Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 17 February 2022
Committee on Public Petitions
Annual Reports of the Press Council of Ireland and Office of the Press Ombudsman: Press Ombudsman
Our next business is an engagement with the Press Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Feeney, on the annual reports for 2018, 2019 and 2020 and related matters.
Before we start, I wish to explain some limitations to parliamentary privilege and the practice of the Houses regarding references witnesses may make to other persons in their evidence. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. However, the witnesses are giving evidence remotely from a place outside of the parliamentary precincts and, as such, may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present does. Witnesses may think it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. The witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if any of their statements are potentially defamatory with regard to an identifiable person or entity, witnesses will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that the witnesses comply with any such direction.
Before we hear from the witness, I propose we publish his opening statement on the committee's website. Is that agreed? Agreed. On behalf of the committee I extend a warm welcome to the Press Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Feeney. This committee has an oversight role over all ombudsmen and this is the first time the Press Ombudsman has appeared before us. The Office of the Press Ombudsman was established in 2008 and in 2010 SI 163 was approved by both Houses of the Oireachtas, recognising the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman. The Defamation Act 2009 states the principal objectives of the Press Council shall be to ensure the protection of freedom of expression of the press; the protection of the public interest by ensuring ethical, accurate and truthful reporting by the press; the maintenance of certain minimum ethical and professional standards among the press; and to ensure the privacy and dignity of the individual is protected. The world has changed since 2009 and there are difficulties with the regulation of social media. The online safety and media regulation Bill 2022 will, we hope, address some of these matters.
Mr. Feeney is no stranger to us and before becoming Press Ombudsman, he had considerable experience in public service broadcasting as editor of current affairs television at RTÉ. Before that he lectured in politics at the University of Ulster.
I suggest the Press Ombudsman makes his opening statement for ten minutes and we will then have some questions and comments from members. We ask each member to keep their time for questions and answers to five minutes and this will allow for members to come back in on a couple of occasions.
I invite Mr. Feeney, Press Ombudsman, to make his opening statement.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
I thank the Deputies and Senators for this opportunity to make an opening statement to the committee.
The Office of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council of Ireland were established in 2008, as the Chairman has said. It was an initiative of the newspaper industry, which recognised that trust in the content of newspapers required an independent means whereby the public could hold to account editors and journalists. After a detailed examination of newspaper regulatory structures in other European countries, a structure was developed for Ireland. It was seen from the very beginning that, for any structure put in place to have credibility, it would have to be independent of the press industry and of government. It was necessary to have independent public interest members who were not associated with the press. The Press Council has 13 members. The majority of seven are independent members and the other six members are nominated by national and local newspapers, magazines and the National Union of Journalists, which may nominate one member.
Also established in 2008 was the Office of the Press Ombudsman. The Press Ombudsman would be the first port of call for members of the public seeking redress. A code of practice was drawn up by editors. If a member of the public felt something published in a member publication breached any of the principles of the code of practice, he or she could make a complaint to the Press Ombudsman. I should emphasise that the decision-making function of the Press Ombudsman is entirely independent of the Press Council of Ireland. This is as it should be because my decisions as the Press Ombudsman can be, under limited circumstances, appealed to the full Press Council.
Unlike all other ombudsman services, the Press Ombudsman is not based on statute and we are not a statutory body. We are independent of government. However, as the Chairman has said, for the purposes of the Defamation Act 2009, the Press Council of Ireland is recognised as meeting the criteria necessary. A ministerial order signed in 2010 confers certain advantages on the Press Ombudsman. A significant benefit was that qualified privilege attaches to all reports of the Press Ombudsman and Press Council. Subscription to the Press Council and adherence to the code of practice also strengthens the entitlement of member publications to avail of the defence of reasonable publication in any court action.
The Press Ombudsman began receiving complaints in 2008. Since that date we have dealt with more than 5,000 complaints. Our emphasis initially is always on conciliation and trying to find a means of resolving complaints. This may mean a newspaper publishing a correction or clarification, it may publish a letter, or it may edit the online record or whatever. As part of the conciliation service we also provide a more formal mediation service for complainants and editors. Many complaints are resolved at conciliation. If conciliation is not possible, a complaint goes to me as the Press Ombudsman. If the Press Ombudsman judges that there has been a breach of the code, my decision must be published in full on the same page or further forward in the newspaper, and without any editorial comment. The only exception to this is if publication of the article is on the front page of a newspaper. In this case my decision must be published on one of the first four pages of the newspaper.
If either the complainant or the newspaper is not satisfied with my decision, the decision may be appealed, on a limited number of grounds, to the full Press Council. The Press Council then hears the appeal, and if the original decision of the Press Ombudsman upholding the complaint is affirmed, the publication must publish my original decision and the appeal outcome of the Press Council.
Membership of the Press Council is voluntary. In other words, no publication has to join the Press Council. I am happy to say all national newspapers - print and online editions - including Irish editions of UK newspapers, the majority of local newspapers, as well as many magazines have joined the Press Council. In addition, with the growth of online-only news publications, there are now many online-only members of the Press Council, with thejournal.ieas an obvious example.
In summary, the vast majority of journalism found in newspapers, magazines and online in Ireland is now subject to the independent complaints handling processes of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council. We pride ourselves on the speed with which complaints are dealt with. Typically from publication to a decision takes on average between six and eight weeks. If a complaint can be resolved at conciliation, the timeframe can be much shorter. For many people a speedy resolution to a complaint is the most important aspect of the complaints process. Senators and Deputies will be aware the alternative of pursuing an issue through the defamation process is very slow, very expensive and very time consuming. Typically, it can take two to five years for a defamation action to reach the courts.
After 15 years of operation what can we say? The number of complaints we receive each year suggests the public recognises the worth of the complaints process. It suggests that the public buys into the independence and value of the process. For the press, it can be said that publications have always fully engaged with the Office of the Press Ombudsman and have committed themselves to engaging in the conciliation process. The code of practice, which is subject to occasional review, has stood up well as a defender in the press, especially the rights of privacy, protection of children, the rights of accuracy, and the avoidance of prejudice.
It is my view the Irish public is well served by its newspapers, both national and local, as well as online-only news services as vehicles for information, comment and debate. The excesses found in the media in other countries are not found in Ireland to the same extent. In my view, the press in Ireland provides an important role in keeping the public well and accurately informed and plays an essential role in Ireland's democratic process. I would say this has been made clear in the past two years of Covid. The role the press has played in keeping the public well-informed with accurate information and measured debate has played a significant part in the way this country has faced the challenges of the past two years.
Of course, there are issues and problems. Public discourse has moved, in part, from traditional media of print and broadcasting to social media. This is largely an unregulated area and has led to a huge growth in misinformation, aggression and vitriol. As any politician can testify, this has tarnished public debate and allowed unsubstantiated comment, a status not found before. The Press Council welcomes Government proposals for the introduction of an online safety commissioner and a media authority as important parts in holding to account and regulating social media. No one can dispute the value social media has brought in opening means of communication and debate, but we must recognise simultaneously that social media can bring harm, and it is important to put in place structures to deal with it. Getting the balance right between defending freedom of expression and avoiding harm is not easy. In the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas, it is to be presumed we will see much of that debate.
