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Should Ireland have a Press Council

category national | irish social forum | opinion/analysis author Wednesday February 15, 2006 23:27author by Liam Mullen - Freelance Journalist Report this post to the editors

Perhaps, yes!

However, if Ireland is to establish a press council we should look elsewhere to see what lessons could be learned from such an endeavour. The British press introduced this form of self-regulation in 1953, but Commissions set up to examine the effectiveness of the council were critical.
In their book Power without Responsibility, Curran and Seaton, argue that the council should “embody and promote a professional culture among journalists.” This would be the ideal, but the reality has proved somewhat different. The press council has been criticised by a number of Commissions, which threatened “government legislation,” and brought much needed “reforms”. In 1977, the Commission imposed sweeping changes, which led to further reforms from 1989 to 1990. A new “code of conduct for journalists” was proposed, but the Calcutt Committee recommended that the press council be disbanded and replaced with a more effective body.

In 1991, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was established. In 1993, Sir David Calcutt was still not happy with the PCC and commented:
“The Press Complaints Commission is not…an effective regulator of the press. It has not been set up in a way, and is not operating a code of conduct, which enables it to command not only press but also public confidence…It is not the truly independent body that it should be.”
Such criticism inevitably meant more change, and eventually Lord Wakeham was appointed as a new chairperson. Wakeham introduced radical changes but was forced to resign his position in 2002 because he became embroiled in the Enron scandal. Curran and Seaton’s conclusions on the effectiveness of the PCC relate not to “its lack of independence nor its ineffectiveness, but its dearth of ambition.” Their findings show that the PCC did not “commission and publish substantial research, stage formative debates, honour leading journalists or restructure journalism education.” It was in effect nothing more than a “discreet lobbyist.”1
Kieberd also identifies education as a factor. In his book, he refers to “Media Accountability Systems (MAS)” and recognises four key areas:
· Criticism
· Monitoring
· Public Access to the media
· Training (Kieberd)
He further recognises that accountability can exist within a feature or news programme. His main points in this regard are:
· Letters to the editor and open forums
· Message boards for electronic feedback
· Accuracy and fairness questionnaires sent to readers
· Journalism reviews such as the American JR
· Books written about the profession and satirical exposes like Les Guignols on French Canal Plus
Kieberd also suggests that MAS may have group critics and he points to the example laid down by the Japanese newspaper industry as early as the 1920’s when they introduced in-house critics. He also points out the need for:
· Critical engagement by reporters
· Press ombudsmen
· Citizens on editorial boards (An example of this would be the way Kevin Myers fell out with the editorial board of the Irish Times)
· Local press councils
· NGO’s and organisations like Reporters Sans frontieres (RSF)
· Consumer organisations and trade unions
· Soci¾t¾ de r¾dacteurs – an association of newspeople owning shares and having a voice on editorial decisions
· Trade Press and the employees who own the paper
He also recognises some MAS as processes and these are classified as follows:
· Higher Education
· Internal Awareness programmes
· Opinion surveys
· Press clubs and the interaction between citizens and journalists at town meetings
· Think-tanks and non-commercial research2
Kieberd also notes that in Finland and Germany the press councils receive financial support from the state. He examines the Pressekodex, which highlighted the coverage German newspapers like Der Spiegel, and Bild gave to the 1992-93 immigrant issues. He also speaks about the German sociologist Max Weber who coined the term “verantwortungsethik (the ethics of responsibility)” as opposed to “gesinnungsethik (the ethics of conscience)”. The latter principle states that a journalist must follow the rules or edicts of his profession, and report truthfully but with the focus on negative news events. “Verantwortungsethik” demands more of the journalist, and means the journalist must take responsibility not just for sources and those they report about but also the audience.
He does not go so far as to accept the “Council of Europe” in its 1993 resolution ‘The Ethics of Journalism’.” These ethics state that “the media have a moral obligation to defend democratic values, respect for human dignity, solving problems by peaceful, tolerant means and consequently to oppose violence and the language of hatred and confrontation…the media must play a major role in preventing tension and must encourage mutual understanding, tolerance and trust.”2
Another writer who focuses tightly on the question of ethics within journalism is John Wilson. In Understanding Journalism, 1996, Wilson notes that detractors from a press council argue that regulation within the industry hampers “Freedom of the Press.” He also notes that a certain element of society would like to “suspend newspapers that flout decent standards.”
He identifies a number of key areas:
· Agenda setting
· Public interest
· Independence
· Powerful interests
· Impartiality
· Balance
· Objectivity
· Newspaper’s codes of practice
· Accuracy
· Birtism – journalism based on the ideals of John Birt of the BBC
· Portrayal
· Political correctness (Wilson)3
The question of ethics within journalism will always raise the spectre of a press council. The tabloids in Britain are notorious for hounding people, and an example of this that springs immediately to mind is the death of Princess Diana. A fine line exists between genuine reporting and privacy issues. The tabloid coverage of Death on the Rock also stands out with Murdoch’s Sun producing vicious headlines like: “Why the dogs had to Die,” “IRA fiend cut down by sixteen bullets,” and “Blow his brains out.”
Within broadcasting, the Irish Government’s 1995 Green Paper, suggests a merging of the RTÉ Authority and the Independent Radio and Television Commission, into a “Super Authority.” Such an Authority might also take over the remit of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. The Green Paper also recognised the need for such an Authority to be “completely independent.”4
