The Kangaroo Council
The Press Council of Ireland was launched in January of this year, an event that was celebrated as a "defining moment in Irish journalism" by the Irish Times. Seven months in, however, there is very little evidence of the council's code of practice providing the predicted "impetus to improve journalistic standards into the future". By Chekov Feeney
[Pictured: Press Ombudsman John Horgan]
The first notable event in the council's short life was the resignation of independent appointee John Horgan in May. The opinion piece that he published in the Irish Times entitled “Press Council's suppression of dissenting voice forced me to quit” was the first meaningful sign of activity from the council.
Despite this inauspicious start, the council and ombudsman have started to publish a trickle of judgements on their website, the first evidence of the system in operation.
As of late July, the ombudsman had published decisions relating to 11 complaints. Five of his decisions were appealed to the press council, two of which were rejected due to there being “insufficient grounds to admit the appeal”, while in the other three cases, the council upheld the ombudsman's decision. Five of the 11 decisions related to complaints about coverage of the late Katy French submitted by her mother, two came from politicians, one was from a journalist, and three were from otherwise unknown members of the public. Both of the complaints from politicians were upheld, the complaint from a journalist was partially upheld, two minor points were conceded to the mother of Katy French, while all the rest were rejected.
On the face of it this suggests that the press council is mirroring the hierarchy of values applied by the press, a hierarchy that is one of the
many things that has helped to give journalism such a bad name amongst the great unwashed. However, given the tiny size of the sample, it is necessary to investigate the contents of the decisions in detail in order to evaluate whether there is indeed a different set of standards applied to ordinary people as there is to the great and the good.
As it happens, the first two cases heard by the ombudsman provide an excellent basis for comparison. The first complaint was taken by Tony Gregory and it related to press coverage of his illness. The second case was taken by “a woman” and it related to the publication of her name, address and photograph in relation to a case where her husband had been convicted of assaulting her. In the Gregory decision, the ombudsman concluded that although, “Gregory's illness was already public knowledge in general terms since before Christmas 2007... the test is not whether the matter complained about was of interest to the public, but whether its publication was in the public interest.” In the decision relating to “a woman”, the right to privacy or the notion of the public interest were not mentioned at all. The ombudsman concluded that: “As this information formed part of the evidence given in court in relation to the location of the assault, it was information that was on the public record, and therefore no longer private.” In other words, entirely different and directly contradictory criteria were applied in each case without any explanation as to why. The politician's complaint was upheld despite the fact that the information was “public knowledge”, “a woman's” case was rejected because the information was “on the public record”.
Other complaints by ordinary members of the public do little to change the impression of double standards. In June, a William Tate complained that articles by Irish Independent columnist Ian O'Doherty about Muslims were in breach of article 8 (incitement to hatred) of the code of practice. The ombudsman's decision was 59 words long and consisted of a sentence defending “robust commentary” followed by an assertion that “the articles ... did not cross the boundaries”. The problem is that the decision didn't even remotely address the complaint.
In order to assess whether something is likely to incite hatred towards a group, the robustness of the commentary is irrelevant. The important question is whether the information presented is true and, if not, whether the false information is likely to create hostility amongst the readers towards the targeted group. O'Doherty's articles on Muslims are generally thought-free rants, which mostly just regurgitate cheap-shots from the Internet against easy targets, but he does generally distinguish between the religion and its adherents and does make some effort to point out that not all Muslims are mad terrorists. On balance, his articles probably aren't guilty of incitement, but the point is that it's impossible to come to this conclusion without actually examining their content and, in particular, evaluating whether the stuff he says is true or not. Meanwhile, another Independent columnist, Kevin Myers, has also found himself the subject of complaints about incitement to hatred. The differences being that these complaints were made to the police, and Myers's ‘robust' articles are littered with sweeping and unflattering assertions about the groups that he targets that are demonstrably untrue. For example, his recent article entitled: “Africa is giving nothing to anyone — apart from AIDS” contained a long list of untrue and derogatory statements about Africa, including the sentence “almost an entire continent of sexually hyperactive indigents”. His articles are guaranteed to promote hostility amongst anybody who is foolish enough to believe him. Nevertheless, Ireland's incitement to hatred legislation is so weak, it is unlikely that the law will prove more effective at disciplining Myers. The demonisation and slandering of powerless groups remains a standard means of drumming up interest amongst the public and curtailing it would interfere with the most fundamental right of all — the right to make a profit.