishing an Office of a Digital Safety Commissioner as recommended by the Law Reform Commission. I am in discussions with Cabinet colleagues on this issue as well as the social media platforms themselves.
Levels of trust in traditional media are increasing across Europe as people question the truth behind what they read online.
According to the latest ‘Trust in Media 2017’ report released this week, people’s trust in the internet and social networks is at an all-time low.
The study from European Commission measures EU citizens’ perception of the trustworthiness across different types of media.1,000 people in 33 countries were surveyed for the report which found that broadcast media remains the most trusted media throughout Europe, closely followed by television.
Finding an acceptable way in which to regulate online platforms is a huge challenge. I raised the issue of fake news long before it became a subject of the US Presidential election. There is no legislative way to prevent ‘fake news’. Investment in quality journalism, I believe, is the only way.
I recently secured Cabinet approval to amend the Broadcasting Act 2009. Part of the Amendments will provide for the introduction of a bursary for young local journalists working in independent and community radio stations. At its core is to promote good journalism at that level.
It is reasonable to hope that such a scheme would also benefit the local newspaper sector. At its heart, its aim is to encourage local investigative reporting based on best journalistic practices.
You may be aware of the negotiations taking place on the revision of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, which for the first time will introduce requirements for Video Sharing Platforms to take appropriate measures against hate speech and to protect minors from harm.
As part of these discussions, the issue of convergence has loomed large. The question has been asked whether the answer is to treat all media the same and regulate them in the same way – this would shift away from regulation based on services, to regulation based on content.
I do not think that this would be appropriate at this time, and the reason for this is that we have bodies such as the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman in place that are ensuring that the Press is regulated effectively.
Ensuring the provision of content
Finance is obviously central to all media. I am aware of the threats which are facing the press industry just as keenly as I am aware of the threats which are facing broadcasters, whether they are public service, independent or community.
As you are probably aware, I have asked the Joint Oireachtas Committee to look at the future funding of Public Service Broadcasting, and to consider the wider questions such as whether our current definition of public service media will be fit for purpose in five or ten years’ time.
Review of Defamation Act
I know that, like my own Department, the Press Council and Ombudsman and indeed many of its members have fed into the current review of the Defamation Act. The Tánaiste has prioritised the review, and I am confident it will produce a régime which is fair to all parties.
I’d like to thank you for your invitation to speak to you today, and to officially launch the 2016 Annual Report of the Press Council of Ireland and Office of the Press Ombudsman.