At last month's launch of the Press Council's Annual Report for 2016, Denis Naughten TD and Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, stated that the Government was considering ways to maintain standards on social media sites. He went on to say that the Press Council's structures could provide a model for such maintenance.
Oversight by the Press Council
The Press Council is responsible for oversight of the Code of Conduct for the press. The Code sets the professional and ethical standards which members must maintain. In an age of instant news reporting and a shift from print to online news, it is noteworthy that only 3 online-only news publications are members of the Press Council. There are 99 print members.
One of the obstacles facing the printed press in Ireland is of course online news. The Press Council while recognising this has also called on online news organisations to become members of the Press Council. However, of 261 publications that led to a complaint in 2016, only 15 of these related to online only news publications with 124 relating to national newspapers who have a print and online presence. User generated content is outside the remit of the Office of the Press Ombudsman.
It is also noteworthy that 6 complaints were upheld where there was a breach of Principle 9 of the Code of Conduct. Principle 9 obliges media to take particular care in presenting information or comment about a child under the age of 16. The Annual Report states that despite the availability of social media content posted by children, this does not give the media the right to publish images or information found there.
In another case, again relating to social media postings, Principle 3 was infringed when a woman posted highly personal information about herself to a Facebook group which included a journalist. The journalist published the information in an online article without any attempt to inform the woman or to seek her permission. Principle 3 requires fair procedures and honesty. It was found in this case that fair procedures should have been used in procuring the information before publication.
Defamation Act 2009 Review
Not only does the Press Council call for engagement from online news organisations, it also stresses another difficulty facing all media, both print and online. It is critical of the high awards in defamation actions in Ireland which are comparatively out of line with other jurisdictions. The Defamation Act 2009 is currently under review. As part of that review, the level and type of damages awarded will be reviewed and significantly, a review is also being conducted on whether the Act’s provisions are adequate and appropriate in the context of defamatory digital or online communications.
As news organisations continue to move their presence online and to social media platforms, it will be interesting to see what if any changes are made to the Defamation Act to deal these developments and separately, any additional regulation that might be proposed by the Government.