Interview: Chekov Feeney on The Press Council and the Defamation Bill, 2006

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As part of a series of interviews on the Irish media by independent commentators, I asked Chekov Feeney, who writes on the Irish media for Village magazine, about the newly formed Press Council, the forthcoming changes to the Defamation Act, 1961, and whether this would have any impact on how the Irish media behaves.

The setting up of the Press Council and the proposed Defamation Bill, 2006, which has recently passed the Seanad, comes about at a time when more attention is being focused on the media and its interaction with government. Prior to Bertie Ahern’s recent resignation as Taoiseach, he complained bitterly that he was the victim of a media witch hunt. Others argue that some media organisations have too much power, with one in particular, Independent News and Media, controlling 80 percent of newsprint in Ireland. Michael McDowell’s proposed Privacy Bill was, in the minds of some, designed to rein in what media organisations could say about those in the public eye, notably politicians. Although this has now been abandoned, replaced instead by the media’s self-regulatory mechanism of the Press Council, its ghost remains. The suggestion is that if the Press Council, which has no legislative power and instead can only impose a fine on a media outlet’s infraction of its code of practice, is found ineffective in dealing with the media’s perceived misdeeds, then the Privacy Bill may be reintroduced.

This series is part of an extended examination of the Irish media in an attempt to fully understand how it operates, how it represents politics in Ireland, and how it juggles its own commercial interests with its often stated aim of fully informing Irish citizens about public life in Ireland.

I started the interview by asking Chekov about why the Press Council came about in the first place and whether it was because the Press was seen as a powerful institution which lacked real accountability?

Chekov: It’s not possible to present a single definitive answer to why the press council came about. There are a whole load of forces which caused it to be introduced in the form that it was, but public perceptions about the lack of accountability of the press industry were a very minor and indirect consideration which had a virtually negligible direct influence on the formation of the Press Council.

By far the most powerful immediate forces were the government’s threat of a privacy bill which might undermine the press’s ability to publish juicy and lucrative exposés, and their simultaneous promise of a reformed defamation law which might reduce the press industry’s legal costs. As a result of this mooted legislation, it became commercially pragmatic for the press industry to fund a press council designed in such a way so as to minimise the risks that its rulings might interfere with the press’s ability to select stories purely on a commercial basis.

From the government’s point of view, what was important was to create a perception amongst the public that they were addressing the deep concerns amongst the public regarding the lack of reliability and accountability of the press. However, they are extraordinarily wary of doing anything that might offend the media barons who are notoriously vindictive and possess the ability to destroy the career of any politician who defies them.

For example, in 1989, Ray Burke awarded Tony O’Reilly’s Princes Holdings a license to supply multi-channel television in certain areas of the country. However, there was a disappointing take-up of the services since many people remained content with the free-to-air British and Irish channels. In many areas, British channels were broadcast from illegal ‘deflectors’ – basically signal amplifiers which allow the transmissions to be spread further. By the mid 1990s, Princes Holdings were in financial trouble and applied serious pressure to John Bruton’s government to take action against the deflectors (taking people’s telly away would have been very electorally unpopular):

“In 1996, a senior member of then-Taoiseach John Bruton’s staff was warned that the government would lose the Independent Group as “friends”, if the illegal deflectors weren’t dealt with. This was the culmination of a programme of lobbying which had seen O’Reilly himself make the case in person to Bruton. . . The following year, before the general election of June 1997, the Irish Independent advised its readers in a page-one editorial-the infamous “It’s payback time’‘ headline-to vote against the Rainbow government.”

Since then, O’Reilly’s newspapers have more or less backed Fianna Fail through 11 years of power. Many opposition politicians would agree that crossing O’Reilly was a contributing factor to their long sojourn in the electoral wildness. Thus, there is little surprise that politicians are reluctant to make decisions that annoy media barons.

ILR: What about the mooted privacy bill? Was this to protect the rights of citizens or to create greater opacity for politicians?

Chekov: Once again, as in most things, various forces were at play. On the one hand, the press’s invasions of privacy are very unpopular among the population at large. On the other hand, according to political correspondents, the direct impetus came from back-bench Fianna Fail politicians or even from cabinet ministers: “Mr McDowell said that some government ministers had complained to him of an invasion of their privacy but he did not elaborate.”

This is entirely plausible, as some TDs feel that they are tremendously important people whose accomplishments are so clearly deserving of unadulterated reverence that any coverage which fails to show such qualities is considered to be an intolerable abuse.

However, political correspondents are routinely used by government bodies to spread propaganda. In this case, where we are relying on secondhand accounts based on an unknown number of unnamed sources, this theory should be considered plausible but unreliable.

Overall, however, the major forces at play are quite clear. Politicians are quite genuine in their disdain for the grubby invasiveness of the press. However, they fear the power of the media barons. I can’t imagine that any minister is keen to introduce and champion new legislation in the teeth of total, all-out hostility from the press. So, on balance, I think it likely that the privacy bill was mostly just sabre-rattling, intended to hasten the establishment of the Press Council, an achievement which could be portrayed as a PR victory both to the public and to the TDs without making any powerful enemies.

