Comment and insight on journalism issues from Press Gazette's guest writers

Irish NUJ boss says 'statutory underpinning' of the press regulator does not equal 'state control'

 

Chris Wheal is wrong to say that the statutory underpinning of the Press Council of Ireland was “imposed” by politicians on the Irish newspaper industry.

It’s only one of a number of factual inaccuracies which have appeared in the Press Gazette regarding the NUJ position on Leveson. As Irish Secretary of the NUJ and a member of the industry steering committee which helped lay the foundations for the Press Council of Ireland it has a particular relevance to me.

The NUJ does not favour statutory regulation of the media. Not in the UK. Not in the Republic of Ireland. Not anywhere.

We do not have statutory regulation of the newspaper industry in Ireland and no matter how many times the word is mangled by those who oppose change to the current flawed UK system – or advocates of a PCC Mark 2 – statutory underpinning does not mean State control.

The PCI and the Office of Press Ombudsman are the product of co-operation between the National Union of Journalists and representatives of the newspaper owners, both regional and national.  The threat of privacy legislation and the prospect of law reform on defamation certainly provided an impetus for co-operation but the statutory underpinning emerged from a lengthy consultative process within the industry.

Some Irish politicians and lawyers wanted a statutory Press Council but we saw off that threat by a credible alternative which might best be described as co-regulation.

Those involved in drawing up the current structures included the then Editor of the Sunday Times and lawyers representing the UK press in Ireland.

Incidentally Tom Crone of News International, subsequently a key witness at Leveson, attended the Press Industry Steering Committee representing the Murdoch press. 

Contrary to the rantings of the Sun there’s no sign that the Irish media industry has gone the way of Zimbabwe.  Mick McNiffe, as Editor of the Irish Sun, served on the first PCI.

Significantly Oliver Keenaghan, General Manager, News International Newspapers Ireland currently sits on the PCI’s Finance and Administrative committee.  News International refuses to recognise the NUJ in Ireland but this has not prevented co-operation at this level.

One wonders why the author of yesterday’s Sun editorial did not consult their Irish colleagues.

Likewise the Telegraph leader writer might reflect on the involvement in developing the Irish model of distinguished journalists such as then Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy, a woman who successfully sued the Irish government for phone tapping and was prepared to go to jail rather than reveal her sources; an editor who took on the State at the Irish Supreme Court not once but twice.

Or Sunday Independent business journalist Martin Fitzpatrick, a journalist who in his day stopped the presses to protect editorial independence at Independent Newspapers.

It’s profoundly insulting to imagine that these NUJ members would collude with anything which would undermine press freedom.

So what is statutory underpinning?

In Ireland a ministerial order recognises the PCI once it meets minimum standards which guarantee independence from ownership control. 

There’s provision for civic society involvement and representation of the profession of journalism which is provided by the NUJ.

There is no direct or indirect State involvement or control of the regulatory system or in the work of the Office of Press Ombudsman. 

No publisher is forced to join the PCI.

If a publisher joins they enjoy legal privileges including a defence in libel actions. If you decide not to join you forfeit that benefit. 

There is no other State involvement. No ministerial control. 

That’s why publishers, including the UK press in Ireland, not only accepted but embraced the recognition given in the Defamation Act 2010. 

That’s why the NUJ supports the Irish model.

There are indeed lessons to be drawn from the Irish experience but as an opponent of colonialism I for one would warn against reverse imperialism.

 I’ve always said the Irish model may provide a solution to the British problem but the situation in Ireland is not exactly the same as the UK.

What the NUJ submission to Leveson did was to propose a framework incorporating the best of the Irish model, as part of a response to the crisis of public and journalistic confidence in the newspaper industry arising from evidence of criminality and corruption.

How ironic that those opponents of that approach should distort the NUJ policy as part of their solution to the problem of winning back trust.

Séamus Dooley is Irish Secretary of the NUJ and a member of the finance and administrative committee of the Press Council of Ireland. He was a member of the Press Industry Steering Committee which set up the council.

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