Horgan at Leveson – the Irish Press Ombudsman gives evidence to the UK press inquiry

Leveson logo, via the Inquiry's websiteOn Friday 13 July, Prof John Horgan, the Irish Press Ombudsman, gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on the Culture Practice and Ethics of the Press sitting in London. His written statement is here (pdf, plus exhibit (pdf)) and a full transcript of his evidence is here (pdf). His evidence concerned the workings of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman, which were established in 2007 to safeguard and promote professional and ethical standards in the Irish print media. This system had already been discussed by Dr Daithí Mac Síthigh in his evidence to Leveson last December, but Horgan was able to go into more detail about it. A good summary of his evidence, in the context of other evidence in the same module, is provided by Natalie Peck on INFORRM’s blog yesterday morning. Here are some extracts (with links: some in original, some added):

PCC chairman Lord Hunt … gave evidence to outline his proposal [pdf] for a reformed self-regulatory system … [including] a whistleblowing hotline for journalists to report on failing standards and internal governance, and an ombudsman for handling appeals of decisions made by the complaints arm of the body. …

David Thomas, of the British and Irish Ombudsman Association, discussed how an independent ombudsman could fit into a future regulator to oversee decisions on complaints and standards. He told the inquiry the individual would be able to handle issues people are unable to take to court, or chose to divert from the legal system. He said although the ombudsman would be independent from a regulator, a free flow of information on emerging industry issues would be important. Jay QC suggested that the public would automatically trust an ombudsman figure, if appointed. …

Irish Press Ombudsman Professor John Horgan … said industry endorsement is “essential” for the success of a new press regulator in the UK. He told the inquiry:

“It depends on the robustness of the measures that are put in place to ensure redress, and it depends on the whole-heartedness of the endorsement and uptake of these by the newspaper industry themselves. Those two things are absolutely essential.”

Horgan advocated the independence of the body – from the industry and government – along with clear incentives for publishers to join and the introduction of an appeals system. He added:

“[Appeals] would be valuable in any system in which people are attempting to counterbalance the necessary freedom of the press and the freedom of expression, with a system that gives people who are the object of press attention some reasonable redress.”

The Ombudsman told Lord Justice Leveson his role “demystified” the power of the press for those wanting to complain and had led to the improvement of internal complaints-handling mechanisms in newspapers. The judge has been exploring the potential for an introduction of a similar figure in a new UK regulator. On statutory underpinning, Horgan said:

“The statutory recognition of the [Irish] Press Council – and the various elements associated with that – were at first seen by some of the UK titles as being the thin end of a very big wedge in relation to statutory regulation. But all those concerned persisted really on the basis, not least of the fact that they felt that it wasn’t the thin edge of the wedge, and could argue that case as they saw it, fairly convincingly. To have a Press Council in Ireland, without the participation of those UK-based, but Irish published, newspapers would be pointless to a large degree.”

He added:

“The seismic shift that has taken place, because of the establishment of the Council and of my own Office, is that although the industry has created, with the involvement of public interest individuals, a code of practice, that that code is administered by myself and the council. So on matters such as the definition of the public interest that is not a matter for the newspapers. They may advance it in defence of something that they’ve done, but the final decision on that is taken by myself or on appeal by the Council.”

It will be interesting to see not only whether any of the Irish model finds it was into Leveson’s proposals but also whether they are implemented.