Category: Press Council

There’s an adjective for #Gryzzl on “Parks and Recreation” – it’s dysagurian

Gryzzl HQThe mockumentary-style tv comedy series Parks and Recreation, according to Wikipedia, is “an American comedy on the NBC television network, starring Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, a perky, mid-level bureaucrat in the parks department of Pawnee, a fictional town in Indiana”. According to IMDB, the series relates the “absurd antics of an Indiana town’s public officials as they pursue sundry projects to make their city a better place”. In Ireland, at least one season has been shown RTÉ Two; and in the UK, three seasons have been shown on BBC4. Alert: so, for Irish and UK readers of the blog who are fans of the show (and the Daily Edge recently gave 7 reasons why we should be), the remainder of this post is a great big spoiler.

At the end of series 6, Pawnee thinks they’ve struck gold when Gryzzl, an internet company marketing itself as “the cloud for your cloud”, sets up in town. But, in the farewell series 7, all is not well between Leslie and Gryzzl.


I will always know what you did last Summer, Mr Cowen

Mail apology to Cowen, via @davidcochraneThe image is a thumbnail of an apology printed in yesterday’s Irish Mail on Sunday; click through for a full-size twitpic by David Cochrane. It is headed “Brian Cowen”, and it consists of four paragraph. The first paragraph (which consists of a single sentence) begins by referring to their story (update: which is no longer available at this link) of Cowen’s attendance at the Executive Education Programme at Stanford University which has been the subject of two earlier posts (here and here) on this blog, speculating as to the strength of Cowen’s possible complaint to the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman that article invaded his privacy. The Sunday Independent yesterday reported that Cowen’s complaint had indeed been submitted, that it had drawn a robust response from the Irish Mail on Sunday, and that it was being considered by the Press Ombudsman. Where appropriate, the Ombudsman seeks to mediate a resolution to a complaint, and, if the Sunday Independent is right that the matter was before the Ombudsman last week, then this apology may very well be the product of such a mediation process.

The second paragraph in the apology (which also consists of a single sentence) says that Cowen has made it clear that he paid for the course entirely out of his own resources. The original article had said that “Stanford had hosted 60 chief executives from Irish IT and life science companies under the Enterprise Ireland leadership for growth programme, all subsidised by the Irish taxpayer”. This, of course, led to speculation about whether EI were funding Cowen’s course, and although it was quickly made clear that he was funding the course himself, the implication must clearly have rankled with Cowen. However, any complaint about this aspect of the Mail’s article is one as to the accuracy of the piece, rather than as to whether it had invaded Cowen’s privacy.

The third paragraph in the apology consists of two sentences, one of which says that the report was illustrated with a photograph of Cowen at a lecture, and the other of which says that Cowen had attended the course in a private capacity. Unlike in the previous paragraph, the issues in this paragraph are indeed related to privacy, and formed the basis of the discussion between Jonathan McCully and myself. I was strongly of the view that Cowen is still a public figure, that this course built on his time as a public figure with a view to his possible return to public life, and that the public interest justified publication not only of the story but also of the accompanying photographs. Jonathan equally strongly took the other line, that Cowen no longer holds public office or follows a public career, that the photographs of Cowen on a private campus, at lunch, and in class, were essentially of a private nature, and that there was no public interest in publishing either the article or the photographs. Nevertheless, whilst I think it interesting that the apology only refers to one of the photographs, rather than to all of them, given that the Mail has published an apology, Jonathan’s analysis must have been closer to the mark.

The fourth paragraph, which also consists of a single sentence, provides

We apologise to Mr Cowen for this publication.

The apology does not seem to be available online, but the original story (without any correction or apology) still is has been deleted. It seems that, despite the apology, I will always know what you did last Summer, Mr Cowen, but there are now question-marks over just how much of what I know invaded your privacy.

I still know what you did last Summer, Mr Cowen

Photo of Artwork at StanfordThis image, by Corey Seeman on Flickr, is the Monument to your Future Collaborators, on the pavement outside the Knight Management Center in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, where Brian Cowen attended the Executive Education Programme last Summer. Cowen probably walked past it, if not over it, several times. But he now says that his attendance at that course was a private matter, and it seems he intends to complain to the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman that newspaper articles about it invaded his privacy. In my earlier post, I know what you did last Summer, Mr Cowen (also here), I was not very sanguine about his chances. However, on his recently-started media law blog, MediaBelf, Jonathan McCully has taken me to task on this. In his post The Prime Minister who went to America to learn how to be a leader (also here) he makes a compelling case the other way.

One of his key points is that Cowen is no longer a public figure: “It is difficult to connect information relating to Mr. Cowen’s college activities, such as eating lunch and attending lectures, with the validity of what he had done in public office”. From that, it would follow that he is therefore entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy as he goes about his life after front-line politics, and that, whilst the public may be interested in Cowen’s college activities, there is little public interest in media coverage of his lunch and lectures. This invites two responses. The narrow one is that Cowen was pursuing a leadership course, which he himself accepted had the potential to lead to his return to the public eye, which would bring the matter squarely within the category of the public interest.


