Check against delivery

Chairperson, directors and members of the Press Council, the Press Ombudsman, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you for inviting me here today to the launch of the first Annual Report of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman.

The Report details the work carried out during the first year of this new era of press regulation in Ireland.  The first year in any new venture is a difficult one, but the Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman have made great progress during their first year of operation and I commend all involved for their efforts in that regard.

The Annual Report itself gives a great insight into the workings of the press complaints system and the nature of complaints received. The case studies give an indication of the complexity of some of the issues involved and illustrate the difficulty of the job of the Press Ombudsman in the first instance and subsequently, in some cases, the Press Council. I was encouraged to see that a strong emphasis is placed on resolving complaints through conciliation or mediation.  I know that the print industry is very committed to the new press complaints initiative and has also provided the necessary financial backing to support its operation. This spirit of cooperation is vital to the success of the new press complaints system and I hope that it will continue well into the future.

I met with Professor Tom Mitchell and Professor John Horgan recently and they informed me of the extensive programme of work that they have undertaken in the Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman since the beginning of 2008. I know that they have been keen from the outset to extend their activities beyond the processing of complaints and have been actively involved in awareness-raising activities to promote their work to the general public. The diversity of activities has ranged from speaking engagements, attending conferences and seminars, organising public meetings on topics such as crime and suicide, meeting the public at various events and giving interviews.

I was particularly impressed by the fact that they have displayed a willingness to engage with the public and to take on board issues of concern with a view to perhaps encouraging a more sensitive approach by the press to certain subjects or at a time of great tragedy. Tom and John are very committed to ensuring that the Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman are a success and I commend their enthusiasm for the programme of work that they have undertaken. I also, of course, wish to commend the work of the other directors of the Press Council

The merits or otherwise of regulation of the press and what shape it might take, has been a much debated subject over the past number of years. I won’t reprise those debates, though I do have strong views in this regard.  You will not be surprised to hear that most politicians also hold such strong views in regard to press regulation.

In any event, we now have a form of self regulation model in place in Ireland together with a code of professional principles for newspapers and periodicals. Certainly the formulation of the formal Code of Practice is a very welcome development for the print media. Journalists play an important role in society - they provide a valuable source of information to the public, they help to shape our opinion, they define the issues of the day.

A recent statistic from the NNI indicated that 86% of Irish people read a newspaper at least once a week. That is a very positive indicator and reflects well on the role of the print media in this State. The print media is and will likely continue to be a powerful influence in Irish society. That power and influence brings considerable responsibility and in this regard adherence to the professional Code of Practice by editors and journalists is vitally important.  

I very much appreciate that the press industry, like many other sectors of our economy, is under increasing competitive pressure, both in terms of revenue generation and the migration to other formats of information delivery. Economic pressures should not mean ethical shortcuts or a lowering of journalistic standards. The need to maintain high standards is yet another challenge in an already difficult market environment, but it is one which I believe the Irish public expect to be met. I am hopeful that the new system of press regulation, though still in its infancy, will ensure the maintenance of high standards and better accountability by the press. This can only be a benefit to the industry and the public alike.  

The new press complaints system provides an efficient and cost free remedy for members of the public who are affected by breaches of the Code of Practice. However, we all recognise that others may opt to pursue the legal route in order to seek redress. Legislation is currently before the Dáil which will comprehensively reform and modernise our existing defamation laws. Immediately on my appointment as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I had the opportunity of presenting the Bill at Second Stage in the Dáil and to listen to the contributions of Deputies to its provisions. Since then I have looked at some of the areas of concern and will be taking some of those into consideration when preparing for Committee Stage.  

I would briefly like to mention some features of the Defamation Bill 2006 which have direct relevance to the Press Council and Ombudsman.