The new media authority will bring together broadcasting and social media and recognise the changes that have taken place in the media over the past two decades. The Government proposals for the new media authority do not include the areas of the media that are covered by the Press Council. We welcome this distinction and see it as a recognition that current structures that apply to newspapers, magazines and online news services are working efficiently and have unique qualities that are best nurtured by the independent structures we have in place.
One of the main issues facing the print media today is the growth in dominance of social media and its distortion of the marketplace. As an example, about 85% of online media advertising spend in Ireland is directed to the major international social media organisations. This leaves the indigenous media such as online editions of newspapers and online-only services fighting over the last 15% of the available online advertising revenue. This has led to a direct result in a loss of jobs and a loss of journalists and fewer resources for newspapers to carry out their roles as the Fourth Estate. We can see this at local level where regional newspapers have fewer resources to report on local government matters and local court matters. Local communities rely on their local newspapers for critical information and debate on issues that count for them. The Government established a Future of Media Commission. This commission has concluded its report, which has gone to the Government. The Press Council urges the Government to publish that report and to implement as many of its recommendations as possible.
Another cause of concern is that the Government has not met the commitment in the 2009 Act that after five years there would be a review of the efficacy and usefulness of the Defamation Act. That review is now long overdue. It is hoped that the review may make recommendations in terms of the level of awards given in defamation actions.
No one doubts the importance of citizens being able to protect their reputations by using the defamation process but if the level of awards is so high as to threaten the financial future of the press industry and to act as a censorial hand on legitimate investigative journalism, then surely the balance is not right and needs to be addressed. One specific recommendation which the Press Council of Ireland has made to this review which was made several years ago, is that solicitors in advising their clients who are considering taking defamation actions should be legally obliged to inform their clients of the services of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council of Ireland. The level of legal costs in defamation actions in Ireland is out of line with other countries and is a major burden on the press. Recourse to the services of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council may ease some of that burden.
A final point, as ombudsman I do not have the power to initiate complaints. My office responds to complaints we receive. We also only accept complaints about individual articles, not general claims about the press. Complaints can only be considered about something that has been published in the last three months and complainants must be able to demonstrate that they have been personally affected by what has been published.
I am available to answer any questions members may have. The only limitation is that I cannot discuss individual complaints or their outcome or indeed reasoning behind any specific decisions. Section 6(1)(8) of the report of the committee on the review of the terms of reference for the Joint Committee on Public Petitions makes this clear.
I thank Mr. Feeney. The freedom of the press is of vital importance to the proper functioning of any democracy for the enhancement of critical thinking, the exchange of ideas and to hold those in positions of privilege and power to account. What we have seen throughout the pandemic is local publications in all our areas that have gotten into trouble. They have had to temporarily lay off some very good journalists. Hopefully as we come out of the pandemic that can be reversed. More widely we have seen, and it is in Mr. Feeney's opening statement, the influence of social media both in terms of its contribution and the detraction from the quality of public debate and its ability to cause harm with immediate consequences. I will raise two issues before I let the other members in. Mr. Feeney is in a unique position to be the ombudsman that is operating in a private, unstatutory field, which is welcome, given the need to ensure the independence of the press. Does he find the need to evolve with the nature of complaints that come his way? Does the independent nature of his role enable him to make those adaptations? The second issue is, as he stated a few minutes ago, another cause for concern is the slowness with which the Government has made a commitment to a review after five years of the Defamation Act 2009. Does he think this should be reviewed sooner, but also to include social media?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
The first point is that I think the relationship between ombudsmen in general and the Government is now at a good level. In other words politicians take the decisions of ombudsmen seriously and see the value for ordinary citizens in there being good ombudsmen services across financial services, children, language, and so forth. The relationship in general between all the ombudsmen and Government is now in quite a healthy state. Obviously in the early days the public confidence in ombudsmen's independence had to grow. Now, 20 or 30 years later, we have had excellent ombudsmen, information commissioners and excellent people in financial services and in the Garda, etc. There is now a good balance between the independence of ombudsmen and the attention that Government pays to them. Ombudsmen are very pleased that the joint committee is now taking ombudsmen under its umbrella because that helps us to get across the issues which we see as important and need to be addressed.
In other ombudsmen's annual reports I have seen several examples where citizens who have been denied their rights have got those rights addressed and have found justice through the operation of the ombudsman services. Our independence from Government is actually not a particularly critical disadvantage or advantage for us. It is more to do with the tradition of newspapers being independent of Government. As members know from the very beginning broadcasting was always subject to Government but newspapers were not. It is more for historical reasons that is there.
The second question is about the review. As Press Ombudsman and Press Council, we do not have any huge issue with our current structures. I do not want to sound complacent but we are actually quite happy with the structures that exist at present. However we are concerned that newspapers, which we think play an important role, are under very severe financial pressure. The Chair mentioned lay-offs. My understanding is that many local newspapers, in particular, have relied on pandemic employment schemes to fund their journalists over the past two years and that this obviously has come to an end. There is a concern in the industry that the jobs of some of those journalists may be at risk when they have to get paid out of reduced advertising revenue. The key point really is advertising revenue. I would make the point that much of the readership lost through the loss of sales of newspapers has been compensated for by increased accessing of online news. My view, and it is only my view, is that the way in which people absorb journalism works much better in print than online. If it is a lengthy investigative piece it is much easier to read that in a newspaper or magazine than it is to read it on a phone. Much of the use of mobile devices for access to journalism is to do with entertainment journalism and for goal scores and so forth. There is much less of the old fourth estate position of really looking into things and holding to account. That works better in print. I am hopeful that the Government will consider the proposals of the new media commission and that when the review of the Defamation Act 2009 takes place, it will put into place effect measures that will strengthen the role and value of media in Ireland.
As we all know, we share a language with a much larger dominant neighbour. In regard to television viewing and newspaper reading, public discourse in Ireland will lose out if the dominant source moves from being Irish sources to British sources. We can see this with Brexit. We can see this attitude today in cultural policy and the European agricultural policy over the years. It is terribly important that there is an Irish media which addresses Irish concerns with an Irish understanding of them. If we were to rely on our neighbours we would have, from our perspective, an understanding which I think would disadvantage us.
I thank the ombudsman for his time and his comprehensive opening statement. I was particularly interested to hear about the service his office provides in terms of addressing individual complaints, and his comments in regard to the ability of social media to, as he put it, tarnish debates. I am keen to understand his perspective on the online safety and media regulation Bill and, in particular, its approach to individual complaints. I know from the victims of online abuse of exploitation and bullying and the organisations that represent them, such as BodyWhys, CyberSafeKids, SpunOut, Jigsaw and many more, that while the online safety and media regulation Bill is a welcome and progressive step, that many organisations working on the ground feel that a mechanism for individual complaints is necessary, and I support them in this. I agreed with Mr. Feeney when he said recently that going through a social media platform to have your complaint dealt with can often be difficult and lengthy. It can feel like the social media companies must be drowning in such a huge number of complaints that they just cannot keep up with. That is further supported by the recent whistleblower claims from the former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, who claims that Facebook and Instagram actively encourage and promote negative and abusive content because those posts sell more, get more clicks and garner more attention. I would be very interested to know Mr. Feeney's views on an individual complaints mechanism for social media and how he thinks that could be implemented.
