Irish News

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Journalists must be allowed report freely – Rabbitte

'A fettered media is a threat to our democracy'

Niamh Horan

Published 24/03/2013 | 04:00

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Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte has said he does not believe that journalists should be ruled by charters.

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The minister was speaking at a seminar on Media Pluralism and Freedom in a Connected Europe, which was also attended by vice-president of the European Commission Neelie Kroes, Francine Cunningham, executive director of the European Newspaper Publishers Association, and outspoken Labour peer Lord David Puttnam.

Addressing the seminar on Friday, Mr Rabbitte also spoke about the dangers of a 'fettered' media to democracy.

When asked if he believed journalists should be ruled by charters and prevented from 'sustained reporting', Mr Rabbitte replied: "No I don't. I don't believe that, within the bounds of good taste and the defamation laws, journalists should be prevented from reporting on anything."

Although he stressed that he did not wish to "intrude into or start dictating to or be interpreted as dictating to how media corporations arrange their internal affairs", he added, "freedom of expression within the law ought not be impeded".

Mr Rabbitte's comments come exactly a month after Independent News & Media (INM), Ireland's biggest newspaper group, drew up the draft of an editorial charter that requires journalists to get the written approval of the managing editor before writing any "sustained or repeated adversarial material concerning individuals or organisations".

Under INM's proposed new charter, any "breach of code in the editorial charter" would result in an investigation process being conducted by the company and the ultimate sanction could lead to the dismissal of the individuals concerned.

In a statement, INM said: "This charter puts structures in place to ensure editorial fairness; nothing more and nothing less."

Mr Rabbitte also highlighted the importance of the media "to speak truth to power and to challenge authority", describing it as "one of those slender columns that sustain democracy".

"If that capacity is reduced in any way, then we are all the poorer for it. If media is fettered, either by the interests of owners, by fear of authority or by simple groupthink, then our democracy is worse off," he said. "It is impossible to conceive of a modern democracy without a free and diverse press – the two are generally regarded as being intrinsically linked."

But in a question and answer session with the audience, Mr Rabbitte also spoke of his concerns that there had been "five or six years of denigration of politics" and he said he believed it was being driven partly by a generation of journalists who were under economic pressure.

"I did an interview with a very good journalist before Christmas with the Irish Times, with Harry McGee for about 40 minutes, and in a 40-second aside I wondered what the impact on our society would be of the current all-invasive denigration of politics and, being a good journalist, he singled that out.

"The very disturbing thing about it was the reaction. Pretty much with one exception it was to denigrate the question – and I felt that after five or six years of denigration of politics, which of course isn't just applied to this jurisdiction, that it is a reasonable question to ask about where is this leading? What is the alternative? I'm not talking about the denigration of an individual politician or an individual policy, I'm talking about the denigration of politics."

Speaking about the commentary on his original remarks "right across the media" he said the only piece he recalled "with any sense of irritation" was in the Irish Times: "The political editor wrote a reasonable piece but the dreadful editorial. I remember what Charlie Haughey said about editorials of the Irish Times a long time ago – the line was 'it sounds like a comment of a minister under pressure' and that caused the [crux] of the analysis."

Mr Rabbitte argued that he believed most politicians feared criticising the media because of the inevitable retribution, adding: "I think it's easy to understand why the media is disgruntled and irritated. The media itself, I mean the people who work in the media, have taken the brunt of the banking collapse and the recession, falling revenues, the emergence of new technology and so on, have put the jobs of many journalists under strain; and I mean if you are looking for targets after bankers, where do you look but the politicians?

"And therefore, the relentlessness of the dismissal of the practice of politics seems to me to be worthy of examination."

Meanwhile, in her address, Ms Kroes also spoke about the need for a free and transparent press, saying: "Freedom of speech is a clear fundamental value and the EU has a duty to ensure it is safeguarded."

Irish Independent

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