'Free press central to uncovering of child sex abuse'
THE freedom of the press is vital to the workings of a democratic society and was central to uncovering the phenomenon of child sexual abuse, the Press Ombudsman John Horgan claimed yesterday.
Speaking at the Parnell Summer School at Avondale House in Co Wicklow, Prof Horgan delivered a speech outlining the importance of press freedom.
"I am unrepentant in my belief that among the best guarantees of the freedom of the press are the development and maintenance of high professional standards and public accountability," he said.
"The freedom of the press has been hard-won, and, like many freedoms, it always runs the risk of being taken for granted. It is also important -- vital, even -- for the health of democratic societies.
"In Ireland we have, by international indices, one of the freest media in the world. We would be immeasurably poorer if we didn't.
"The freedom of the press does not exist for the press itself: it exists and is exercised for and on behalf of the public.
"Some recent examples are relevant.
"Would the phenomenon of child physical and sexual abuse still be under wraps if we did not have a free press?
"Would the reform of our creaking health service be proceeding even at its present painfully slow pace if it had not been for the almost universal media spotlight on its defects?
"Would public life in general have benefited if it had been excluded from investigation by the press under the Freedom of Information Act?
"Would our business elites' lifestyles, activities, and commercial practices still be immune from scrutiny?"
The ombudsman also voiced his opposition to the introduction of a privacy bill. "This is an area in which my office and the Press Council can be far more effective and flexible than legislation," he said.
"There is also a potential threat to normal journalistic practices because there are differing interpretations of the data protection legislation in relation to the protection of journalistic sources.
"Of course the press is powerful; and power can sometimes be abused. But, while abuse of power by anyone is always a cause for concern and for action, the press has now, for the first time, created and accepted significant voluntary restrictions on its own power in its Code of Practice for Newspapers and Periodicals. This is an important step."