Press regulation sailing serenely

Ireland's press regulation system is quietly going about its business, like a submarine beneath the surface of the fractious media world, writes Angela Long


 There’s no great problems with press misbehaviour in our land, it would seem from the man who ‘polices’ it, the Press Ombudsman, John Horgan.

 Only two of 315 complaints he received last year were sufficiently intractable to go to the Press Council. Resolution of one kind or another settled most, while some complaints were found to have no substance.

 The Press Council of Ireland published its latest report on April 1. Unfortunate timing for any august tome, but this responsible document could not be mistaken for humour.

The greatest cause of complaint, according to Professor Horgan, is truth and accuracy – or rather, a lack of, in reports.

But intrusions into privacy are the second greatest irritant; that is in line with public-media relationship issues in the western world, such as in Britain, where calls are getting louder for more stringent privacy legislation. The ongoing scandal over mobile phone hacking by News of the World journalists has sharpened this. Although the hackers are using mobile technology, the fruits of their labour – where Steve Coogan is going for the weekend, or how Sienna Miller feels about a handbag – end up in print.

In Ireland, possibly because of its small size, perhaps because of a less obsessive attitude towards secrecy in the first place, privacy has not been so contentious. When the late Gerry Ryan’s marriage broke up and this was splashed across the front of the Sunday Independent, there were some squeaks of protest. Likewise, when Boyzone singer Stephen Gately died suddenly in Spain, the tenor of some coverage was tasteless and hurtful to his friends and family.

TV3’s revelation of Brian Lenihan’s cancer diagnosis was also a point of outrage for the proverbial nine days. But neither government nor public has been moved enough to pull a privacy law out of the parking lot the same Mr Lenihan drove it when he was Justice Minister in 2007.

Ireland’s Press Council is just three years old. It has no legal force but can ‘name and shame’. It only applies to print media (and their online forms), and to those which have signed up – that’s around 200 national, regional and weekly newspapers, and magazines.

Of the 315 complaints last year, Profess Horgan made decisions in only 53 cases. Of those,  a third (34%) were upheld. In about another third, he felt that the publication involved had taken appropriate action, by correcting a mistake, apologising or explaining. And about a quarter of cases were dropped or resolved through informal mediation between publisher and complainant. Some were ruled out because the publication concerned was not a member of the press council.

The two cases which were referred on to the Press Council were taken, respectively, by Maire Begg, wife of union chief David Begg, and Ryanair.

Mrs Begg complained about a piece in the Sunday Independent on the homes of senior union officials. A photograph of her house accompanied the article and the text included comments on its value, and, she said, security arrangements. The PCI decided that this was in breach of the Irish press code, in the provision about privacy. The Sindo duly published the gist of the adjudication in its issue of February 28.

Ryanair complained about an article in The Irish Times, which carried the headline ‘The subsidies that keep Ryanair profits airborne’. The ombudsman referred this one to the Press Council, he said, because it was a complex issue involving interpretation of a European Court judgment. The Council decreed that the newspaper, which had corrected the headline and had been offered opportunity to respond to the argument made before publication, had done enough to live up to correct practice.


To read the report, go to the Press Council of Ireland website, and choose Annual Report 2010.pdf