IS THERE IS NEED FOR A PRESS COUNCIL IN IRELAND AND WHAT POWER DOES IT HAVE?
The introduction of the Press Council at the start of this year was meant to be a big step towards media censorship in Ireland. Many journalists worried. Would their views be ripped apart and would their working lives become difficult with them having to give every word they wrote a second thought?
Since its introduction the Press Council received 30 complaints during their first month from members of the public and many more since but we have to ask do we really need a press council and what power does the Press Council that is currently in operation in the country really have? In finding the answers many more questions will have to be asked.
So of course the first question has to be What is the Press Council? The press council has received a lot of coverage in business papers but to a normal working person what does it mean and what power does it give us the newspaper consumer? Well in 2003 Michael McDowell Minister for Justice decided that the defamation laws be reformed and a statutory press council established. We are still waiting for the defamation laws to be changed but as of January 2008 Ireland now has a Press Council. The council which is operated by 13 members aims to “make sure that newspapers and magazines comply with an agreed set of ethical standards and behaviours” These regulations are listed in the Press Councils code of Practice and include issues such as Respect for Rights, Truth and Accuracy and Privacy. According to the Press council website any member of the public can make a complaint about the contents of all daily and Sunday newspapers, the Irish editions of UK newspapers, Irish published perdiocals and Provincial and Regional newspapers. The complaint should be made in writing indicating which code of practice has been breached and why. The complaint should also include a copy of the article in question and any correspondance that has been made between the individual and the publication in question in relation to the article. Upon receiving the complaint the Press Ombundsman will look at the details of the case and decide if it is valid. Reasons for dismissing a case may be that the “complaint relates to an issue of taste or decency”. If the complaint is valid the Press Ombusdman will act as a mediator between the individual and the media source until an agreement is made by both parties.
So why is the Press Council so important then? Well in the past it was seen as a must for an Irish Journalist to be part of National Union of Journalists (NUJ) this is no longer the case. It may look good to be part of the NUJ but it is no longer essential. With NUJ membership comes a code of conduct which all members have to sign before joining the union and must then abide by these rules in their daily life as a journalist. Without being a member of the NUJ there is no code of conduct. The Press Council has therefore set up its own code of conduct which is very similar to the NUJ code. The codes are there to protect the rights of and are in the best interest of the public. In relation to this the NUJ states “A journalist does his/her utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies”. In relation to the same matter the Press Council in its own code states “In reporting news and information, newspapers and periodicals shall strive at all times for truth and accuracy”. Both these codes are clearly very similar. The need for a code of practice be it that of the NUJ or the Press Council is essential in media regulation.
Back to the question do we really need a Press Council? Well back in 2005 it was undoubtibly said that we do. Many may remember the Liam Lawlor case where his translater Julia Kushnir was accused of being a prostitute by many Irish papers. The details of this case are not so important what matters is the reason why so many Journalists and editors felt that they could get away with saying something that was so harmful to the womans reputation without checking that it was true before going to print.
During this week in 2005 Vincent Browne wrote for The Sunday Business Post the reasons why he felt such a statement was justified by the Journalists. He said “they did in the belief that: No libel action could ensue from the defamation of a dead man”. This may be the case but the most interesting thing that Vincent Browne said was “there would be no other comeback, for there was no sanction of any kind on the media here for such gross, reckless and cruel infliction of hurt on the already grief-stricken family of Liam Lawlor”. Of course this wasn’t the view of Vincent Browne himself but the media in charge of such claims. However it still seems to be a way of justifying the wrong done in the case. As he adds later on in the article Mr Browne suggests the idea that it was all done for profit. Sure who cares if a dead mans reputation is destroyed. If it makes money then it has to be worth it.In the end this situation is a perfect example of why there should be a Press Council in Ireland.
The above is just one of so many examples that can be used to highligh the fact that we need a press council. Another is the fact that the media are allowed at the scenes of crimes, accidents and funerals. When grieving a loved one who died tragically would you really like a Journalist peeping over your shoulder with a camera? Many wouldn’t but the way things are nothing can be done to prevent this. One extreme example of media photography being taken too far was seen recently in The Star on February 25 2008. The paper showed the scene of a bus crash which killed 18 people in India. One of the pictures showed two dead bodies hanging out of the windows of the bus. The caption “Mangled: Dead bodies hang out of the bus…” Of course this wasn’t an Irish case. The incident happened in another country but there is nothing to prevent such pictures being taken and published in this country. We have to consider though if the same could happen if there was a school bus crash in Dublin and a paper published a picture of two lifeless school kids hanging out the windows of the bus. This hasn’t happened yet but there have been similar incidents in past years. Stephen Price of The Sunday Times looked at this earlier this year and found one case where a photograph of a suicide victim in the Liffey appeared in the Star back in 1998. This may have been ten years ago but nothing has changed in the way the media is regulated. In this same article Price talked to the editor of The Star Ger Colleran who summed up his newspaper’s approach: ‘As far as practical Journalism is concerned, the issue of privacy is rarely, if ever, considered”.
A final situation that has to be looked at that is in the interest of the public is the fact that other bodies in power such as doctors are censored in the work they do. Take for an example a plastic surgeon who is performing a facelift on a middle aged man. If the man face is badly scared beyond healing during the operation the doctor will come under critisism from the medical board. There will be an investigation and the situation will possibly end up in court. If a journalist comes out with the claim that the middle aged man was a paedophile when in fact he wasn’t and spread his face across the front page of the paper then there is not much that can be done. The man can sue but the paper will probably consider this as the worst case scenario. In the end even if the man received compensation his image will be ruined. His face is destroyed by the media the same way the first mans face was destroyed by the surgeon.
Of course these examples are just a few of so many which show that the country needs a Press Council. However, the way things stand right now the Press Council is not much good. Changes to the defamtion law which should have happened before the set up of the Press Council have still not happened. The result of this is that the Press Council cannot take away the power of an individual to go to his/her lawyer. The individual can choose to go to the Press Council but can still go to the lawyer after. An example of this would be where an individual feels that the paper has been defamatory. The person can go to the Press Council and use them as a mediator between themselves and the paper. They can use the Press Council to get an apology from the paper and after this can go along to their lawyer. With the apology from the paper the individual with the help of their lawyer can go to court and since the paper has already admitted it was wrong then the case will obviously be strong than without an apology. The result of this will probably be a large windfall for the individual.
So to conclude. Do we need a Press Council in Ireland? The answer to this is most certainly yes. However in reference to the power of the Press Council in Ireland there is a lot to be done before the Press Council can gain any power over the censorship of the media in Ireland.