The Press Council comes closer every day

Press Council and Ombudsman logoThis week saw the launch of the website for the Office the Press Ombdsman and Press Council of Ireland – already much discussed on this blog. [Update (3 January 2008): the website has been revamped and is now available here). All told, it is a rather elegant, user-friendly, and comprehensive website, which will, for example, make it easy for a member of the public to contact the Council with a complaint. This comes hot on the heels of last week’s advertisments seeking applications from members of the public to serve as members of the Press Council. (Hat tips to Daithí (off blog) and Michael Foley’s fine piece in Thursday’s Irish Times: Press council’s presence is long overdue (sub req’d) (see also Miriam Donohoe’s piece in the same paper the previous day); though the editorial in this week’s Southern Star (entitled Free press essential but does ‘Big Brother’ lurk in new Council?) seems to have got hold of the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the appointments process).

Prof Tom Mitchell, via the Press Council websiteThe Ombudsman and Press Council are provided for in the Defamation Bill, 2006 (Department of Justice | Oireachtas (pdf)) introduced into the Seanad on 7 July 2006. However, even though the Bill’s progress has been less than stately, the press industry announced the establishment of the Ombudsman and Council on 5 December 2006 (press release (pdf) | Irish Times) just as the Bill was about to begin its second stage in the Seanad; and they announced the appointment of Prof Tom Mitchell (pictured left; formerly: my boss, as Provost of TCD; profiled here by Shane Ross) as Chairman on 26 January 2007 (press release (pdf)) a full month before the Bill began its Committee stage in the Seanad. Now, well in advance of enactment, they are pressing ahead with establishing the Council and appointing its members.

This is all, to say the least, very heartening. The Defamation Bill – already much discussed on this blog – has, it seems, become bogged down in trench warfare in the Seanad (on which, more anon). Moreover, it now seems increasinlgy unlikely that the Bill will be enacted before the election; even if it gets out of the Seanad, there are no more than about 10 Dáil sitting days left, and a large raft of legislative proposals competing for that very limited time (including the recently-announced, monstrous Criminal Justice Bill, 2007). Even if the guillotine is wielded with all the enthusiasm of post-revoluntionary Paris, it is difficult to see everything being done, not least the Defamation Bill.

So, the press industry believes either that the Bill will nevertheless become law before the election, or – more likely – that it will be taken up by the next government (whatever its political hue) after the election. But there is a third possibility. I have long argued (most recently here) that the press industry ought to have gone ahead and established a Press Council in the aftermath of the publication of the Report of the Legal Advisory Group on Defamation in 2003 (I was a member of the Group; the Report was submitted in March 2003 and published in June 2003) without waiting for legislative cover. The pure model of self-regulation for which the industry argued strongly at that stage would not need it; and most of the world’s independent press councils not only get along quite well without it, but make that kind of independence a point of principle. It might, therefore, be that the press industry has decided to establish the Office the Press Ombdsman and Press Council of Ireland anyway, whether or not the Bill becomes law. If so, they must be applauded for doing the right thing.

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