The Press Council of Ireland (PCI) was once regarded as a gold standard in the independent regulation of news media, but times have changed. Other regulators such as IPSO in the UK have enhanced powers and moved to addresses a wider range of issues for the public. Journalism has changed since the editorial code was developed; the culture, values and practices have evolved. To meaningfully protect the public from the abuses of the press, it is time for regulation to evolve with it.
After a five-year fall, there was a 26-percentage point increase in the number of complaints made to the Press Ombudsman. Each year the Press Council of Ireland reports on how well Irish print and online journalism adhered to the Code of Practice. This year there has been a shift in the wrong direction.
While the Reuters Digital News Report showed an increase in trust, complaints to the Press Ombudsman has risen for the first time since 2012. But not all these complaints are eventually formalised and processed by the Ombudsman and many hit a dead end.
Most complaints were made about Truth and Accuracy, the same in 2017 as almost every other. There was an increase in complaints citing privacy invasion and in court reporting as well as more complaints about prejudicial coverage.
Since the introduction of independent press regulation in Ireland, there have been 10 principles to govern the ethics of the press. This compares to 16 principles in IPSO (the UK Regulator) which covers additional issues such as, personal gain from journalism and relationships with hospitals. It is also specific to how editors should handle coverage of sexual abuse.
UK’s Code is 1850 words long, with multiple clauses under each principle. It does not just tackle what is published but regulates journalists’ behaviours such as harassment and personal gain. It reads more like legislation than guidelines and was developed in 2014 to respond to recommendations from the Leveson Inquiry into practices and culture of the press. Ireland’s is about 1000, and comparatively broader in the articulation of the values and practices expected from the press.
It is risky to allow so many complaints to remain outside the remit of a regulator. One of the failures of the UK’s former regulator, the Press Complaints Commission (now IPSO), was that it only addressed a fraction of the complaints made. Under-resourced and limited in reach in what it could address, its capacity to identify pervasive problems in the industry was blinkered.
In omitting recording more details of complaints, Irish regulation runs the risk of repeating the same mistake as the PCC in the UK who couldn’t identify repeat offences by individual newspapers such as News of the World and hold them to account for it before the problem became pervasive. The Irish regulator is happy to promote individual titles on social media but not to reprimand them for repeat offences. Good press regulation requires both a sick and a carrot.
While some complaints are not pursued beyond the first call, 33% in 2017, 44% of all complaints made were outside the remit of the regulator. Without knowing the outcome of these complainants, we cannot tell if members of the public had their issue meaningfully resolved.
As the former Press Regulator Prof. John Horgan noted in 2012: “the existence of my Office provides members of the public with an important outlet for their criticisms of the press even if, on reflection, many of them decide not to pursue the matter further.”
But there is no value to be gained when the details of press criticisms are not recorded or addressed. We don’t know why people do not pursue them further, was the complaints process a barrier, or was the error remedied elsewhere? We don’t know but we should.
Looking at the cases outside the remit of the PCI, the number of complaints about unregulated publications are increasing, as are complaints from people not directly featured in an article but took issue with coverage. And the regulator still cannot engage with user-generated content (UGC) published by Irish titles.
Unauthorised third parties are people who complain but were not personally affected by an article and this is an important distinction between consumer and industry orientation. It is not possible for anyone who purchases news to complain about the quality of what they bought. The Press Ombudsman does not check that consumers are getting what newspapers are selling, only that those represented in the media are fairly treated by it. You cannot make a formal complaint if you did not get what you were sold, (eg inaccurate or unfair coverage of an issue) only if you were personally affected by the content (eg you or a community you belong to was featured).
But we can do better. Because the regulator can only act when someone who was directly affected makes a complaint, it cannot work in the interest of the public at large. A consumer orientation would provide a check and balance to ensure that the press delivers on what they say they sell.
It is also not clear what ‘miscellaneous’ reasons might be. Given it was the most common reason given for not dealing with an issue three years running, it requires more clarification.