Recently I have also been looking at how we might include overly edited or photo-shopped media advertisements in the definition of harmful content. I would be keen to understand whether this is something he thinks there is room to provide for in print media as well. I believe there is provision to further define categories of harmful content beyond the current definition of cyberbullying that may look at other things as well as self-harm and eating disorders. I would be keen to hear if he had any views on how we could expand that definition and the parameters. I say that in the context of the online safety and media regulation Bill but I think there is an opportunity for print media too. He spoke about the differences in terms of journalism, advertisement, investment and regulation between print media and online platforms, and the vulnerability of print journalism to modern technological developments.
All members of this committee know the value of online political activity. A boosted post can reach as many constituents as a leaflet drop. A targeted advertisement can reach the exact audience we want to pinpoint. We can share information ourselves even where a journalist deems it not newsworthy or, indeed, not accurate. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram have replaced the platforms that politicians used to stand on outside the church gates. The power of politicians' message is not just what they say but how many times people share it and how much that narrative is amplified. That is how we get our message out and how all of us try to influence democracy. We saw the fantastic benefits of that with online movements like #HomeToVote, which amplified social movements like repeal the eighth and the marriage equality referendum.
That is the benefit of social media but there are, as alluded to by the Ombudsman, also great threats, including to democracy, because social media allows for such easy and viral spreading of disinformation. It also allows for the generation of online hate messages and bots that are created solely for political gain. As Mr. Feeney said, social media is not subject to the same regulation as the print media industry. It is clear that we need additional investment in how we tackle that. It is not good enough to mandate social media platforms to remove content. We need to implement fines to ensure that actually happens. While that is part of what the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill is about, does that legislation go far enough?
Democracy is fragile. We saw that when supporters of President Trump, egged on by his tweets, stormed Capitol Hill. Allowing social media to become a weapon, which we certainly do not allow in the case of the print media, poses a threat. I am very interested in hearing Mr. Feeney's views on that.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
I thank Deputy Higgins who covered a wide area. I will address some of her points.
The Government proposal to introduce some form of regulation of social media is a vital and necessary measure. There is a recognition in the proposals in the Bill that it is not possible to moderate social media in advance of publication. In other words, because there are millions of postings on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok, etc., every hour, it is simply inconceivable that all of those could go through some sort of moderation process first. The key question, as mentioned by Deputy Higgins, is how do these social media companies address complaints. In the first instance, can a member of the public complain easily? Second, if someone can complain, can that complaint be addressed quickly because tweets and messages need to be taken down if they are threatening, offensive, damaging or whatever else they may happen to be? In my view, the major social media companies have put in place some structures for dealing with complaints but they are not at all user-friendly for the ordinary citizen. For example, there is no telephone number for ringing up Facebook. I can send a message to but that is as likely to be opened in California as it is in Dublin. How will the person who answers that be able to understand the nuances of Irish politics to make a decision on how important that message is?
The Government proposal must concentrate on ensuring that all social media companies have in place proper, effective mechanisms to deal with complaints and take down material. They need to be fined if they do not do that and the fines need to be seven figure sums. There is no point in fining Facebook €100,000. That is coffee money. These companies need to be fined millions if they are in breach. They have already accepted the need for regulation so the door is, to a certain extent, ajar.
It is absolutely necessary that the new proposals provide that if Facebook, etc., do not take down material and respond quickly and effectively and have mechanisms in place to deal with this, they should be punished and fined. These companies do not lack the resources to do this. They are hugely successful commercial operations that have the resources to put effective mechanisms in place to deal with complaints. Of course, there will be accusations of censorship and that people’s opinions are being suppressed but people with experience and good judgment should be capable of looking at something and saying that it is just an expression of a viewpoint and is not harmful.
These companies use algorithms at the moment to deal with many issues. Algorithms will address the taking out of language which is unacceptable and may address issues like the amount of naked body flesh visible on a screen but they cannot deal with the subtleties of many complaints. We receive quite a few phone calls into our office from people saying they have an issue with Facebook. We explain that we cannot help them because Facebook does not come under our remit and we talk through them through how they can complain to Facebook. Most people feel this is a terrible David and Goliath situation and almost impossible to deal with.
The Government is on the right lines and I am hoping this Bill will become an Act fairly soon. It will have to be reviewed because, inevitably, devices will be found to get around or minimise its impact on the commercial model of social media companies.
The Deputy raised the important issue of photo-shopping. Advertising does not come within our remit. The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland is an independent body but my understanding is that the new media authority of Ireland will incorporate advertising. That is to be welcomed because it will mean there will be a statutory body looking after advertising in the future. Issues such as body-shaming could well be included in guidelines or actual regulations because it would not be that difficult to do that. We all recognise that advertising would not exist if it was not effective. If it is effective, we have to look at both its good and bad messages. If it has bad messages, there should be a means of dealing with that.
The Deputy made a about journalists. It is inevitable that the majority of journalism going forward will be accessed via online versions. The future of print newspapers and magazines is going to be quite difficult. I am hoping that journalism will continue but that it will be predominantly online in the future. We can see evidence of that in other countries where newspapers have simply ceased having a print edition and have gone online only. There are obvious commercial issues to be taken into account and my own view is that there will be a loss. Accepting that this is probably inevitable, it is very important that every single Irish regional newspaper now has some online presence. There is a terrible balance to be struck.
The regional newspaper with which I am most familiar is theSouthern Starbecause I spend a great deal of time in west Cork. The Southern Staris a very good local newspaper. It has an online addition but if it puts too much up on its online addition, there is no incentive for the public to buy its print edition. If no one buys its print edition, it will not have resources. There is, therefore, a balance to be struck. The newspaper will put up four to five stories on its online edition and the rest of the newspaper will then be found in the version that is purchased each week in a local supermarket.
Going forward, given that online journalism is transnational, Irish media will need assistance. The Journal is a good example of that. It is a good, reputable online-only news operation, which provides good and accurate information to people who use it and space for debate and comment, etc. One of the problems, however, which is very hard to address, is that the comments of readers underneath those legitimate and good journalistic articles can be very misogynistic and aggressive.
I do not know a Deputy or Senator who has not said to me over the years that the very practice of knocking on constituents' doors at election time has moved from being a relatively pleasant experience 20 years ago to becoming frequently an aggressive experience now. In the past, when a Fianna Fáil person knocked on a Fine Gael voter's door, the person would still be polite. Deputies and Senators tell me they are often abused at doors now because people pick up on the cynical, anti-establishment tone from social media which can be very aggressive and unpleasant. Women Members of the Oireachtas, in particular, have experienced this and are subject to what can only be described as vile abuse at times. There is no argument but that the comments on online newspapers needs to be regulated, just as much as the whole area of comments on Facebook, Twitter, etc., needs to be regulated. Getting that balance right will be very difficult and will not be achieved once and for all time. It will be a balance that will have to be addressed again and again.
