It was a long time coming, but after debates going back to the 1970s, Ireland has finally joined the rest of Europe and has established a press council, which opened for business in January.
The new press ombudsman, Professor John Horgan, and the 13-person press council opened their city centre premises in Dublin following a launch addressed by Minister for Justice Brian Lenihan. At the launch, the minister announced that privacy legislation, which has been approved by the cabinet, would be parked, “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.”
He continued: “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.”
Two questions arise: why did it take so long? And why the threat from the minister?
The debate about press standards in Ireland began more or less with the publication of the Sunday World, the first Irish tabloid newspaper, in the early 1970s. But concerns did not really escalate in earnest until the 1990s. This was due to a combination of high awards in libel cases and the publication of a report from the Law Reform Commission recommending radical reforms of Irish defamation law, which had not been touched since the early 1960s.
That report, published in 1991, became the basis of a campaign by the proprietors’ organisation, the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) sometimes in conjunction with an uneasy partner, the National Union of Journalists.
NNI offered a press council, more or less based on the British model, the Press Complaints Commission, as a quid pro quo for libel reform. NNI even preoared a draft defamation bill that was launched with some fanfare, but, unsurprisingly, ignored by members of the Dáil (Irish parliament).
The NNI maintained throughout the 1990s that because of the “draconian” libel laws, it was impossible to establish a press council, as it could mean newspaper editors were admitting legal liability if they apologised. No reform of libel, no regulatory system.
Meanwhile, from the mid-1990s, the British press, especially the tabloids, were making inroads to the Irish market. The booming Irish economy and the decline of sales in the UK made the Irish market increasingly attractive, and so Irish readers were invited to buy the “Irish” Sun, “Irish” Mirror and more recently the Daily Mail Irish edition, complete with “Irish” in green between “Daily” and “Mail”. The Sunday Times also targeted the Irish market.
They brought a different newspaper culture to Ireland. This was not always a bad thing; there is little doubt the media could be somewhat deferential, which could also be interpreted as a societal norm, reflecting the fact of Ireland being a small society. However, there were stories after stories where journalists working for “Irish” editions pushed the envelope; they asked the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) about his marriage break down, and published accounts of celebrities’ marriage infidelities. There were also increasing examples of the indigenous press beginning to follow the lead given by British tabloids. Stories that had circulated as gossip or rumour were now appearing in newspapers. The private lives of politicians and public figures were considered fair game.
Meanwhile, as Ireland changed, and as the media investigated corruption and scandals, either in public life or in institutions such as the Catholic church, calls for public accountability were eventually extended to the newspapers themselves.
And then there was Michael McDowell, former justice minister, a man who mixed right wing views on the economy with liberal views of some social issues. He established a committee that recommended reform of libel and a statutory press council. Following uproar from the media, McDowell said he had no intention of establishing a statutory press council, but an independent council, recognised in law, with legal protections to do its job.
So the media got down to working out what the council would look like, and McDowell prepared his legislation.
The industry hit a number of obstacles. The British press in Ireland were against any press council, but were more or less forced to accept or face a PR disaster. Also, they were not enamoured with having to work alongside the NUJ. The NUJ favoured the sort of ombudsman model found in a number of Scandinavian countries. The proprietors preferred the British model. The result has been a mix of the two. The Press Council of Ireland has six members from the industry, including a representative of the NUJ, and seven representing civil society. The ombudsman is a former professor of journalism, who was also a highly respected journalist and politician.
McDowell found many of his cabinet colleagues were against any changes in libel that might be beneficial to the press and insisted that any reforms of defamation be accompanied by privacy legislation. McDowell did not favour this, suggesting the press council be allowed to operate with the reformed libel laws and that privacy be held back.
The industry went ahead with the establishment of the press council and ombudsman, but when the legislation arrived in the upper house of the parliament it faced a filibuster. It fell when a general election was called in May 2007.
Ironically, the industry has now established a press council without the changes in libel it claimed were so necessary. The new justice minister has promised to reintroduce McDowell’s legislation and also to park the privacy bill. We wait to see how quickly it can progress through parliament.
Protecting press freedom is not something that comes naturally to Irish politicians, and this government has a particularly poor record, especially when one sees what they did to the Irish Freedom of Information Act, which was amended in such a way as to offer little scope for journalists and a lot of protection for government. And now, of course, it is seeking privacy legislation, despite existing constitutional protections of privacy. The pressure is now on the new council and the industry to make the regulatory regime work because as Brian Lenihan warned at the launch: “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.”
Michael Foley is a lecturer in journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology and a former media correspondent of the Irish Times