Standards of the Press Fox can’t be trusted to guard hens

The National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), which represents the country’s leading newspapers, has called for a press council based on the independent Swedish model rather than one based on statutory regulations being advocated by the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, who has proposed the council be comprised entirely of government nominees.

Under the NNI model, rather than statutory regulation, a Press Ombudsman and Press Council would be acknowledged in law to enable them to carry out their functions. This was one of Justice Tom Finlay's recommendations in a 1996 report on the newspaper industry.

In this climate of political sleaze it is hard to imagine a more inappropriate suggestion than advocating that politicians should govern the flow of information from newspapers to the public.

Surely, if the public have learned nothing else from the unseemly political disclosures of recent years, they should, by now, have absorbed the lesson that politicians cannot be entrusted with such a task.

According them the right to establish a press council stuffed with the type of political appointee that has so undermined the workings of various bodies, from the health boards to prison visiting committees, could permanently hobble a vital source of information to the public.

The council advocated by the Minister would not only be responsible for drawing up a code of standards for the press but also for making all decisions on alleged breaches of those standards; and it would invoke the powers of the Circuit Court to enforce its decisions.

That any Minister could suggest the government would appoint such a council is not only an exhibition of insensitivity, but also a blatant demonstration of the arrogance which Minister McDowell has been exhibiting in such abundance.

This Government has already demonstrated it cannot be trusted through its campaign of deception in the run-up to the last general election, and its obfuscation on a whole range of matters ever since.

The media has been afforded graphic warning by the manner in which the government has emasculated the Freedom of Information Act by shamelessly frustrating its purpose.

It has done this by excluding the release of material previously accessible through the legislation; and by introducing prohibitive charges, frustrating the flow of information, which is the life-blood of an informed electorate and so necessary for the proper functioning of a democracy.

The first article in the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution with which our Constitution finds much common ground guarantees no laws can be enacted to abridge the freedom of the press.

The appointment of a statutory body to oversee the functioning of the press would entail significant interference in editorial independence, as well as providing an impediment to the proper role of a free press in a democracy.

The NNI has proposed an independent press ombudsman, with the newspapers signing up to a code of press standards, supervised by the ombudsman and a press council.

This must be industry led. This system could assure quick, independent decisions at no cost to complainants. It would also clearly distinguish between defamation and press standards.

Defamation is a legal issue that would remain a matter for the courts. Press standards, on the other hand, would be a matter of journalistic ethics, which would become the remit of the press ombudsman and a proper press council, not political hacks.

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