On January 11 last, a strange thing happened in a forum which is strange to us. The House of Lords in England debated the role of the Press Council in Ireland.
And then an even stranger thing happened: one Lord quoted an editorial from this newspaper.
"On the week after the Deputy Prime Minister's speech [on press regulation]," said Lord Bew, the Sunday Independent noted 'The confluence of separate recent controversies around varied issues and the increasing regular private litigation against journalists has facilitated the evolution of a subtle frost over how freely we can speak'."
We may have reason yet to yearn for mere subtle frosts.
The Lords were debating the Leveson Report.
Rejecting a Labour Party proposal to introduce legislation to regulate the English media, Baroness Jay (a former director of Independent News & Media), said that the main provisions which established the Irish Press Council "read across very precisely" to the Leveson proposal.
"In addition, the Act sets up an independent Ombudsman with the ability to investigate complaints against the press. It seems to me that those provisions are very straightforward and uncomplicated and very much in tune with the essential outlines of Leveson."
And she goes on to say: "In summary, the Irish Press Council upholds the principles of a free press, maintains ethical and professional standards and, through the special press ombudsman, provides swift and free redress for complainants. The system, which is independent but legally recognised, is widely supported by both the media and the public."
And she concludes: "I think it has a very important lesson for us."
But no lesson at all, apparently, for the richest man in Ireland. The Irish Press Council – held up as a model in the English upper house of parliament – was described by Denis O'Brien in his libel action against the Irish Daily Mail last week, as "toothless".
The office of the Ombudsman is but a few short years old. And yet, as anybody with even a basic knowledge of the working of the Irish media knows, it has put manners on us. It has the same deterrent effect on casual waywardness that having a police station in your village does – and yes, I understand the implications of the analogy. We are sometimes careless; we make mistakes. The difference now is – we right them quickly.
Journalism, like any trade or craft, hates regulation of any kind. But I am here to tell you we do now all think about the Ombudsman when contemplating copy for publication. All journalists take pride in their product – maybe it's only
a matter of ego – and the last thing journalists want to do is grovel. But that is what we do when we make mistakes. That is what signing up to the Press Council Code of Practice demands of us.
The media abuses in the British press, which led to the Leveson inquiry, are largely absent in Ireland's media. Some credit for this must go to the Ombudsman. And to the Press Council Code of Practice, which is unambivalent in its treatment of media concerns. This is especially the case on the twin pillars of Privacy and Public Interest. The Press Council recognises the tension between the two and declares the Public Interest paramount. Needless to mention, politicians, with a few notable exceptions, would do the reverse.
Public interest is a difficult area. Nobody disputes that. All journalists have is their words. I'm not downplaying the impact of words, they can do many things, But it's important we get our facts right. It's worth noting that journalists in this newspaper have spent decades questioning the integrity of Gerry Adams in print, and he's still standing pretty, more popular than ever.
It's all the pieces, all the words, put together that create the sort of open, critical, chatty society that makes this country a better place to be. Is the "public interest" not best served by creating the best sort of society that it can be? Is the best society not the one in which we are not afraid of the frost?
Sometimes we lose friends doing this, sometimes we upset family, we alienate one another, we frequently make ourselves unpopular, but we go on doing it because we absolutely believe that it makes a difference.
The media is like the slave who stood by the side of the Roman emperors, whispering in their ear: "Remember you are mortal." And we ourselves need to be reminded of it too, because we're not perfect. And that's where the Ombudsman comes in. When we get it wrong, we take it on the chin.