Taking on the Media Barons

Remarks by Séamus Dooley, Irish Secretary, National Union of Journalists at “Taking on the Media Barons” seminar at Congress House, London on 17 March 2012.

It is a great honour to be here today to take part in what I think is a very significant event at a time of enormous challenge and opportunity for the media in the UK.

I am especially pleased that the British trade union movement, through the TUC, is engaging at such a high level in this process. As the voice of workers and their families the trade union movement has much to say on the issue of media regulation and can play a crucial role in shaping public discourse.

Seamu Dooley Photo: Ronan Quinlan

I have been struck in the past by the failure of Irish and British trade unions to engage publicly in the debate on media standards. Given the relentless attacks on public sector workers,for example, this is somewhat surprising..

In Edward Lorenz’s chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions; where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state.

Lorenz gave as a theoretical example of a hurricane’s formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before.

On the island of Ireland we have frequently felt the impact of the British butterfly flapping its wings, sometimes ferociously, sometimes with dramatic consequences. I am under no illusion that the outcome of the Leveson inquiry will have reverberations in Ireland.

Without torturing the analogy too much the clipping of Murdoch’s wings has a significance beyond these shores but we must avoid the trap of viewing this as a debate only about one man or one company.

On St Patrick’s day it might be appropriate to try and reverse history, to examine if the butterfly effect might be reversed and if the Irish system could be used as a framework for a new model of media regulation in the UK.

In the way that nothing concentrates the mind like the imminent prospect of hanging the Press Council of Ireland has its origins in the threat of increased state control of the Irish media.

The Office of Press Ombudsman and the Press Council of Ireland was the end product of a long and often torturous project undertaken by the grandly titled Press Industry Steering Committee, a body which embraced newspaper and magazine publishers, industry representatives and the NUJ.

The issue of libel reform had long been a priority for the NUJ and, despite enormously difficult relationships with some press barons, the union joined with two representative bodies – the Regional Newspapers Association of Ireland and National Newspapers Ireland, in a public appeal for an end to our draconian laws as far back as 1999.

When threats to media freedom emerge lawyers are never too far behind and so it was in 1993 when a legal advisory group on defamation – established by the Minister for Justice – recommended that the defamation laws be reformed.

Senior Council Hugh Mohan favoured a Government appointed statutory press council established while a draconian privacy bill was also mooted. The NUJ can claim most of the credit for leading the campaign against the privacy bill. In retrospect that threat helped concentrate in particular the mind of UK publishers, who had wavered in their support of any press council and were none too keen on joint initiatives with the NUJ.

Former Justice Minister Michael McDowell, never a friend of the trade union movement, was absolutely insistent that if the industry wanted an alternative to a statutory press council he would only accept a model which recognised the pivotal role of the National Union of Journalists. NUJ colleague Martin Fitzpatrick and I were uncharacteristically lost for words at one particular meeting when McDowell laid down the law on this point.

The steering committee was initially convened by former Northern Ireland Ombudsman Senator Maurice Hayes. The need for an outside chair Prof Thomas Mitchell, former Provost, Trinity College Dublin.

Hayes and Mitchell played an important role in devising the current model. Work on the actual code was carried out by a committee chaired by NUJ member Brendan Keenan, Business Editor, Independent Newspapers.

At meetings of a code committee good ideas and insults with abandon and eventually we came up with a model of co-regulation which meets the needs of the Irish media and our diverse audience.

At one meeting an editor accused me of wanting to “get your grubby hands around the neck of every editor in town”. To which one could only reply “Just you, sir.”

It is worth noting that the Editor of The Sunday Times, (Ireland) was a member of the Code committee. The Editor of the Irish Sun was a member of the Press Council of Ireland. The Sunday Times General Manager sits alongside The Irish Secretary on the Finance and Admin committee. Associated Newspapers play an important role in the PCI and are currently represented on the council.

The co-operation between industry, trade union and civic society representatives sharply contrasts with the UK experience.

The UK obsessions with editors are not mirrored in Ireland. Certainly editors play an important role but other senior editorial personnel also represented publishers and this trend continues.

It would be an overstatement to view the NUJ as having been enthusiastically welcomed by all participants from but day one there was recognition by the employer representatives that any model of regulation which excluded the NUJ would not be acceptable to government or the public.

The office of Press Council and Ombudsman was not established until January 2008, when the Press Industry Steering Committee ceased its work. The Minister and his successors abandoned the statutory model and the Privacy Bill put to one side.

The Press Council of Ireland has 13 members, each of whom is appointed by an independent Appointments Committee. The original appointments committee was selected by the steering committee and comprised of independent public figures with no industry involvement.

This high level Committee seeks expressions of interest for the independent members of the Press Council by public advertisement, and chooses for appointment six of those who have responded.

The Chairman is the seventh independent member of the Press Council. Unlike in the UK it is the Press Council, which has a majority of non-industry representatives, which nominates the Press Council Chair and media owners do not have a veto on the chair.

The fact that the majority of members of the PCI are drawn from outside the media industry is significant and the non-industry representatives are reflective of many strands of Irish society. In any new UK model civic society must be given a real voice and the placing of public interviews rather than searching for suitable candidates in clubs would be a good starting point.

The NUJ is represented on the finance and administrative committee – an advisory body which is also independently chaired and is on the Code committee.

The work of the Press Council is to adjudicate complaints. Meetings are held in private but findings are published on the PCI website and in the press.

On the original code committee the NUJ did not always get our way – we would have preferred more explicit reference to stories for cash, for example, but the Code is strongly rooted in the NUJ Code of Conduct.

The Council and the Ombudsman have a moral authority. The independence of the chair and the qualities of our first Ombudsman Prof John Horgan, an NUJ member, distinguished academic, former journalist and ex politician, have contributed to what I think is our success.

Important too is the work of his colleague Ms Bernie Grogan, who plays an increasingly important role in early conciliation of complaints. The decisions of the Ombudsman may be appealed to the PCI and he may refer cases directly to the council. It is an efficient and costly alternative to the courts.

The Irish model is by no means perfect but it may yet provide the foundations for a new and more acceptable system in the UK.