I very much hope the Government will put a new media authority of Ireland in place with the resources, skills and expertise to be able to carry out what will be a very important task but also a very difficult one. I hope that answers Deputy Higgins's questions.
I welcome the provisions in the Bill we saw yesterday relating to whistleblowers. I use social media. It is my way of getting my message out as an Independent Deputy. I work within the criteria given to me. In respect of television appearances and the amount of time given to Government Deputies on the national broadcaster compared to Independent Deputies, it involves money generated for it. When you invest in something, it is money generated. Independents like me do not have the same amount of money to put into television advertisements that a Government would have. Something we could look at would be requiring national media to give a certain amount of time to Independents to debate different issues. This might then give people the kind of balance they see on social media. Social media is the only platform available to me as an Independent. I have no problem going on national television and debating any of the issues there but Independents are never given the opportunity to do so. That is the structure that is there at the moment. The Government has the budget to do it. We have Oireachtas TV, which gives us a platform, but we also have the national broadcaster, into which everyone with a television licence pays. The same people elect people to the position they hold. Regardless of whether a Deputy is party or non-party, he or she is still elected to the 33rd Dáil to represent the people of Ireland so we need to look at whether we can bring something to Government in order that the national broadcaster has to provide time and cannot use the same Independents all the time. It needs to spread it among all Members. This involves every Member from every party and none.
I am involved in many charity events. Again, I use social media to help raise awareness when we are putting on an event for people in need. It is a fantastic tool when you use it for the right reasons but it can become nasty if people use it for the wrong reasons. It is the one reason I never reply to anyone on social media. It is a rule I have. If you want to talk to me, pick up the phone. If you want to send a message with your contact details, I will contact you. If you want to abuse me online, you are by yourself and will be looking back at yourself because I will not reply. That is my rule. I use social media to the best of my abilities and for all the right reasons. I welcome the Press Ombudsman in regard to all he can do but, again, we can target online bullying ourselves by speaking out and telling people it will not be tolerated. At the same time, we need to tell people who are being bullied online not to reply. We call them keyboard warriors. All they want is a reply for the rush. People can see that the same people are jumping on the bandwagon to make people look bad. It does not bother me - it goes over my head - but I need to help other people to see that they have the tools to deal with it in the same way. Do not answer it. People should ask Members of the Oireachtas to raise this matter and show the pattern that is there. If there is a pattern and people are bullying people online, we can go to the likes of Facebook and the Press Ombudsman and tell them these people have bullied five or six people online so let us tackle that as public representatives and help people. As an Independent, the only format that allows me to get my message out there besides flyers is social media.
Another part of getting our message out is a mobile office that gets us into the county. In respect of the amount of time it takes me to run a mobile office, I could target each area if I wanted to and put a message out on social media but people want to meet and interact with you on the ground. That is what politicians do. I have met my share of hostile people on doorsteps. I have met people who were nice to me but I have also met people who were hostile. If, in addition to using social media, you are out there on the ground with the people, they will get a sense of who you are and what you are about. I am against anybody using social media for the wrong reasons and it needs to be regulated. I reiterate that when it comes to politics. The national broadcaster should be regulated as well so that everybody from every county regardless of party membership or none should get air time.
Can these companies even be held to account? As he said earlier, if pictures go up, these companies are able to take stuff down within minutes. We have all heard of tragic cases where people have been bullied online and the companies come out with the excuse that they cannot regulate it. Can it be done through the office of the Press Ombudsman or some other agency or does legislation need to be changed so that these multinationals, which can do things in minutes if they want to, are no longer able to allow youngsters - and adults - to be bullied online? Is there any way the office of the Press Ombudsman can get involved or does legislation need to be changed?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
The function of the new online safety commissioner will largely be ensuring that material that goes up on social media is not harmful. The Government proposal for an online safety commissioner is vital for dealing with some of the issues mentioned by the Chairman. The issue of anonymity is central. Anonymity allows people to say virtually what they like free of any concerns about any comeback. We have had letters to newspapers for hundreds of years but those letters have a name at the bottom. The person has put his or her name there and said this is what his or her views are but if you go on social media, you can be anonymous, have a nom de plumeor have several different names. One of the issues is the need to find some mechanism of ensuring that people cannot hide behind anonymity. I do not think we should buy into social media companies saying they cannot trace people. Of course, they can trace a person. Everybody can be traced. The committee will recall that last year, there were successful prosecutions of citizens who named children involved in court cases, etc., where the gardaí were able to find out who was behind it even though the tweets were made anonymously so it can be done. Anonymity is a major issue. Interestingly, the Irish Independenthas by and large stopped taking comments under its articles and The Irish Times has introduced a requirement that only people who have registered with it can put up comments. This has, if I may use the term, civilised the comments to a certain extent in The Irish Times and reduced that damage in the Irish Independent. It is very difficult to deal with.
I recognise that social media is a very useful platform for Deputies and Senators to address the public and that engaging in debate with trolls who go after them is not beneficial. I am not saying social media is not valuable. It is hugely valuable as a means to communication. It is also a very effective means of communication because it is not expensive. You can see how at election time, more and more parties are putting resources into their social media campaigns.
We just have to recognise they are now a major player in the field and need to be regulated in the same way that print, radio and television are regulated.
In response to Deputy O'Donoghue's remarks about RTÉ, it does not come under my remit at all. I used to work in RTÉ, so the Deputy will allow me to be biased, but I cannot answer as to how RTÉ should deal with independence. From my experience - I am going back more than a decade - when you put together current affairs programmes, you think of Government and Opposition. Now we have the unusual position of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party in government and Sinn Féin as the major Opposition party, so they tend to get the lion's share of the space. Common sense would say there has to be space for Independents as well. At the moment, however, if I were a current affairs producer and had only two slots, I would think Government and Opposition and, therefore, I would think Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens and then, on the Opposition, Sinn Féin first and Labour second. I would probably think of Independents and lesser groupings only after that. I can understand the sense of grievance Independents have that it simply never seems to be their turn, but it is not for me to comment on that because RTÉ, and broadcasting in general, does not come under my remit.
To be clear, I have no problem with anonymous accounts if people use social media in a good way. It is when behaviour becomes abusive that I think companies should have a responsibility and start getting involved.
Deputy O'Donoghue wishes to make just one more point before-----
I thank Mr. Feeney for that comment. He covered RTÉ's position, but in the Dáil there are 23 Independents across the board at present. It is a fairly big Opposition when you consider the Rural Independent Group, the Regional Group Independents and the Independent Group. That is 23 elected representatives. We might look at that.
One thing I took from Mr. Feeney's response - he mentioned The Irish Timesand so on - is that you can be anonymous once you register yourself with a social media platform. I do not have a problem with people being anonymous but, if they register themselves, their identity should be known if they do something wrong.