The Press Ombudsman either mediated or made a decision on only 16% of the complaints made to the office in 2017. When a complaint is taken on, the Press Ombudsman office will begin with a case officer who mediates between the parties which are strictly confidential. Where no resolution can be found, the case is then sent to the Ombudsman for conciliation. And when this fails, it is passed to the Ombudsman for a formal decision. Mediations are strictly confidential and the outcomes of conciliation are not always published. This was the first year that there were more conciliations than decisions.
Why is the number of complaints upheld so low? Is Irish journalism really that good? It’s pretty decent to be fair. The Irish news media has a notable culture of objective and fair reporting, however, it operates under the burden of the Defamation Act 2009. It is a successful piece of legislation in that it places a heavy duty of care for accuracy and fairness in reporting. And the press should always be able to rely on the defence of ‘truth’.
However, insufficient evidence of either error or accuracy is cited in numerous cases for not upholding complaints. This does not conclude that the article was not in breach of the code, only that there was no way to tell. Is ‘I dunno’ a good enough response to a public complaint?
Another problem is the offer of sufficient remedial action usually in the form of editors offering to publish a letter. However, this is repeatedly stated by complainants to not be enough to remedy errors in prominent articles. None the less the regulator frequently sides with the Editor on this.
But the Irish press publishes about 2,500 articles a week. That’s 130k a year and only a handful of errors found. It doesn’t add up.
This is the first year the Press Ombudsman’s Report included a breakdown of how the conciliations were addressed showing most involved editing online content, followed by the publication of a correction or clarification.
The report argues that “one advantage of online publication is that errors and inaccuracies can be easily addressed by amending or deleting what has been published digitally. In 2017 there were many examples where prompt action in amending or deleting online articles led to complaints being resolved without any need for formal decisions.”
However, there is no requirement for news organisations to be transparent about amendments to news articles on web pages. Articles are often altered without acknowledgement meaning there is no public record. Many titles under the regulator do not carry a list of their corrections, clarifications or apologies like in the UK press. They are as difficult to find as the old style 30-word apology in the sidebar.
How can we regulate better?
- Address more complaints. The low number of decisions upheld against Irish news titles and the willingness of editors to engage directly with complainants or through mediation is promising. But there is something uncomfortable about the volume of complaints that are not addressed. Because they do not just go away, the complaint will appear on Facebook or Twitter and reach a wider audience adding to the general malaise with news media. Complaints find an audience out there somewhere and it all chips away, year after year. By learning from the lost complaints, we may be better able to understand how to address the concerns if Irish news consumers.
- Media Literacy and Media Literature. After ten years, the PCI has been governed by the same 10 principles and are using the same statistics for insights. Publishing individual cases is not enough. What we need is an advancement on the data that is made available to support audiences decisions. Annual reports should give audiences an insight into the titles they use. They are simple questions; which are the worst offenders under each of the principles and which titles are best at adhering to the ethical code?
- Be clear about corrections and clarifications. In the UK most popular and prestige titles report any amendments to articles under the piece. They also carry a webpage with a full list of corrections, clarifications and apologies. This is how due prominence is interpreted in the digital era but Irish regulation hasn’t caught up.
- Keep up with other regulators. Ireland’s regulator was more effective than the UK’s disbanded PCC. But it falls far behind the current regulator IPSO on a number of points. The code is outdated and lacking precision. The recording and publication of data are problematic. And it remains limited and reactive. UK regulation is proactive in dealing with wider issues in the press practices. It has a 24-hour harassment hotline and a division where journalists can blow the whistle on their own editors. It can conduct investigations where it sees a problem. IPSO is looking for them, the PCI is not.
The regulation of the press is poised for a change. The Defamation Act is under review and Bills to regulate aspects digital media are moving through stages in the Dail. To uphold standards of journalism in the digital era, it is time for Irish press regulation to get more backing so it can broaden its scope and sharpen its teeth.