I know what you did last Summer, Mr Cowen

Press Council and Ombudsman logoI know what you did last Summer, Mr Cowen, and in fact we all know what you did last Summer, Mr Cowen, because the the Irish Mail on Sunday reported on your enrollment in the Executive Education Programme at Stanford University in California. However, it is now clear that you would prefer that we didn’t know, that you consider that the Mail‘s coverage infringed your right to privacy, and that you intend to complain about this to the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman. I’m glad you are looking to pursue this matter before the Ombudsman and Council and not in the courts, but I do not think that your complaint is likely to be upheld. I know what you did last Summer, Mr Cowen. Indeed, as you are a public figure, I am entitled to know what you did last Summer, Mr Cowen.

The Office of the Press Ombudsman ensures that members of the public have access to an independent, quick fair and free mechanism for complaints of breaches of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines. If Prof John Horgan, the Ombudsman, considers that a complaint is valid, he reeks to resolve the matter by conciliation. If this is not possible, then he will make a decision, which can be appealed to the Press Council of Ireland. Principle 5 of the Code of Practice provides that, on the one hand, the private and family life, home and correspondence of everyone must be respected (5.1), but that, on the other hand, the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record or in the public interest (5.2); the principle acknowledges that public persons are entitled to privacy (5.4) but it empahsises that

… where a person holds public office, deals with public affairs, follows a public career, or has sought or obtained publicity for his activities, publication of relevant details of his private life and circumstances may be justifiable where the information revealed relates to the validity of the persons conduct, the credibility of his public statements, the value of his publicly expressed views or is otherwise in the public interest.

'John Hennessy and Brian Cowen, via TCD
President of Stanford University Dr John L Hennessy, and then-Taoiseach Brian Cowen, in TCD in 2010

According to this morning’s Sunday Independent, former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen (pictured far right) is to make a complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman that his right to privacy was unjustifiably infringed by newspaper coverage of his time in Stanford last Summer. Of course, when the Sunday Independent sought a comment from Mr Cowen about this development, the traditional “source close to Mr Cowen” last week gave the even more traditional reply: “No comment”. Unsurprisingly, the Sunday Independent considers it “likely” that the Mail‘s publishers “will robustly defend any complaint taken by Mr Cowen on the grounds of public interest”. A decision by the Press Council on this matter is likely to clarify exactly how the Council understands the public interest in the context of politicians. Although Mr Cowen has at present stepped back from front line public life, as a former Taoiseach, he is still a public figure – indeed, he undertook the course in preparation for a possible return to the law or to political life. As a consequence, I would not be sanguine about the former Taoiseach’s chances of success.

Coverage last Summer included the publication of several photographs of a casually dressed Mr Cowen in Stanford (in class, at lunch, and strolling around campus). Principle 5 of the Code specifically covers photographs as follows:

5.5 Taking photographs of individuals in private places without their consent is not acceptable, unless justified by the public interest.

Since Stanford is a private university, it may seem that publication of those photographs is a breach of principle 5.5. But that would be too mechanical an interpretation of a private place. For example, Cowen was regularly photographed as Minister and Taoiseach attending sporting events. Strictly, the stadia in which such events occur are private property, but could not sensibly be described as private places. Similarly, although Stanford’s campus is private property, in my view it cannot sensibly be described as a private place. The same is probably true of the lunch restaurant, but photographs from the classroom are closer to the difficult borderline. But even if the classroom photographs are on the wrong side of the line and constitute an infringement of privacy, if publication of the story is justified as in the public interest, then publication of the classroom photographs would also very likely be justified by the public interest.

Finally, it may be that he intends to complain that some of the Mail‘s reporting was not so much an invasion of privacy as misleading in significant respects. If so, then this is a breach of Principle 1 of the Code, which requires that newspapers strive at all times for truth and accuracy in their reporting (1.1). Crucially, unlike principle 5, there is no public interest justification for a breach of principle 1.

The Ombudsman and Press Council were set up by the print media and recognised by the Minister for Justice under the Defamation Act, 2009 (also here) to provide a means of resolving disputes without recourse to the courts. I’m delighted to see such a prominent figure choosing to deal with the matter in this way, and I look forward to the outcome of the case.

#Cameron to #Leveson: LOL

Cameron & LevesonOne of the most entertaining pieces of evidence that Lord Justice Leveson heard during his inquiry’s hearings into the culture, practice and ethics of the press concerned UK Prime Minister David Cameron‘s understanding of the popular sms abbreviation LOL. He had thought it stood for “lots of love“, and had used it to sign off his texts to Rebekah Brooks (sometime Editor of the News of the World, and the Sun, and CEO of News International), until he discovered that it in fact stands for “laugh out loud” (see transcript for 11 May 2012, p76 (pdf)). Given his rejection on Thursday afternoon of the main press regulation recommendations in Lord Justice Leveson’s Report (also here), published on Thursday morning, he is obviously laughing out loud at the Leveson Inquiry, not showering it with lots of love.