The Bill when enacted will underpin the activities of the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman and provide for statutory recognition. It removes the strict admission of liability previously associated with the offering of an apology. This will strengthen the hand of the Press Ombudsman and Council in dealing with complaints against journalists and editors. The decisions of the Press Ombudsman and Council will be afforded qualified privilege.
Membership of the Press Council and adherence of its Code of Practice will also strengthen the entitlement in a defamation action to the defence of fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest. This new defence will be an important development in regard to the media's ability to investigate and report matters of public interest.

I have to admit that I have given much consideration to this particular provision of the Bill since taking up office. I have noted particularly the views expressed by my colleagues in Leinster House during the passage of the Bill. I too share many of the misgivings they expressed in regard to what constitutes the public interest and who will determine it.

However, our courts and those in the UK and their decisions in this area have evolved a new type of defence in respect of matters of public interest whose discussions would be of benefit to the public. I further believe that it is incumbent on the Government and the Oireachtas to avail of the opportunity to place the new defence in a statutory framework.
However, this new defence will be a difficult one to plead successfully. It is clear, even from the relevant jurisprudence to date, that it will not lend itself readily to the careless propagation of trivial or tabloid issues masquerading as being in the public interest.

The Defamation Bill which I will progress respects and provides the necessary balance between the competing rights of freedom of expression and of the respect for one's good name and reputation.

I note from the Annual Report, that one of the challenges listed for the Press Council is speedy passage of the Defamation Bill. Let me tell you today, that it is my intention to advance the Bill. I would hope, and subject as you will appreciate, to the requirements associated with certain urgent criminal legislation, to have Committee Stage consideration of the Bill in the Dáil scheduled in the coming weeks. This would allow completion of the remaining stages shortly thereafter, subject to Oireachtas schedules.  

It would be remiss of me not to address one area of particular concern to me – that is violation of privacy. The Annual Report notes that complaints in relation to breaches of the principles on privacy contained in the Code of Practice rank third in the overall number of complaints received in 2008. I am aware of the concern of members of the public as well as those of us in public life about a worrying trend in media intrusion in order to get a good story.

However, I should say that violation of privacy is not the exclusive preserve of the media. Many of the complaints my Department receives in this regard involve actions by individual citizens against each other. There seems to be a growing disregard for the privacy of the individual as a basic human right. The development of relevant technologies has played a part in this trend. Indeed, the number of cases in Ireland and the UK would suggest that this is an area of the law which is growing in importance.  

Personally I have always been in favour of the creation of a tort of violation of privacy and am looking closely at the provisions of the Privacy Bill 2006 in light of the recent jurisprudence in this area. The Privacy Bill creates no new law, rather it puts a statutory framework on the existing constitutional right to privacy and it has regard to the rights provided under the European Convention on Human Rights.  In so doing, it incorporates the developing jurisprudence in regard to the appropriate protection of privacy in our courts, the UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.  

To give it a context, I see the Privacy Bill as inhabiting the space between, on the one hand, the Data Protection Acts and, on the other, the necessary and appropriate provisions in regard to dealing with security and crime issues.

The focus of the Privacy Bill is not, as some commentators seem to think, all about possible violations of privacy by the media and nothing else. This simply is not the case. The Bill deals with a range of situations where the privacy of a person might be violated and which would not involve the media at all. For example, the Bill also provides, for the first time in Irish law, for the protection of a person's right to control the exploitation of their own image for commercial purposes.

The law in respect of defamation and privacy is dynamic. It changes its features constantly.  We need to keep under review all developments of the law.  We must be mindful of the constitutional right to one's good name and must ensure that mechanisms for protecting and vindicating citizen's rights are effective. This means we must continuously subject to review all statutory mechanisms for protecting and vindicating those rights.  We have a duty to uphold those principles.  
There is no threat, as some might assert, to investigative journalism that rightly seeks to hold Government, institutions of the State, business and other organisations up to scrutiny.  The opposite is the case.  

Let me finish by congratulating the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman and all those associated with the new regulatory regime for the print media on their achievements during the last year.

I wish you well in your endeavours in the years ahead in which, I can assure you, that you will be assisted by new defamation legislation.

Thank you.