The Irish press faces a two-pronged attack from the likes of Facebook and Google and the country’s own defamation laws, the chairman of the Press Council of Ireland has warned.
More than half of people in Ireland, and probably a greater percentage of young people, got their news online, particularly from social media, Sean Donlon told a meeting of the Association of European Journalists in Dublin this month.
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He said social media platforms, including Twitter and Youtube, were not subject to any regulation, voluntary or legislative, and were “hoovering up” the advertising revenue on which the traditional media depended.
Press Gazette reported yesterday how UK advertising spending grew to a record £10.8bn in the first six months of this year, but news brands and magazines saw their ad revenue fall against growth for the web giants.
“These big tech companies like to give the impression that they are run by altruistic Californian hippies in jeans,” said Donlon.
“They are, in fact, rapacious capitalists some of whom believe that their tech utopia – a place with no governments and no check on capitalism – is not only achievable but preferable for all mankind.”
The second threat to Ireland’s press was its legal system, particularly the application of the defamation legislation, Donlon said.
He noted two recent interventions – the reference by newly appointed Chief Justice Frank Clarke to the prohibitively high cost of legal action in Ireland, a cost which in defamation cases fell heavily on the press. And the call by libel lawyer Paul Tweed for “controls on Ireland’s cripplingly high defamation awards” which were “discrediting the law and threatening the very existence of newspapers and other publishers”.
The Minister for Justice had launched a review of the Defamation Act 2009, as was required by law and the Press Council had made a submission, Donlon said, suggesting that defamation actions should be heard in the Circuit Court, where there were limits on damages.
He said the role of juries in all cases should be curtailed and that cases in which higher damages were sought should be heard in the High Court’s Commercial Division, where there were no juries.
“Part of the background to this was the award of €1.25m to Monica Leech in her action against INM (Independent News and Media), an award which the European Court of Human Rights subsequently ruled ‘was a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression’,” Donlon said.
He added: “In Ireland, as elsewhere, democracy needs a free press to act as a check on state and corporate power. The health of an independent press is inseparable from the state of all democratic and civil rights.
“To function effectively newspapers, need a degree of financial comfort. That does not exist here today.
“Local newspapers are closing and the 78 that remain are not always in a position, for example, to cover the proceedings of the local councils or of the district courts in the detail that was their hallmark.
“While this may seem unimportant, it has emerged in London that there was almost no coverage of the local authority meetings which sanctioned the controversial renovation of the Grenfell flats, a renovation which may have contributed to the fire and huge loss of life.
“If local papers here are strapped for cash, the same is true of the national papers. There is clearly a decline in investigative reporting, understandable given the limited financial resources and the threat of expensive libel actions.”
He called on the Irish government to “get on with the overdue review of the Defamation Act”, adding: “The proposals made by the Press Council are reasonable and are in line with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights on the size of awards.
“The views of the Chief Justice on the matter of legal costs should also be borne in mind and remedies which have been canvassed to reduce legal costs in recent years should be taken into account.
“Secondly, the government should accept and implement the recommendation of the Law Reform Commission and set up a Digital Safety Body to promote digital safety and in particular to oversee efficient take-down procedures in relation to inappropriate online material.”
Donlon said social media platforms should also voluntarily come together and devise a voluntary code of practice similar to that used by European print media.