Mr. Feeney is very welcome. I thank him for his attendance. I felt for him a moment ago as he was entering into the snake pit of talking about Independents. You could insult one Independent and have a complaint made against you, perhaps to the Press Ombudsman himself. In all seriousness, I thank Mr. Feeney for his attendance and for the opportunity for the committee to examine the annual reports from 2018 through to 2020.
My colleague, Deputy Higgins, referred to the coverage over the course of the pandemic, the resilience of the press and the reliance of the public on the press for information. The press has been invaluable, and there are many trusted sources. Mr. Feeney mentioned the difference between online and print. There is definitely a difference between material produced by reputable, trained and trusted journalists and some of the online content created by individuals. Of course, there is no fact-checking of the latter, and that places a significant onus on the press and, indeed, Mr. Feeney and the Press Council.
I note from Mr. Feeney's opening remarks his welcome for the online safety commissioner and the media authority. It is important to have the embrace of Mr. Feeney's office and that of the Press Council in time. It is important that it is first of all recognised that there is an issue and that it is not just a monetary issue facing media organisations. There are also issues of trust and bias involved, and public confidence needs to be restored. I note what Mr. Feeney said about the Future of Media Commission and its awaited report. I will say no more about those aspects but I acknowledge and welcome what Mr. Feeney has said.
Turning to Mr. Feeney's opening statement, I note that his office was established in 2008. As a new Member of the House, certainly a new member of this committee, I welcome the fact that he is before us today. How many complaints, on average, has his office dealt with year on year? I know he will not go into any specifics, but what is the general figure?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
We average 400 complaints a year, but a proportion of those are misdirected. They are complaints about RTÉ or whatever else. We send them on to the BAI or, if the complaint relates to advertising, the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland. I issue, on average, only about 30 formal decisions each year. A lot of our complaints are dealt with by conciliation. Our office comprises only two and a half whole-time equivalents. One of the other people is our case officer. Her job is to try to resolve complaints informally first. That is very effective because a lot of the time there is something inaccurate in a newspaper and as long as the record is correct the person is happy enough. It is easy enough to correct the online record now. Obviously, if the complaint relates to a court case and the complainant does not like the fact that his or her conviction for drink-driving is reported, there is nothing an editor can do about that. That is on the public record and will remain so. If there is something inaccurate, however, that can be changed very quickly. Often all that is required is publication of a letter or, sometimes, a clarification or correction in the next edition of the newspaper. That is an important part of our office. As a previous speaker said, it is not just about fining social media companies; it is about creating a climate in which journalists are answerable and aware that there is a code of practice and that it is important they adhere to it. That helps to improve overall standards of journalism because the first principle is truth and accuracy. I do not know a journalist who does not believe in the value of truth and accuracy because that is where public confidence lies. Of course there will be examples of things being exaggerated and headlines overstating the case, and the sense of outrage may not accurately reflect the degree to which there has been a minor transgression or something like that. Obviously, there are degrees to be considered. Overall, however, my view is that the Irish public are well served by their newspapers. They are generally a very accurate source.
The pandemic is a good example of that. Our work has changed radically in the past two years because we get a large number of complaints about pandemic coverage. The majority of those complaints, however, are from people who are basically opposed to vaccination or measures such as working from home, mask wearing, etc. What they are really doing is expressing their disagreement. They are not able to point me to any breaches of the code because if the journalists report accurately and factually what the situation is, they will not be in breach of the code. It is the message that such complainants do not like rather than the journalism itself. My view - I would say the same of broadcasting as of print - is that in Ireland the pandemic has been well handled and responsibly handled. The press has not ignored the fact that there are people who are opposed to vaccination, the fact that there are people who disagreed with some of the measures taken or the fact that there have been breaches of requirements, but it has, I think, reported them in a balanced and reasonable manner. My view, therefore, is that the pandemic has helped public confidence in traditional media. That is probably contrasted with social media, where most of the claims about the dangers of vaccination etc. and most of the inaccurate claims about Covid are to be found. One of the problems we face with complaints we receive is that the people who complain quote as their sources things they have found on social media that are not reliable. Newspapers will not do that. They will not quote unreliable material.
I thank Mr. Feeney for that comprehensive response. I know the Chair will tell me when I am out of time. I will come back in latter with further questions. Delving into the average of 400 complaints the Press Council receives per year, some of which, as Mr. Feeney says, are misdirected, does he have a percentage for the number of people who think they are contacting his office correctly but whom he has to redirect? I note he has only two and a half whole-time staff working in his office, which is quite a load for those staff. Can he give us a sense of how many complaints are misdirected?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
Yes. Our annual report will say that 50 of the complaints we receive should have been directed to the BAI or the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland. Approximately 50 each year are misdirected to us. They are not lost, however, in that we give the complainants a contact telephone number and email address for the BAI or the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland. Some complaints are not processed because they are not about individual articles but about the press in general or about something published more than three months previously.
We have a strict rule that an article being complained about has to have been published within the previous three months. The other requirement is that people have to show they are personally affected. This is to stop us being used by campaigning groups. It does not necessarily mean only individuals can complain. We will accept complaints from lobby groups and pressure groups on behalf of their members also. It is not just individuals but also groups. I will give a specific example of this. Some years ago we received a complaint from the Israeli ambassador about Middle East coverage in an Irish newspaper. We accepted his complaint because we said he represented the state of Israel and it had a legitimate concern. We do hear complaints from more than just individuals.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
Essentially we deal with approximately 75 to 100 complaints each year. They are either resolved through conciliation or mediation or they go to me for a decision after which they can then be appealed to the Press Council. I uphold an average of only seven to ten complaints a year. It is not a large number of complaints. The very fact I am there to do it acts as an effective prompt to newspapers to take seriously the code of practice and ensure best journalism practices are met.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
It is for historical reasons. Newspapers emerged in the 17th and 18th century at a time when governments did not regulate such things. The press industry developed in the 19th century completely independent of government. This tradition of independence of government has held up right through to the present day. There is an historical reason. Broadcasting on radio and television has been regulated by government since its inception. Most people would accept that broadcasting has a great deal of freedom of expression, as much as the print industry, and yet it is regulated. There is a feeling among editors and proprietors of newspapers that historically they have never been regulated by the Government and that it is important in terms of freedom of impression.
We will get people who say that because newspapers rely a lot on government-funded advertising, such as for road safety or Covid measures, that they are indirectly influenced by the fact their commercial relationship with government includes government advertisement. They are conspiracy theorists who say this. I do not know any journalist who pulls his or her punches about the Government simply because there is an advertisement about Covid from the HSE beside the article. It just does not happen like this. The conspiracy theorists might not believe me.
Mr. Feeney mentioned the Southern Starand regional and local newspapers. All of us on the committee are aware of the lack of local newspapers, particularly from my perspective as a Dubliner. Only two remain in the city. I often think of the advertising revenue. Mr. Feeney said 85% of advertising revenue now goes to online platforms. Of course this presents challenges for local newspapers. I am not sure how we can get around this. As people have said, it is about targeting the message to individuals. Campaigns have moved very much online. I was struck by a comment Mr. Feeney made at the end of his opening statement about the complaints he received. Complaints were about articles and not general claims about the press. The time limit of three months is quite short. Does this include appealing it to the Press Council? Does the three months cover the whole time period?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
A couple of years ago we considered reviewing the three-month requirement. We looked at 25 other press councils in Europe. Three months is about average. One or two of them had a six-month period and one or two had a period of one year but three months was more or less the average. One of the reasons for it is that editors feel that the journalist who wrote it may have moved on after three months. It may have been a freelance journalist with whom the publication no longer has contact, which would be difficult to deal with.
