IRELAND’S PRESS OMBUDSMAN, John Horgan, has told the Leveson inquiry into media ethics in the UK that independence of a press regulator from the newspaper industry and the State is “essential”.
Horgan was giving evidence to the inquiry in London yesterday as it continues its fourth module examining the future of press regulation in the wake of the phone hacking scandal at the News of The World which prompted the establishment of the inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Brian Leveson.
Ireland’s model of press regulation has been cited for praise during the course of the inquiry.
The two oversight bodies – the Press Council of Ireland and the Ombudsman – were set up in 2008 and are intended to be independent of government and media, dealing with complaints from the public about the press free-of-charge.
Horgan said that it was “essential” that public interest members of the Press Council of Ireland have a majority.
“I think it is essential,” he told counsel to inquiry Robert Jay. “I don’t think that the independence of the body as a whole, including myself, would be accepted by the public to any degree if another model was proposed.”
Horgan said that the need for self-regulation with a statutory underpinning had been necessitated by the demands of the Fianna Fáil – Progressive Democrat government of the time which warned of full statutory regulation if better press standards were not enforced.
He told the inquiry that every major newspaper in the country had been the subject of critical or adverse findings by the council in the four years it has been in existence and said that it had the respect of these papers and their editors.
Horgan said that all national newspapers in Ireland, including UK papers published here, as well as 9o per cent of regional papers and 60 per cent of periodicals are members of the Press Council. He said that none of them had ever threatened to leave the council.
A key issue for those analysing future media regulation in the UK is the fact that membership of the current Press Complaints Commission is voluntary meaning some publications can pull out of it and not be subject to its regulation as has been the case with Express Newspapers.
“In my experience, also, the sanction that we operate, which is the requirement to publish in certain modalities any decision upholding a complaint against them, is taken extremely seriously by the editors of all our publications,” Horgan said.
“The public may not see it as seriously as they do, but in my experience, editors take it extremely seriously and would take considerable steps to avoid finding themselves in that situation.”
Horgan told the inquiry that in the early days of the Ombudsman a “substantial number” of his decisions were appealed but that over the years the number of decisions appealed had reduced “but it does remain an open door for anybody who feels that they are enttitled to it”.
He told the inquiry that in the case of public interest of a story this was a matter for the Council and the Ombudsman rather than for a newspaper but said that “culturally speaking” there would be greater respect for privacy in Ireland than in the UK.
“The problems don’t arise to the same extent, or to the same intensity,” Horgan told the inquiry.
He was also asked whether he had to face complaints like those lodged by footballers who are accused of having affairs: “We haven’t had any complaint about the private lives of individuals by newspapers. It simply hasn’t risen.”
“Or maybe your footballers don’t create this sort of issue for you,” Lord Leveson remarked to which Horgan responded: “I’m the last person to comment on the morality of our footballers, one way or the other.”