McDowell’s new dispensation for the Press?

They say good law is rarely made on the hoof, something the recent panic over the striking down of the law supporting statutary rape demonstrated well. However Michael McDowell finally revealed his long awaiting proposed legislation to liberalise the Republic’s draconian libel laws, establishing a new defence of “fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public importance”. It should also streamline and quicken redress from the media in terms of corrections in lieu of damages. The Bill allows for a legally recognised independent press council to oversee standards, and appoint an Ombudsman to investigate specific breaches of standards.

Stephen Collins has the key detail on the proposed Press Council:

The Bill envisages the press council will have 13 directors, seven representing the public interest, five representing the interests of owners and publishers and one representing the interests of journalists. Council members would be selected by a panel independent of Government.

The press council, which will cover only print and not broadcasting organisations, who have their own code, will be asked to come up with a code of standards backed by all its members. “Such a code will provide an added protection to the citizens from unwarranted violation of privacy or harassment from the media,” Mr McDowell said.

The press council would appoint a press ombudsman to investigate complaints from those affected by breaches of standards. Remedial action where complaints are upheld will include the publication of the ombudsman’s decisions, the publication of corrections of inaccurate facts, retractions or any such action as deemed appropriate.

At first glance, this looks far from the draconian measure that many in the media had feared. On Morning Ireland this morning the Minister claimed it had widespread support within the industry including that of the NUJ – though since he’s been consulting since 2002, it should be fit for purpose by now.

The free standing nature of the Press Council, could be read as a gesture of good faith by the Minister since it palms a lot of the regulation off to an independent group in which owners are likely to be the largest single interest group. The encouragement of newspapers to settle early on correction rather than getting involved in long drawn out legal wranglings may also encourage best practice to take hold earlier in the cycle.

One thing he mentioned this morning was that before taking a libel action against a newspaper, litigants would be asked to sign an affidavit stating that they were not in anyway guilty of the offence/behaviour they were accused of before proceeding on an agressive action.

I’m no legal expert (and I’d welcome comment from those more conversant in the Republic’s law than I), but this seems to me to be a reasonable cure for one the most efficient ways vested interests have in closing down dissent and whistleblowers. In which case, the Minister’s may have given his most ardent liberal critics severe reason to pause for thought.

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  • Pete Baker

    One additional point worth noting, Mick, is that not just the litigants will be required to sign an affidavit – from the RTÉ report on this:

    Another feature of the new bill requires plaintiffs and defendants in a defamation action to submit a sworn affidavit verifying assertions and allegations, and to make themselves available for cross examination.

    Which seems to bring the journalists themselves into the frame rather than the publishers?

    It sounds reasonable.. but I’d suggest the operation will depend on who forms the independent panel, and who they then appoint to the press council.

  • Occasional Commentator

    Any corrections should be given as much prominence as the original mistake. If the original error was the main story on the front page, then the correction and apology should be prominent on the front page and not be hidden away.

    All the media generally should be more honest about mistakes. I’m not impressed with the BBC news site where they silently change the story without even attaching a note apologising for an earlier error. Blogs tend to make it clearer that a mistake was made and corrected. And QI (a BBC quiz show) regularly makes mistakes (or at a minimum gross oversimplifications) which I think should be openly acknowledged at the start of the next show.

    The BBC should take it upon itself to be far more transparent and honest about all mistakes across all its output, including factual errors on some scientific or historical story and not just those where somebody threatens legal action. This would set an example for the rest of the media.