In essence, Leveson recommends that the press ought to be overseen by an independent self-regulatory body, with statutory underpinning, and governed by an independent Board. In so doing, he is adopting the basic structure of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman which were established by the media industry in Ireland and given statutory recognition pursuant to section 44 of, and Schedule 2 to, the Defamation Act, 2009 (also here), and described in great detail by John Horgan, the Press Ombudsman, to the Inquiry. Unfortunately, Cameron misdescribed the Irish system in the House of Commons last week (see Hansard 29 Nov 2012 Columns 446-482).

He said, several times, that “no matter how simple the intention of the new law, the legislation required to underpin the regulatory body would be more complicated”. If the Irish system is taken as a model, then this is simply not true. The Irish legislative provisions run to one section of the Defamation Act, 2009, and a Schedule to that Act that is less than two pages long. A law that provides for statutory underpinning that describes what the regulatory authority does, what powers it has, and how it is made up, does not have to be “quite a big piece of law” – it can be done, and has successfully been done, in less than three pages. He sought to reinforce his point with a piece of political theatrical bravado:

I have got the Irish Defamation Act of 2009 in front of me. It runs to many, many pages, setting out many, many powers of the Irish Press Council. It is worth Members of the House studying the Irish situation and asking whether we want to have legislation of that extent on our statute book—which of course could then be amended at any moment, by any politician at any future point. That is an important consideration. …

The point I am making is that putting in place underpinning may well turn out to be not as simple as having a one or two-clause Bill. We would have to start defining what the body is, what the body does, what powers it has and what the extent of it is, rather as there is in the Irish system. Once we have done that, we would be in danger of finding that we have put in place a statutory Act on the press that is then very, very easy to amend. My point is that this House of Commons should pause, stop and think before taking a step of that magnitude. …

Of course the Defamation Act, 2009 runs to “many, many pages” – it is, after all, an Act of 44 sections and 2 Schedules. However, it is not confined to providing a mechanism of statutory recognition of the Press Council; rather, is a restatement of the entire law of defamation in Ireland; and given that scope, it is in fact a model of economy of language. More to the point, the provisions relating to the Press Council and Press Ombudsman run to less than three pages. Hence, if the Commons does take up Cameron’s challenge of “studying the Irish situation and asking whether we want to have legislation of that extent on [the UK’s] statute book”, then a study of the Irish position demonstrates the Leveson recommendations can be implemented not with complexity but with brevity.


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. (more…)

The motes and beams of privacy

By way of a break from #CRC12, I’ve been musing since Wednesday about motes and beams. A quick online search confirmed to me that the phrase comes from the King James version of St Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 7, verse 3):

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

David Norris, via his presidential election websiteThe essence is that those who would judge or regulate others should look first to themselves. On Wednesday, when Senator David Norris (pictured left) introduced a Privacy Bill, 2012 into the Seanad, the debate focussed largely on media invasions of privacy, with little recognition of the massive privacy issues attendant upon the modern regulatory state and increasing law enforcement powers (to say nothing of widespread private surveillance or the aggregation of data by private corporations). All of the contributors to the debate were quick to behold the privacy mote in the eye of the media, and that they do not consider the privacy beam in their own eye: they are quick to criticise media invasions of privacy, but they are far slower to perceive the potential for the State’s invasion of its citizens’ privacy. Worse, it wasn’t even a particularly good debate.

Is the Press Council system working?

Press Council and Ombudsman logoWith the recent publication by the Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman of their Annual Report 2010 (Report (pdf) | Press Release), it is an opportune time to consider whether the system of press self-regulation by those two bodies is working. I think that, overall, the answer must be yes. Within the remit afforded to the Ombudsman and Press Council, they are working very well indeed. The Ombudsman and Council are energetic in spreading the word about the speedy form of redress which they operate; the growing numbers of member-periodicals show that the industry has embraced the system; and the numbers of complaints show that an increasingly-aware public are taking advantage of it. Apart from the figures, 2010 saw two very important developments: the recogition of the Ombudsman and Council pursuant to the Defamation Act, 2009 (also here); and the extension of their remit to purely online publications.

As the Council’s new Chairman, Dáithí O’Ceallaigh, notes in his Introduction to the Report, the year covered by the Report began with the coming into force of the Defamation Act, 2009, section 44 and Schedule 2 of which allowed for the formal recognition of the Press Council, which duly followed in April:

This has been no mere formality, but a significant and public recognition of the degree to which these new structures, since their institution in 2007, have met the exacting requirements laid down for recognition in the Act, and have contributed to the climate of enhanced accountability and public service within which our press industry operates.

It is the final step in a long, but stately and carefully choegraphed, dance, which began with the publication of the Report of the Legal Advisory Group on Defamation in 2003, and proceeded via the establishment by the press of the Ombudsman and Council, through the publication of the Defamation Bill, 2006 and its enactment in 2009, to this recognition. Perhaps emboldened by it, the Ombudsman and Council are becoming more visible and more muscular.