A point in support of what Deputy Devlin is asking is that the impact of inaccuracy may remain after three months if it is online. If I published something more than three months ago in a newspaper it is quite possible it can be googled six months, a year or two years later. There is an issue with the effectiveness of Google that material can be found one, two or five years later. When we receive complaints from people about things published more than three months ago we advise them of their right to be forgotten under European legislation. We have a pamphlet we give them on how they go about getting material taken down if it is inaccurate under the right to be forgotten. It is a bit daunting a task I confess to try to take down something.
I was going to ask a question about the right to be forgotten legislation. Much has been said about it. Certain individuals and certain organisations want articles and pieces about them to be forgotten. It surprises me Mr. Feeney is giving out the information if the complaint is about something that was written more than three months previously. Does Mr. Feeney think the right to be forgotten legislation needs to be tailored to certain types of articles rather than the way it appears to cover everything?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
A lot of the complaints we get that are more than three months old and are about the right to be forgotten are from people who want to erase the public record about previous criminal convictions such as drink driving and speeding. Much of it has to do with what is already public record information. Editors are very reluctant to take down public record information because it distorts the historical fact that someone was convicted. There is a case to be made that people have a right to re-establish their reputation. I will give an example from my time working in RTÉ. A man contacted me in RTÉ to say his son was reaching secondary school age and he had the same Christian name and surname as the father. He was worried his school friends would Google this boy's name and find the father had a minor conviction from 20 years ago. I absolutely sympathised with this because it seemed to be unfair that this minor conviction should still be accessible 20 years later. It was doubly unfair the man's child could be tarnished with this brush.
The right to be forgotten is important. It is quite nuanced and we have to get the balance right. We should not erase material that is significant. It may well be that a criminal prosecution 20 years ago is still relevant today because the person may still be a criminal but there is a balance to be drawn if people have done their time and re-established their reputations. Many people are unaware of it. People are not aware of how it works. Perhaps the European Commission could fund advertising about the right to be forgotten, informing people about how to go about the process. It may well fall under the new commission.
I agree with Mr. Feeney, and I hope we can have another discussion in the short term on this, that there is a balance to be struck. Unfortunately there are individuals who are availing of it whom we should not be forgetting about at all. Just because they do not have a conviction it does not mean they should be forgotten. I thank Mr. Feeney for his time today.
Deputies Devlin and Higgins have asked many of the questions I was going to ask and I will not go labouring the points. I enjoyed Mr. Feeney's presentation. He is open and frank. He made it very interesting. He is bang on the button regarding much of the material we are dealing with. I have to say, as others have, that I regret the difficulties the regional and local printed press are going through. I am thinking about my area where I have to get my message out. This is in Roscommon, Longford, Leitrim, Mayo, part of Galway and Westmeath. I will not mention all of the publications that are there but the number in the region is extraordinary. They have served the communities very well. I have done local notes for local newspapers and minor articles for them. I mainly worked in local radio. I made a contribution to a television programme on TG4 for two and a half years. I used to work with a company called Irish TV. I know a lot about this.
I have to go back to the area of social media.
Like many others, I have suffered. I will not bring up the whole story again because it has been well documented. Thousands have suffered. Mr. Feeney mentioned women. They have suffered terribly. I want to bring up the women we cannot see. Things happened in my family. We could be talking about your daughter, your mother, your wife, your sister or your sister-in-law. Some of them were very disturbed by what was going on. They were receiving vile threats on social media. I have to say it was very well documented by the national and local press. They did a very good job on it. It was notoriously difficult to get Facebook to take down material - day in, day out and week in, week out. There were vile threats. We can talk about this again. I do not think that is right. Many people who are hidden in the background, such as family members, are really upset and disturbed by this. Not only has this happened to me, but it has also happened to many people. I am therefore still not satisfied that the social media outlets are committed and dedicated to coming clean about all of this. We have a lot of work to do.
I do not know what Mr. Feeney’s opinions are on anonymous accounts. I know some people say they do not have a bother with them. I have a bother with anonymous accounts, to be open and frank with the committee. I would like to know Mr. Feeney’s opinion on them. He mentioned thejournal.ie, which has a really good system, as has been stated. If we could develop that for our local media, it would be good. He is right. The local media put up two or three stories and hope to attract people to them, but they will not be able to keep going financially with the way things are. That is the reality. Social media is eating them up. It is really eating them up. Something has to be done urgently.
On the overseas platforms, there is much controversy about how much is being done from outside the country. Has Mr. Feeney any concerns about that? These systems are working from outside the country. They are coming up with a lot of very personal material against people.
Deputy Devlin dealt very well with policies about the right to be forgotten. We discussed that.
Could Mr. Feeney answer some of the questions I have asked? I will not come in again. I think that we as a committee have to look for more staff for the Press Council of Ireland. I hope that will happen quickly. The role they have and what they will have to deal with in the coming years will be extraordinary. We are having a really good discussion today. If Mr. Feeney could make a few comments, it would be great. I pay tribute to all of the local papers in terms of the Covid-19 coverage. They were very important, particularly for the older generation, who might still read the paper.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
Mechanisms need to be found to provide support for local media because it simply will not have enough resources to be able to carry out its function. I do not have the answer to that. Other countries such as Austria have systems of providing support in terms of distribution and training for local media, etc. These systems do not have any influence or editorial involvement. The chances of local newspapers being able to compete successfully against much more powerful opposition is certainly a source of worry.
The Senator mentioned families of public figures. One of the principles in our code is the right to privacy. While this is not an absolute right and we all respect that, everybody has the right to privacy. If that right to privacy is breached, it has to be in the public interest. In my view, family members of public figures have exactly the same right to privacy as every other citizen. One cannot put in photographs of children of Deputies or Senators, or their wives or husbands, without permission if it is not relevant to the story. The right to privacy is quite strong in the code. One of the areas on which I have pushed is the need for newspaper picture editors to think carefully about why a photograph of a child is there. Is it right that it should be there? What is the context in which that photograph was used? Why is information about the husband or wife of a Deputy or Senator given when it is not relevant to the story? There has been a bit of an improvement in recent years among journalists in their understanding of the right to privacy of family members.