ILR: There was great enthusiasm for the Press Council within the print media, with the suggestion coming from an editorial in the Irish Times, for example, that it was ‘a defining moment in Irish journalism where the rights and responsibilities of the print media can be held to account by readers.’

Why do you think they were so enthusiastic? And was this enthusiasm connected in any way to the fact that the council has no actual power? For example, it can’t get anyone fired or institute a fine. All it can do is force them to print an apology, which is often the practice of major newspapers anyway.

Chekov: The Press Council was welcomed by many newspapers, particularly those which describe themselves as “quality”, because it helps them to sell the idea that the industry is, by and large, well-regulated, accountable, ethical and reliable. They also welcomed it because they hope that its establishment will cause the government to drop the privacy bill and enact the defamation bill.

If the council had any power which might restrict the press’s ability to print whatever makes the most commercial sense, they would oppose it viciously and they most certainly would not fund it.

Not only does the Council have no power to impose meaningful punishments, its terms of reference are such that virtually all the lies that are routinely printed in the media are immune. Only those who are directly included in a story are eligible to make a complaint and papers are already relatively cautious in such cases due to the risk of libel proceedings.
ILR: Is there a difference between the press council and Irish libel laws? If Irish libel laws a quite strong why do we need a press council?

Chekov: The Press Council, the libel laws and the privacy bill are all intimately linked. The reformed defamation law and the new privacy bill were the carrot and stick, respectively, used by the state in order to motivate the press industry to establish the Press Council. The privacy bill has now been shelved and the defamation bill is still work in progress-the government is taking its time in enacting it, presumably because they still want to use it as a carrot to ensure that the media council at least achieves its basic PR function of making it look like they’re doing something to counter press abuses.

The Press Council’s rules for admissibility of complaints is such that its terms of reference cover much of the same ground that the libel laws do. The press industry’s hope is that this will allow more complaints to be resolved without the courts being involved-a much cheaper alternative of course. If and when the government decides that the work of the Press Council merits it, the reformed defamation law will be enacted, which will further assist the press in avoiding the courts when they publish defamatory lies.

ILR: According to a recent article in the London Review of Books on the British press, the British Press Complaints Commission “rejects 90.2 per cent of all complaints on technical grounds without investigation. Of the 28,227 complaints received by the commission over ten years, 197 were upheld by a PCC adjudication: 0.69 per cent”.

Is there a realistic chance that an Irish press council would be able to provide greater satisfaction for reader’s complaints as it is currently structured?

Chekov: The review is of a very good book-Flat Earth News-which I’ve just finished. It paints a very, very grim picture of the press industry in Britain and all indications are that the same basic forces apply in Ireland, with similar results. However, the structure and codes of practice of the respective press councils are slightly different. In particular, the Irish code of practice is slightly more abstract and open to interpretation, so exactly how the decisions break down will depend on the interpretation of the ombudsman and the council. However, the situations are similar enough that it is still possible to make predictions with a reasonable degree of confidence based on the UK statistics.

In the UK a large majority of complaints that were rejected on technical grounds were classified as “complaints not formalised”, “outside remit” and “third party complaints”. There is no reason to suspect that the Irish public are likely to be significantly better than their British counterparts at drafting formal complaints with the required accompanying documentation. Thus, we can expect that a similar proportion of complaints will be rejected out of hand. There is little reason to believe that the proportion of complaints upheld will be much different either. It may vary a little, but it will be the same pattern.

ILR: The remit of the Council is to ensure that reporting meets standards of truth and accuracy. However, one of the main problems with the Irish print media is not out right dishonesty or the stating of false facts, although that does happen. The problem is often that the media in general chooses not to ask particular questions. This problem can be seen in the lack of real investigative journalism in the Irish print media. We do hear a lot from papers like the Irish Times stating that they are leading the way when it comes to social change in Ireland, for example. However, all they usually do, and this is not exclusive to the IT by the way, is to report on stories and controversies that have been broken elsewhere. This is the case with scandal over cancer services, clerical abuse and corrupt solicitors.

Alain Badiou, commenting on the results of the French election last year said: We should not underestimate the role of what Althusser called the ‘ideological state apparatus’-increasingly through the media, with the press now playing a more sophisticated part than TV and radio-in formulating and mobilizing such collective sentiments.

Is the Press Council, and the media’s enthusiasm for it, a cover for the fact that the Irish media have no desire to challenge the vested interests in this country? Indeed, would you go as far as calling it part of the ideological state apparatus?

Chekov: The book that I referred to above, Flat Earth News, contains an extraordinarily detailed exposition of how the press functions in minute detail. I’m still gob-smacked that the author, veteran journalist Nick Davies, managed to attract the really quite large amount of funding (academic rather than commercial) that it required. He was able to fund, amongst other things, a team of five researchers in the University of Cardiff for several years to count stuff in the press (article inches, issue coverage, number of employees, sources of articles, etc.) in a meticulous way across a relatively huge sample.

