Will the Press Council be Guardian of the Public’s Interest?

Guardian Unlimited logoAs the Defamation Bill, 2006 brings an Irish Press Council ever closer, Owen Gibson writes in today’s Media Guardian that the United Kingdom’s Press Complaints Commission is again coming under scrutiny. Last week, News of the World journalist Clive Goodman was sentenced to four months in prison for unlawfully accessing the Prince of Wales’s voicemail; and Andy Coulson, the newspaper’s editor, resigned. As Gibson writes:

many in the industry were wondering whether the repercussions would stop there or if it would prove a watershed moment for press regulation in the UK. The pressure is mounting on the Press Complaints Commission to find out whether the actions of Goodman and his private investigator accomplice, who had a six-figure annual “research” contract with the News of the World, were merely the tip of the iceberg.

More to the point, for an Irish audience, would a Press Council here be able to do anything if a similar matter were to arise in Ireland? Gibson writes that

The PCC has always argued that much of its best work goes on quietly – a few words in an editor’s ear here, a strongly worded intervention there. The Kate Middleton brouhaha was a case in point. But on this occasion, it will have to be more proactive. …

And why, ask the critics, did the PCC not do more to halt a practice now widely seen as endemic among tabloid reporters? … So could the PCC have done more to rein in the News of the World earlier? The warning signs were there in the growing concern over the methods of the “fake sheikh” Mazher Mahmood, illuminated by two recent court cases, and a steady flow of libel writs. There are those in the industry who fear that unless the PCC is given more authority and takes a more visible role, including the power to impose fines, it will hasten creeping control by the judiciary and again raise the prospect of a privacy law.

Exactly the same questions arise in the context of the current proposals for a Press Council in Ireland. It is a very important proposal, and it cannot be implemented quickly enough. However, it too will work on the same kind of moral suasion ‘word in the ear’ basis as the PCC; and it too will lack the power to impose fines. It too, therefore, will afford critics the same kind of ammunition as the PCC does.

On the other hand, in Goodman’s case, the criminal law worked; and phone-tapping is also an offence in Ireland. So, there would seem to be little for the PCC or the proposed Press Council to do in such a case. Nevertheless, it should react immediately, and in the strongest possible terms, to individual cases – as Gibson observes, the silence of the PCC in the aftermath of the Goodman case has been deafening, though he does acknowledge that the PCC is now likely to launch a wider review. This is the least it could do. Indeed, the PCC and proposed council ought to work proactively at a more general level, to ensure that the culture neither favours nor rewards such activity. In this, the PCC seems to have failed; I hope that our Press Council will learn from this, and – as a consequence – be a far more effective guardian of the public’s interest in fair and accurate reporting.