Other Questions. - Newspaper Industry.

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

36 Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she expects the newspaper industry to establish a press ombudsman in the near future; the estimated annual cost of establishing and running such an office; and if she has any proposals in this regard if the newspaper industry fails to establish a procedure for the investigation of complaints or breaches of press standards. [7011/01]

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

78 Mr. Gilmore asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she will introduce legislation to provide for the appointment of an ombudsman for the newspaper industry; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7103/01]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 36 and 78 together.

I have no plans to introduce legislation to provide for the appointment of an ombudsman for the newspaper industry. In recommending the establishment of an ombudsman to investigate complaints of breaches of press standards, the Commission on the Newspaper Industry was clear that the ombudsman should be appointed and funded by the newspaper industry itself and I agree with that recommendation.

I understand that, while some preparatory work has been carried out by the newspaper industry, the recommendation on the establishment of an ombudsman has not yet been implemented. The newspaper industry has always linked its acceptance of the ombudsman proposal to changes in the law on defamation and, in that respect, I understand from my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, that proposals for legislation on defamation are being prepared in his Department.

I am not in a position to provide any estimate of the costs of establishing and operating the proposed office of ombudsman as that is a matter for the newspaper industry itself. I have no reason to doubt the newspaper industry's commitment to implementing the ombudsman recommendation, albeit linked to reform of the law on defamation, and, accordingly, I have no proposals in relation to its failure to do so.

Is the Government, the newspaper industry or both dragging their feet on this issue? Is this a set-up between the Government and the newspaper industry? Why have we not seen action on the commission's 1996 recommendation? Guidelines were to be furnished within two months of the publication of the commission's report but no such guidelines were published. The Minister referred to the need for legislative change in this area and that is a matter for the Government. Are the Government and the newspaper industry in league with each other to ensure nothing happens?

As I stated in my reply, the appointment of an ombudsman is a question for the newspaper industry. There is no question of an ombudsman being established on a statutory basis to be funded by taxpayers. The newspaper industry has always linked the appointment of an ombudsman with changes in the defamation legislation which is a matter for my Government colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I understand work is progressing on changing the law in this area.

Am I correct in stating that in regard to changes in the law on defamation, all that is required is to provide immunity for complaints to a press ombudsman? Is it not the case that the newspaper industry is pressing for further changes in the law on defamation which it is effectively using as a lever with the Government? Nothing is happening on this issue. It is like waiting for Godot. The only reasonable conclusion one can draw is that this Government is in thrall to powerful interests in the newspaper industry and that, as far as it is concerned, it is payback time and a press ombudsman will not be established under its regime?

Deputy O'Keeffe may not realise how humorous is his comment on people being in thrall to powerful forces in the newspaper industry. On the appointment of an ombudsman or a press council, many options can be explored where people have legitimate grievances which they cannot have addressed other than through the courts. Citizens who might normally be reluctant to take action through the courts do not have any alternative in this area. It is important that an ombudsman or press council be established but there is no question of an ombudsman being appointed on a statutory basis; the commission's report did not contain any such suggestion. The newspaper industry itself must appoint and finance an ombudsman.

Changing the law on defamation is a separate matter, although it was linked by the industry to the appointment of an ombudsman. It was suggested that if the newspaper industry were to appoint an ombudsman, such a person would be given privileges in regard to immunity which would clearly be a matter requiring legislation. Other Ministers such as the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who is responsible for bringing forward proposals on defamation, may be more familiar with this issue than I am. Perhaps representatives of the newspaper industry have discussed the matter of immunity with him but it has not been discussed with me.

Am I correct in saying the Minister is extremely relaxed about the central issue of Deputy O'Keeffe's question? Why is she opposed to an ombudsman being appointed on a statutory basis? Given the lapses we have witnessed in recent years, does she not consider it to be in the interests of good journalists and good journalism that an ombudsman be appointed? Why would legislating for such an appointment automatically confer a cost on taxpayers? Does the Minister agree it is unlikely her colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, will bring forward proposals to reform defamation law in the lifetime of this Government? Even if he does so, newspaper proprietors may take the view they are inadequate and an ombudsman will not even be appointed at that stage.

Deputy O'Keeffe's question concerned the recommendations of the Commission on the Newspaper Industry which were presented to my predecessor, Deputy Richard Bruton. Deputy Rabbitte's point on whether we should provide for statutory protection, be it an ombudsman, press council etc., in this area is valid. We must consider providing citizens who are damaged by the media with an alternative to recourse to the courts and we must ensure members of the media are made aware of their responsibilities. I am not certain when the legislation on defamation will be produced or what form it will take. There has been extensive lobbying from the newspaper industry in the past about the need for this legislation. Any changes in the law relating to defamation could only take place if accompanied by the establishment of an ombudsman, either statutory or industry based. It would have to have credibility and powers of enforcement. If we were to provide for a statutory ombudsman or press council and legislate for that and force that on the industry, that would have to be paid for by the industry.

Arising from her reply, I put it to the Minister that she has neither the interest nor the inclination to deal with this matter. A wait and see approach is what she wishes to advance here. Could the Minister confirm that some voluntary code in the newspaper industry will be sufficient as far as she is concerned? Will she outline to the House the nature of the proposed changes to the libel laws that she as Tánaiste would wish to see enshrined in the statute books?

I do not know why Deputy Flanagan thinks I have a "wait and see" approach to this area. If he is trying to suggest that I am fearful of some sections of the newspaper industry or those involved in the newspaper industry, I can assure him that nothing could be further from the truth.

Some people may have changed their minds over time about change in the law on defamation. There may well be a need for change but that would have to be accompanied by procedures such as the establishment of either a press council or an ombudsman in order to be fair to the ordinary citizen. Litigation is expensive and it can place additional burdens on ordinary people. If there were not to be an ombudsman or a press council or some form of redress, many Members of the House would be reluctant to change the defamation laws. I would favour a change in the laws if it could be accompanied by something like an ombudsman or a press council.

We need to have a correct balance. The media has huge powers to inform, to educate, to entertain, but it also has powers to mis-inform and perhaps to abuse people. Therefore, any change would have to be accompanied by protection.

The Minister says she favours the establishment of an ombudsman or a press complaints commission, but why does she not do something about it? Does she not appreciate that the only image she presents here is of someone wringing her hands and doing a Pontius Pilate job.

The Calcott Commission was set up in the United Kingdom in 1990. It established a period of 18 months during which a new self-regulatory authority was to be set up and in default of that, recommended that a statutory authority would be set up. I am not saying the United Kingdom has the perfect answer but at least it had the guts to make the change from the old discredited press commission. Will the Minister tell us what she will do to achieve the establishment of a press ombudsman?

My main responsibility in this area is ensure that there is free and fair competition. The commission established by my predecessor after the closure—

That reported five years ago.

That report was referred to the Competitions and Mergers Review Group. I will bring proposals to Cabinet on the recommendations of that group within the next few weeks. The draft heads of that Bill are nearly ready and that is my main area of responsibility in relation to the industry. Other matters are the responsibility of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, in respect of defamation and libel laws. Any changes in those laws would be accompanied by the establishment of an ombudsman or a press council and they are matters for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

A Pontius Pilate job.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.