The Press Council – Regulation without Risk of Change

  • 31 January 2008
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The launch of the office of the press ombudsman and the press council of Ireland at the start of January was greeted with much fanfare by the press. An Irish Times editorial called it ‘a defining moment in Irish journalism where the rights and responsibilities of the print media can be held to account by readers.' It expressed the hope that the newly adopted code of practice ‘will provide the impetus to improve journalistic standards into the future'. Unfortunately, however, such lofty aspirations are so implausible as to be actively misleading.


The problem does not lie with the newly adopted code of practice. It represents a fairly good exposition of journalistic ideals, such as that ‘newspapers and periodicals shall strive at all times for truth and accuracy.' It further stipulates that ‘comment, conjecture, rumour and unconfirmed reports shall not be reported as if they were fact' and requires that ‘the content of a publication reflects the best judgement of editors and writers and has not been inappropriately influenced by undisclosed interests.'

The problem, however, becomes clear when we try to apply these portions of the code to the actually existing media. Advertisements, which are not exempted, unarguably break the code's requirements for honesty and fairness and they certainly don't ‘strive at all times for truth'. By extension, we can cut out all the ‘advertorial' articles which often make up the entire property, motoring and other commercial supplements.

The large number of articles which are culled from press releases without attribution would be for the chop too, due to their sources being obscure. We can then move onto all those imaginary sources and invented quotes, sensationalist headlines, blatantly misleading surveys, statistical misrepresentations, inaccurate generalisations, manufactured celebrity scandals and ill-informed assertions. Although the code explicitly allows for the publishing of speculation and advocacy, columnists are subject to the same requirements for truth and accuracy as news reporters. Thus, any opinion pieces that assert incorrect facts are out too. At this stage we've eliminated the vast majority of what the press actually publishes – the remaining content of the Sunday Independent could probably fit on a single sheet. However, a rigorous application of the code which would introduce such desirable environmental and intellectual benefits is unlikely to say the least.

The crucial rule which effectively precludes any real possibility of the actually existing press coming to resemble the code of practice's utopian vision, specifies that ‘the person making the complaint must show that they have been directly affected by, and involved in the article or behaviour in question.' In practice, the vast majority of misleading and dishonest articles are such that no individual person is directly involved. For example, whenever the Mail manufactures another scare story about the health risks of mobile phone radiation or MMR, no individual is sufficiently involved to be in a position to complain, no matter how obviously misleading or dishonest the content. As the press is already particularly cautious about publishing misleading statements which directly involve named individuals – simply because they risk getting sued for libel – the code of practice is unlikely to have any discernible effect on accuracy and honesty overall.

However, the code also includes clauses which deal with privacy and children's rights. These provisions do offer something genuinely new – for while the right to privacy is enshrined in the constitution, in the absence of specific legislation, the construction of a court case to enforce it is a very complex and expensive endeavour. It is no coincidence that these measures have been introduced at a time when the government is threatening to introduce privacy legislation. However, there are again a number of reasons to suspect that they will not have a huge impact on the press in practice.

The ombudsman and press council have the power to compel newspapers to print apologies and retractions, but can levy no other sanctions on offenders. Experiences in the UK, where the Press Complaints Commission can also force papers to publish apologies, indicates that they are pretty ineffective as deterrents. Indeed, British newspapers sometimes even publish their apologies alongside much longer articles which denounce the PCC's judgement and defend their original coverage and Ireland's press ombudsman has predicted that papers here will likely follow suit. In this context, it is difficult to see what incentive there might be for ordinary people to make complaints. If you win, you get a mealy-mouthed apology but run the risk of giving an ethically challenged newspaper a grudge against you. It's not exactly the sort of thing that's going to give the public a huge amount of confidence in their ability to hold the media to account. But then again, that's not the point. The press council's success will be judged by its funders; the press industry – by its success in reducing litigation costs and in dissuading the government from passing a privacy bill. As for public opinion, in the capitalist media model, sales figures are the only public opinion that counts.