Saturday 16 February 2019

New Press Ombudsman targets reporting standards

THE newly appointed Press Ombudsman said he intends to create a climate where the best reporting standards will become a yardstick.

Professor John Horgan, who has more than 40 years experience in the newspaper industry, will become the first person to take up the role of dealing with complaints from the public.

"I don't think Irish newspapers are full of things to be complained about, but from time to time something happens and this is a self-corrective mechanism which we hope will work," he said.

Under the new press complaints system, newspaper owners will provide rapid apologies to the public for inaccurate or intrusive reporting.

While Mr Horgan is expected to deal with the majority of complaints, he will also have the option of passing unresolved cases to the 13-member Press Council.

It has a majority of seven independent members and six representatives from the media.

Mr Horgan (67), from Tralee, Co Kerry, said that although there would be no financial penalties for newspapers who transgressed the new code of conduct, he believed the system would be effective.

"I think we can get there without coercion. I don't share the view of the prophets of doom who say that unless you can punish somebody, you'll never get results."

Mr Horgan started his journalistic career on the Evening Press in 1962 and subsequently worked as a foreign affairs reporter with the Irish Times. He served in the Seanad from 1969 until 1977, when he was elected to the Dail for a threeyear spell.

He also spent two years as a member of the European Parliament before taking up a position with what later became Dublin City University.

He was appointed as its first Professor of Journalism and also wrote political biographies of Sean Lemass and Noel Browne.

He is due to take up his position in November, which will mean that members of the public will be able to make complaints free of charge.

The National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) welcomed the appointment of Mr Horgan and said it would have a very positive effect on the relationship between the press and public. The financial risk attached to pursuing legal action meant that many people have been reluctant to make a complaint against the press, even when they were genuinely aggrieved.

Happily, that is no longer the case, its director Frank Cullen said.

It would also help to raise journalistic standards and at the same time safeguard the essential role of media in a democratic society, he said.

The former Justice Minister McDowell had drafted a Defamation Bill, which provided for a defence of fair and reasonable publication on matters of public importance.

This was viewed by the NNI as a crucial reform of the dated libel laws.

However, the bill did not become law before the general election and must be revived by the new Justice Minister Brian Lenihan if it is to come into effect.

Professor Thomas Mitchell, who is chairman of the Press Council, said there would finally be a complaints mechanism that was free, easy to use, totally independent and available to every citizen.

The Ombudsman position is an essential service in any democratic society, he said.

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