a Press Council
(Article first published in Media Report, no 15, Summer 1999, with minor editing.
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of Irish Media Review)
William Hunt argues
The Case against a Press CouncilIntroduction
There is again talk of the possibility of establishing a press council, and those who find themselves
disappointed with aspects of the performance of the press, which must mean virtually everyone
outside the media, and some inside as well, could be forgiven for thinking this might be rather a good thing.
Listing press abusesCertainly, a long list of press abuses could be compiled. The media's own list would include the
aggressive and intrusive behaviour of reporters and photographers towards the family at the
centre of the C case; the publication of the Star photograph of the body of a man floating in the Liffey, and in two daily broadsheets of photographs of a murder victim in his car; the circumstances of the Sunday Tribune interview with a man about to commit suicide; the coverage of the personal affairs of some well-known personalities, and much of the coverage relating to asylum applicants. To this many would add much of the coverage of the Catholic Church.
An Irish press council with a good set of teeth would have been able to prevent some of the above abuses and have at least mitigated others. A press council can be particularly useful in matters of taste and in preventing unnecessary distress to individuals as, for example, in assuring us that we would not learn of the death of a friend or relative by seeing a photograph of his corpse on the front page of our morning paper. It would help to curb aggressive press behaviour towards those from whom information is sought. It would also, at least to an extent, serve to expand the sphere of the
private around those in public life.
What it would definitely not be able to do would be to enforce a degree of balance in the coverage
of any issue. A press council deals only with what the press does that it should not, not with what it
should do but does not.
If you felt that the press in general, or any specific newspaper, were biased in reporting on an institution, or a place, or a cultural entity, there would be no point in complaining
that the wonderful things happening in the Church, or in Limerick, or in the Irish family, were
simply being ignored in favour of the occasional, uncharacteristic disaster. The press council would,
quite properly, ultimately bin your complaint.
Fig leaf, false focus
Yet, the existence of a press council would have both a fig-leaf effect - the press would have us
believe, on the strength of it, that everything was now "under control" - and also serve as a
distraction: legitimate complaints, that were nonetheless entirely outside its limited remit, would find in the council a false focus.
Time and energy would be wasted pursuing them, resulting only in predictable but unnecessary discouragement. Furthermore, a press council would have something of the effect that our famous Tribunals are having: when an abuse was alleged the response of the newspaper concerned would likely be: let's not talk about that now, we'll deal with it at the press council.
Finally, whatever practices the council did not specifically condemn, it would implicitly
For example, aggressive pursuit of those involved in the current hot story might be condemned and, thankfully, be greatly reduced as a result; but photographs of bodies might be found to be "in the public interest" and become an increasing feature of Irish newspapers.
Reducing press freedom
And this is the downside of a press council even before considering its most negative impact: its
reduction in the freedom of the press.
If a council did anything it would do that.
Interfering with the freedom of the press is what a press council is for.
We must ask ourselves whether, in a country
that already has probably the most ferocious libel laws in the EU, further formal interference is
desirable.We can see the problem already, in the competing lists of abuses that a press council would be setToo great a cost?
up to remedy. Damien Kiberd, editor of The Sunday Business Post, who spoke strongly in favour of a robust press council at the Mater Dei media conference in February, included on his list the controversy over the relationship between Celia Larkin and Bertie Ahern. Mr. Kiberd's press
council might then allow a very large space around the newly-sacred privacy of all individuals in
respect of their own morality or their sexual orientation; mine would certainly make exceptions for those in public office who will both be charged with implementing society?s laws for regulating such behaviour and have a great influence on society's attitudes towards it; yours might make no
exceptions at all. A press council can operate, however, from only one list, and I suspect it would be more likely to be Mr. Kiberd's than either yours or mine.
A press council would assure that we would be even less well informed by newspapers anxious toavoid its criticism.
Among others, Michael Foley, journalism lecturer at DIT and media commentator, proposes that this cost is too great, and that we must simply learn to live with the errors and abuses that he feels are an inevitable result of press freedom.
I agree with Mr Foley's view that the establishment of a press council could only hamper the vital role played by a free press in our democracy, but my own feeling is that the threat of a press council may help persuade the press to do its job, and if they do, that no further artificial system of accountability will be required.
Accountability and self-coverage
The press is already accountable. In a free society the press can be accountable only to the public,
and the Irish press is accountable to us. We buy their newspapers and expose ourselves to the
messages of their advertisers, and if we disapprove strongly enough of what one of them is doing,
we will stop buying it.
If the public were sufficiently comfortable that this form of direct accountability were working, then
there would be no calls for a press council.
It is not working because the press systematically fails to inform the public about itself. The press is an immensely important public institution - and yet no comparable institution in the State receives so little, or such anodyne, press coverage.
With few exceptions - and they tend to be personality profiles or navel-gazing thought-pieces directed more at other journalists than towards the public - the press's coverage of itself tends to be confined to awards banquets.Would we feel adequately informed about our political system if the press restricted itself to covering each party's ardfheis, and half of that coverage consisted of photographs of the proud and smiling faces of politicians?In those circumstances, we would hardly know whom to vote for. As, indeed, we hardly know
which newspaper to buy.
A year too lateA noted Irish Times journalist, speaking last year at the Cleraun Media Conference, surveyed a series of unethical and incompetent reports that had appeared the previous year on the refugee issue. The most horrifying was the front-page report, attributed to "top garda sources," of a gang of "refugee rapists" terrorising inner city Dublin. There were some red faces at The Irish Times on the morning when this report appeared, since they had been completely scooped. They had not only failed to carry the story, but were completely unaware that such a series of attacks had even occurred. In the course of the day they discovered that, of course, the attacks hadn't occurred, and that the "top garda sources" for the report was an individual, low-ranking, garda who was apparently unable to substantiate any part of the published story.I recall being very much struck at the time by the fact that the particular journalist was telling this to hundreds of listeners nearly a year after the event. Why had his Irish Times not told its hundreds of thousands of readers on the day after the erroneous report was published? That many of my fellow citizens had read, and were likely to repeat to me as fact, this spurious story: this was news. It was
information that we all really ought to have had - not least the regular readers of the newspaper that
had printed the story in the first place.
This "news" could not be printed, of course, because it would have directly impugned the
professionalism of a rival newspaper and embarrassed a journalist. That would never do. The next day they might have done the same to The Irish Times, and then where would we be?
Where we would have been is, of course, right where we should be: the public would have the
information it needs to assess for itself the standards of professional ethics and the competence of the newspapers it reads.
We should not then have to consider whether a press council is needed.
Each newspaper would find for itself that commercial success - and possibly survival - depended on adhering to the highest ethical and professional standards, and that future growth could best be attained by raising those standards even higher.
We must somehow get the message to the press that if they want to avoid being handcuffed, then
they had better take their gloves off.
The foregoing article is reproduced with permission from Media Report, No 15 Summer 1999.
Permission to copy should be sought from the author, William Hunt, through Media Report, PO Box 6489, Blackrock, Co Dublin.