The argument for a press council is not so far removed from the broadcasting issues outlined above and the emphasis is always on “independent” regulation. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is another organisation that promotes a code of practice among its members.5 The code is detailed below:
“1. A journalist has a duty to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards.
2. A journalist shall at all times defend the principle of the freedom of the press and other media in relation to the collection of information and the expression of comment and criticism. He/she shall strive to eliminate distortion, news suppression and censorship.
3. A journalist shall strive to ensure that the information he/she disseminates is fair and accurate, avoid the expression of comment and conjecture as established fact and falsification by distortion, selection or misrepresentation.
4. A journalist shall rectify promptly any harmful inaccuracies, ensure that correction and apologies receive due prominence and afford the right of reply to persons criticised when the issue is of sufficient importance.
5. A journalist shall obtain information, photographs and illustrations only by straightforward means. The use of other means can be justified only by overriding considerations of the public interest. The journalist is entitled to exercise a personal conscientious objection to the use of such means.
6. A journalist shall do nothing, which entails intrusion into anybody's private life, grief, or distress, subject to justification by overriding considerations of the public interest.
7. A journalist shall protect confidential sources of information.
8. A journalist shall not accept bribes nor shall he/she allow other inducements to influence the performance of his/her professional duties.
9. A journalist shall not lend himself/herself to the distortion or suppression of the truth because of advertising or other considerations.
10. A journalist shall mention a person's age, sex, race, colour, creed, illegitimacy, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation only if this information is strictly relevant. A journalist shall neither originate nor process material, which encourages discrimination, ridicule, prejudice, or hatred on any of the above-mentioned grounds.
11. No journalist shall knowingly cause or allow the publication or broadcast of a photograph that has been manipulated unless that photograph is clearly labelled as such. Manipulation does not include normal dodging, burning, colour balancing, spotting, contrast adjustment, cropping and obvious masking for legal, or safety reasons.
12. A journalist shall not take private advantage of information gained in the course of his/her duties before the information is public knowledge.
13. A journalist shall not by way of statement, voice or appearance endorse by advertisement any commercial product or service save for the promotion of his/her own work or of the medium by which he/she is employed.”
In some ways, the Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice mirrors the guidelines laid down by the NUJ. This is particularly so in the area of grief intrusion. The code is constantly evolving and changes have occurred in particular to Clause 16, which covers areas such as accuracy, privacy and discrimination, the basis of which was set up by a committee chaired by Patsy Chapman. Following the trial of Rosemary West, this clause was again amended, in relation to the “payment for articles” issue. A number of other key areas are identified:
· Clause 1 (Accuracy) in relation to the manipulation of photographs
· Clause 3 was derived from the European Convention on Human Rights
· Clause 4 which dealt with harassment especially in wake of Princess Diana’s death
· Clause 6 which helps to protect the interests of children
· Clause 10 which dealt with the new Youth Justice Act
· Clause 16 which dealt with “witness payments in criminal trials”
· Clause 17 which prohibits “payments to criminals”
· Clause 3 dealt with correspondence, including digital communications
· Clause 8 dealt with listening devices
· Clause 9 was tightened to protect those who reported crimes
· Clause 10 dealt with “Clandestine devices and subterfuge”
In the UK, the motto for the PCC is “Fast, free, fair.” A customer satisfaction survey published on the 19th of January 2004 states that 62% of complainants had expressed satisfactions that their complaint had been handled fairly.6
The code of conduct laid down by the PCC is not altogether different than the guidelines laid down by the NUJ.
In the United States, journalism is protected by the First Amendment, and the profession is monitored by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). The American authors Black, Steele and Barney identified three key principles regarding ethical journalism:
· “Ethics in journalism is about individual responsibility
· Ethics in journalism is about excellent journalism
· Ethics in journalism is about the critically important contribution excellent journalism makes to society.”7
It can only be a matter of time before the government introduces a press council. Already we have seen a number of tightening regulations in other industries. The telecommunications industry has COMREG; Irish radio stations are subject to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission; and even the Gardai are looking into their human rights after the publication of the Ionann Report. A good explanation of governance is given in the Irish Government’s White Paper – “Regulating Better”.
“Governance: Governance has been defined as “rules, processes and behaviour that affect the way in which powers are exercised…. particularly as regards openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence” (European Commission, European Governance – A White Paper, 2001). In this Paper the term refers to governance at all levels of Government: national, regional, local and - at times - at the level of specific economic sectors.”8
Once again we see the familiar mantras as regards “openness” and “accountability”.
In making the argument that a press council should be introduced, it should be remembered that nobody’s rights should be curtailed, including journalists. The public does have a “right to know.” There are numerous countries and regimes throughout the world that lack even a free press – countries like Cuba, Nepal, Eritrea, Zimbabwe to name but a few. If an Irish press council gives even greater power to the media, then so be it – it can only be a force for good journalism.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
BOOKS
7 Black, Jay, Steele, Bob, Barney, Ralph, 1995. Society of Professional Journalists Doing Ethics in Journalism. Allyn & Bacon, Massachusetts. Second Edition. Pg2

