Irish Newspapers, Government Agree To Sweeping Libel Reform

By: E&P Staff

Irish newspapers have agreed to submit to a newly created Press Ombudsman and Press Council that will have the power to force public apologies for inaccurate or “intrusive” reporting — a step publishers hope will reduce the high libel judgments traditionally awarded by Irish juries.

In an editorial Wednesday, the Irish Independent called the new press complaint mechanism a “win-win” for the public and newspapers.

Those who feel they have been wronged by a newspaper?s reporting can complain at no cost to the ombudsman, and get a quick decision — and an apology from the paper if the ombudsman rules that way. Appeals from the ombudsman’s decision can be made to the Press Council, which will have six representatives of the media and six of the general public.

Newspapers, too, will finally be allowed to say they’re sorry without legal peril.

“For their part, newspapers can’t apologize,” the Irish Independent editorial said, “because to put their hands up and say that they are wrong — an apology is the clarion concession that most complainants want — is to sign a blank cheque (sic). It also exposes the newspaper to the whims and vagaries of juries who decide awards, such as the 750,000 (euro) (US$998,700) damages award recently handed down to entrepreneur Denis O’Brien, despite the fact that Supreme Court had rejected a 317,000 (euro) (US$422,100) as excessive.”

The ombudsman and council will be independent of the government.

In an Independent story by Michael Brennan, the head of the National Newspapers of Ireland said it was the first time in the nation’s history that the public would have an independent way to complain about newspapers.

“They can go to the office of the Press Ombudsman, confident that they can get a credible decision, speedily, and at no cost,” Frank Cullen, the group’s coordinating director, said.

The ombudsman will have the power to force newspapers to publish a “prominent” apology for offending reporting.

A new defamation law is also being drafted that would give newspapers a new libel defense of “fair and reasonable publication on matters of public importance.” The defamation measure, and the complaint mechanism, are expected to become law after Easter.

“On balance, I would be optimistic that it will improve the Irish law of defamation very considerably, and that’s something that helps a free and independent press,” said Ireland’s justice minister, Michael McDowell.

Irish Independent Editor Gerry O’Regan called the press council idea “long overdue.” The new system was also hailed by the National Union of Journalists. “This is not about the media and about law, it’s about enriching the lives of ordinary citizens,” the union’s secretary, Seamus Dooley, said.

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