We live in a world where images are just pulled down off social media all the time. I will give a good and possibly hurtful example of that. Some years ago, early in the new year, a number of students from Institute of Technology Carlow were killed in a car crash. The newspapers put up their photographs immediately. All the photographs were taken from their Facebook pages. They all showed them in a sort of party mode. It was not appropriate because this was a very solemn time. It was very distressing for the families. In the past, newspapers would have gone around to the house and asked for a photograph of the son or daughter. They would have been given a photograph which the family thought was appropriate. Nowadays, everything is just pulled down off social media. The tone and context is not right. The Senator might remember the six Irish students who were killed in California when a balcony collapsed. It was the same issue there. The photographs showed them celebrating and being happy at an 18th birthday party or a 21st birthday party. What was needed there was a sober photograph. We have to work hard to make picture editors and editors in general aware that the context is terribly important. If you have an article about a Deputy or Senator, you have to justify giving any information about that person's family. It has to be relevant. If it is not relevant, you need to get their permission to use it because they are private citizens. You have to be very careful about photographing children. I upheld a complaint recently about a picture of a funeral of a criminal. Photographs showed another criminal who was at the funeral. He was holding his child in his arms. They did not pixellate the child’s face. One could argue public interest in showing criminal solidarity. However, one could not argue any justification for including a photograph of the child. It is so easy to pixellate a photograph of children.
Part of my job is to make sure editors are aware of the importance of taking privacy rights into account. Social media has distorted that because it is now so easy to get images. It is so easy to get stories from social media. In my view, we had a very bad breach a couple of years ago when a journalist who was a member of a private WhatsApp group that talked about parenting issues took a story from information that was provided in that private group and published it as an article, without any thought of asking the person who put up the information whether they wanted it published. I thought that was a terrible breach of that person's privacy. It was simply an unjustified piece of journalism. Lessons have to be learned. When mistakes are made, journalists have to be aware that the decision will be published and it will be said in public that they behaved badly and broke the code, etc. Hopefully, then they will behave better in the future. I hope that answers some of the Senator’s questions.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
In my personal view, anonymity allows too much freedom to abuse, to defame people and to be aggressive, etc. I really do not see why social media companies cannot be held responsible, when they are able to trace anonymous people very quickly. I simply do not buy into it. People were convicted recently of putting up the identities of the boys who murdered a poor girl in west Dublin. It was possible to find out who those people were, even though they put up the tweets anonymously. Social media companies have that information. If they do not have it, they should have it. People are being given the space to say things which can be hurtful, harmful or damaging, etc. They should be traced, just as they would be if they put up child abuse content or child pornography. We should be able to find out who is putting that up.
It is a factor that social media is international. You will find that the material originates somewhere in California or in Indonesia. However, international law enforcement agencies should be able to go to California or Indonesia and find out who the child pornographers are. There has been great success in prosecuting people in respect of child pornography. However, the same applies to other forms of misuse of social media - it should be possible to find out who the person is. I have mixed views on anonymity. Generally, I think newspaper letter writers are much better if they put their name to the end of it. This is because you will know where person is coming from. You will know that the man in question owns a pub, for example, and that is why he is making a certain argument, or whatever else it happens to be. If you just put up "Peter Pan", you do not get that context. Much of the time, you discover that the local person might have a particular insight into a particular issue, etc.
I share the Senator’s view about the value of local broadcasting, local radio services and local newspapers. The point made by Deputy Devlin that Dublin does not have that is a relevant factor. If I go down to Cork, I can listen to Red FM or other Cork radio stations. I can stray into Kerry and Clare, etc. I can get my local newspapers.
However, I do not have the equivalent in Dublin. Many people in rural Ireland say the national newspapers are the Dublin newspapers, but if you look at a newspaper like the Irish Examiner, it is a national newspaper but it provides very comprehensive coverage of counties Cork and Kerry and, to a lesser extent, Limerick, Waterford and other counties. The issue is that in Dublin there is not an equivalent of the Irish Examiner. There are small publications like the Dublin Inquirer, but they have a very marginal impact because, I am afraid their circulation is in the low thousands.
Mr. Feeney is very welcome. I admire his openness and willingness to listen and answer questions. If I may, I will focus on social media, although I know he has been fairly well quizzed on it. In a recent radio programme, I listened to a lady who was the owner of a bed and breakfast down the country. In seeking to put up an image on her website, she googled a particular part of her local area, found a photo, downloaded it and put it up on her website. Within a few days she had a letter from a solicitor based in Germany or Poland - I am not sure, but it might have been a German company with a Polish office - who wanted €5,000 for her infringement of copyright. Furthermore, the threat was that they wanted €5,000 for every infringement from her site to any other site. If a company can engage in such litigation, why can Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or any other company turn around and say they are not publishers? Why can they allow any rubbish that people want to put up? All of us on this platform now have suffered massive attacks at some stage on social media. On one particular occasion, after asking a simple question regarding a particular vaccine in the Seanad I was subjected to a weekend of absolute torture by members of the medical profession. It was only when one of them said that he would diagnose me as having a psychotic disease that I said he had gone too far and I would take it up with the Medical Council. Within five minutes, every single tweet disappeared. I know the medical practices that were involved. I know exactly where they are and who the doctors are. That is what can happen on social media. I would be telling a lie if I said it did not impact my mental health that night as I tried to defend myself. My colleague from Limerick said social media needs to be a one-way street for people in politics and that we should not bother interacting with people. I am still rather perplexed as to why the likes of Facebook are not responsible. I had my own Facebook page cloned on several occasions, where people purported to be me and contacted people with messages that certainly would not come from me. What action can the Press Ombudsman's office take to change the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by social media sites?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
Senator Craughwell raises very important questions. Social media have argued since the beginning that they are not publishers; they simply facilitate. What they are doing is providing links to other sources who should be responsible for the content. That fig leaf of an argument has been used by social media companies for years, since the very beginning, that they do not publish anything, they just draw our attention to something somebody else has published. The truth is that now it is seen to be just a legal fig leaf and that social media companies have to accept responsibility for what goes up on their platforms, and they have to be liable for it. Otherwise, they can be as irresponsible as they want to be. The era in which social media get away with saying that they are not publishers and that they simply provide information and access to other people is largely over.
Senator Craughwell raises a terribly important point regarding copyright. It is not part of the Press Ombudsman's remit. We do not have to deal with copyright issues, but he raises an important point, which is that people put material up on Facebook and all the other platforms and we think that once it is up there we can use it wherever we like. We think that we can take it, copy it and reuse it, but copyright remains with someone else. If you put something up on Facebook and you do not impose any restrictions on other people accessing it, it is quite difficult to justify other people not taking that image, but there is a lack of understanding that material that is available on Facebook can be used by anybody else in any context they like. I fully sympathise with Senator Craughwell's constituent who put up a photograph and then got a demand for €5,000. It was probably the first photograph she saw that looked nice. If you go to Google and put in Gougane Barra, you will get hundreds of nice photographs of Gougane Barra. Google will say underneath the photos who owns the copyright. If it is Bord Fáilte or Cork County Council, you can be pretty certain that it is freely available to use by others, but all it requires is a phone call or an email to find out if that is the case.