1 Curran, James, Seaton, Jean, 2003. Power without Responsibility – The press, broadcasting and new media in Britain. Routledge, London and New York, Sixth Edition, Pgs355-357

4 Government Publications Office, 1995. Green Paper on Broadcasting – Active or passive? Broadcasting in the Future Tense. Department of Arts, Culture and Gaeltacht. Government Publications, Dublin. Chapter 5, Broadcasting Structures, pg166.

2 Kieberd, Damien, 1999. Media in Ireland – the search for ethical journalism. Four Courts Press, Dublin 8, Ireland. Pgs66-68
2 Ibid Pgs56-65

3 Wilson, John, 1996. Understanding Journalism – A guide to issues. Routledge, London. Pgs 23-80

WEB SITES

5 http://www.nuj.org.uk
6 http://www.pcc.org.uk/press/detail.asp?id=132 {Accessed 12/04/05} and http://www.pcc.org.uk/cop/history.html {Also accessed 12/04/05}

8 http://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/index.asp {Accessed 22/04/05}

author by Jackie Robinsonpublication date Sat Feb 18, 2006 13:12author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Yes, I think Ireland should have a press council. There are certain media groups who will only allow one side of the story to be heard with comments while the other side is shunned.

author by Anonymouspublication date Sat Feb 18, 2006 15:45author address author phone Report this post to the editors

There are certain articles here which I will not bother mentioning which will only show the one side of the story to be told by activists comments while any differing opinions are erased.

 
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