Chomsky and Herman, in works like Manufacturing Consent, have developed a compelling socio-political analysis of the media’s function in self-declared democratic society, backed up by a considerable wealth of empirical research. However, they described the “what,” rather than the how”. They demonstrated that the media operates as a system which, taken as a whole, produces propaganda in support of the powerful. They had, however, relatively little to say about the mechanisms by which this propaganda was produced and this caused many media people to reject its analysis as being divorced from the reality of the newsroom and a ‘conspiracy theory’ of sorts.

Flat Earth News fills in the details. It describes, in meticulous detail, exactly how the press comes to publish the propaganda of the powerful. Essentially, it demonstrates, with overwhelmingly convincing empirical evidence, that commercial considerations and an increasingly single-minded focus on the bottom line have caused much of the primary production of stories and content to be outsourced to PR and state press offices. Davies describes how journalism has been largely reduced to churnalism, with most journalism merely consisting of copy-and-pasted press releases or government briefings. Amazingly, his analysis showed that only 12% of material printed was based on original research and only 12% of the “facts” copied from these hopelessly unreliable sources showed any evidence of having been checked.

This research provides powerful evidence in support of Chomsky and Herman’s basic thesis. If a large majority of press coverage derives from PR, we should expect that the content will be largely made up of the propaganda of those who can afford the best PR. States and corporate propaganda are thus utterly dominant in the media partly due to the enormous resources they can devote to PR.

The propaganda effects of the press are reflected in what is not covered as much as by is covered. One good example: In October of 2006, two men were arrested in Lancashire, with the biggest cache of chemical explosives ever discovered in Britain, along with a rocket launcher, crossbow and bomb-making instructions. Both were linked to the BNP, with one of the men having been a candidate just a few months before. This event attracted not one single word of coverage in the national British press-with just a few brief stories in the local press-compared to the saturation coverage of several false-alarms involving Islamic people.

The reason it didn’t get any coverage: The police press office did not press release it. The BBC, when contacted two weeks later to ask why they did not cover it, replied:

“I have also discovered that the police were not helpful in giving out information on this case, even though they had spent some days searching before the men were arrested.”

It’s not fair to make a direct comparison with Muslim cases, as each incident has its own peculiar circumstances. In the recent arrests around the UK, the police and Home Office had made sure there was publicity and that the media knew what was going on even while the raids were taking place . . .

However, don’t forget that only one national newspaper has reported the Lancashire arrests, so it’s not just the BBC- nearly all the media seem to have missed this one.”

We don’t know why the police chose not to publicise this arrest. It could have been a desire not to confuse the state’s focus on the Muslim security threat during a time of war, or the security services could have been up to something, but that’s not all that important. It is a potent example of how the state providers of the information which the press publishes have the ability to squash stories, even when they are the sort of thing which we would imagine should be all over the media.

The great thing about Flat Earth News is that it fills in the gaps-it provides compelling explanations for the gross distortions that the media carries out without any need for conspiracies, or any direct control at all. The press’s overall function as a propaganda instrument flows naturally from the commercial environment in which it operates. Their attitude can be summed up as follows:

“If you will pay for highly skilled people to provide good stories for us, of course we will print them. If they happen to contain fabricated or grossly distorted information, too bad, it’s still free copy for us and as long as you don’t piss off anybody powerful enough to hit us back, we respect your right to have your say about stuff.”

Anyway, this all brings me to the answer of your question. I agree with Badiou and Althusser as to the significance of the media as an institution within our society. I would, however, quibble about their description. Certainly, the media forms a significant part of the “ideological state apparatus”, but I think it’s more than that. It is an important part of capitalism’s apparatus of control. In the developed countries, it is perhaps the most important means of all by which the powerful maintain and further their power over the population. In less developed economies, the police and military can be sent out to batter the populace back into line whenever they get bolshie. Our economies, however, require the active participation and the support of a significant proportion of the population. Power structures need to channel the ideas of significant numbers of people, to help them come to conclusions which are favourable to the powerful. By acting as a propaganda vehicle for the powerful, the press is a much more useful tool in defence of the status quo than any army or police force.

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Image of the members of the Press Council of Ireland taken from Cearte.ie, which is run by Dr. Eoin O’Dell a Fellow and Senior Lecturer at School of Law, Trinity College, Dublin with a special interest in Media Law. His blog has dealt extensively with the Press Council and the changes proposed in the Defamation Bill, 2006.


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Donagh is the editor of Irish Left Review. Contact Donagh through email: dublinopinionAtgmail.com
 

One Response

  1. Miriam Cotton

    April 24, 2008 9:51 am

    Very good analysis. Another issue worth looking at is the make up of the Press Council itself – the people who have been appointed and their backgrounds.