I will give a very simple example. We appointed a new chairman of the Press Council last week because our outgoing chairman had reached the end of his term. One of the newspapers came back to me and said they were looking for a photograph of him. We had not taken any photograph because he had only been appointed that day, so I went to Google and got lots of photographs of him. I saw one there which said the copyright was owned by Queen's University Belfast, because he is a visiting professor in Belfast. I got in touch with the communications people in Queen's and asked if I had permission to use the photograph and they said it was free to use in any context people liked. We were quite comfortable in using that photograph. I could have taken another photograph that belonged to a photographic agency, and it would have retained copyright of it. I would have taken the risk then of being liable, but the public do not understand that. They think anything that is available on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or wherever else can be used in any context they like. It is a real danger, and it can be very frightening if you get a demand for €5,000 for using a photograph.
In its search engine tools, Google provides people with a facility to check the copyright of photographs. There are many sites that you can buy the images from. I was rather shocked to find that my own image is copyrighted, not by me, but by the person who took the photograph. I fully understand that.
I wish to raise another sensitive issue concerning the media in general. The august Lower House in Leinster House gets bags of publicity and coverage. However, that is not the case with the more senior, more relaxed Upper House. That said, most of the Senators who are present get plenty of coverage in the media, but there are some very valid and important debates on legislation that take place in the Upper House and they never see the light of day. It strikes me that there is a bias in the media which feeds into the public belief that the Seanad is a waste of space, should not be there, should have been got rid of, that they are all there just sitting down, scratching their bums, doing nothing worthwhile. I would be the last person to say that I have produced anything great in this Seanad but some of my colleagues have been absolutely outstanding in the context of some of the issues they have brought forward. Senator Warfield has made a wonderful case for voting rights for 16-year olds. If I stood up tomorrow morning and said a seagull stole a burger out of my hand as I was walking down Molesworth Street, I would get coverage in the media, yet Senator Warfield, who makes a very important argument for 16-year-olds to vote, gets very little publicity at all. I do not know that it falls into Mr. Feeney's remit to look at the equality of publicity, if one likes, for the two Houses, but it is something that bothers me. I have no complaint myself with the media. I do quite well out of them, but it does bother me that some of my colleagues who are outstanding people in their own right never see the light of day.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
Independents probably suffer more than members of parties. My experience when I used to work in RTÉ is that all the parties have PR machines or communications teams behind them so they would prompt journalists, whereas, even though, as Senator Craughwell says, there is a group of 23 Independents, the members are very diverse, they do not speak in one voice and they do not have PR or communications people working on their collective behalf. It is true that Independents probably do not get as much attention as the parties. It is more than 20 years since I was editor of current affairs, but I know that I would have expected the press people for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and the Green Party to be on to me if they felt their people were not getting enough attention.
The Seanad itself needs to collectively push this message among journalists, which is that it is the Upper House and has a very important part to play in the scrutiny of all legislation and that if it they ignore it, they are ignoring an important part of the legislative process and the public are short-changed as a result of that. It is not, however, an issue that has ever crossed my path as Press Ombudsman. We have never had complaints. It would be difficult to see how one could fit any complaints from Members of the Seanad that they are not getting much attention under the code of practice in any case. We only deal with complaints about matters that have been published. As we do not deal with complaints about matters that have not been published, Senators are at a disadvantage from that point.
Indeed. Many of my party colleagues right now would probably say that my Independent Group gets more publicity than any of them, which may or may not be true.
I want to talk to Mr. Feeney very briefly about the area of litigation in Ireland. The printed press, particularly, and, indeed, both TV stations and all radio stations operating in the Republic, are extremely sensitive to the litigious nature of the Irish citizen. How much is this impacting the proverbial hiding of stories?
We might think about some of the horrendous things that happened in this country down through the years that were buried until such a time as they were proved beyond any doubt - not beyond reasonable doubt but any doubt - that, in fact, that issue had occurred or the person had been maligned or whatever. Does Mr. Feeney think we need to look at the legislation governing litigation and the unmerciful or outrageous awards that are made from time to time?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
There is no doubt whatsoever but that the level of awards in Ireland and the legal costs associated with defamation have a significant detrimental impact on Irish journalism. I know from talking to editors that when they are faced with a risk of being sued for defamation and pulling that part of the story, often nowadays, they decide for commercial reasons that the wiser thing to do is pull that part of the story. That is, therefore, the dead hand impact on investigative journalism.
I know that in the past, editors and proprietors would say that if they gave this fella €3,000 or €5,000, he might go away. That adds up, however, if there are 30 people and someone says that to get them to go away. The newspapers will know that legal costs will greatly exceed that anyway. In the past, there has been a view that if a person has not got much of a case but if €3,000 will get rid of him or her, maybe if we give that person €3,000, he or she will go away. That eats into the resources available for employing journalists. It also impacts on stories.
Again, talking from my own experience, a long time ago in RTÉ, we were doing a report on water bailiffs in County Waterford. Our lawyers told us we had to take this and that out and by the time they had dealt with all the issues they said had to be taken out, the report was incoherent. We actually should not have broadcast that report at all. We should have recognised that so much of it had to be pulled for legal reasons that we could not do it. Remember, the level of proof required in a defamation action is very high. Journalists will say that they have something from a very reliable source but if they cannot bring that source into court to testify and give evidence on their behalf, that is useless really. It is very difficult but it is the sheer level of awards. Citizens are entitled to their reputations, of course, and defamation is important. Giving people €1 million or €400,000 or whatever it happens to be, however, is multiples of what happens in other countries.
I was in Austria a couple of years ago at a conference for press ombudsmen. The local newspapers were all writing about €25,000 that was awarded in a defamation case against a newspaper in Austria and how this was the highest figure ever awarded. A figure of €25,000 in Ireland is nothing. People start off thinking of six figure sums. It is kind of a joke. What re-establishes reputation? If the newspaper is found to be inaccurate and guilty of having printed something inaccurate about a person, that should be his or her reputation re-established. A person should not have to get €100,000. I absolutely understand why citizens are entitled to have their reputations protected and that defamation is important. I do not know why we need €1 million or €500,000 because remember, the lawyers may also be on a percentage of that figure - without being disrespectful to lawyers - to re-establish a person's reputation. I think it is distorted at the moment.
My hope is that the review of the Defamation Act will put in place some measures to bring levels of awards in Ireland down to comparable levels in other countries, which will still maintain the importance of the protection of defamation laws and the importance of people's reputations but yet not damage the media in the process of settlements. That is really for the review of the Defamation Act, however. As I said, a five-year review was built into the 2009 Act. That was in 2014; we are now in 2022 and we have not seen it yet.
If we look at a defamation case where the ordinary working guy, Joe Bloggs, is minding his own business and gets mentioned in a newspaper, nobody would be afraid to mention his name. The worst-case scenario is that if the newspaper has defamed him in some way, it will cost a couple of thousand euro whereas if it affects a person with a high profile, as Mr. Feeney rightly pointed out, it could cost as much as €1 million.
My final question is this. We have a separation of powers in this country with the Government or Oireachtas on one side and the courts on the other. It is my view that the press sort of floats between the two. A good strong press is vital for keeping both the Judiciary and the Oireachtas and its Members straight. If Mr. Feeney was given the option tomorrow morning to strengthen the press, what single thing would he believe is most important?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
The importance of the press in its traditional role of the fourth estate holding to account people in power is relevant in any democratic society. Commercial pressure on our newspapers and magazines has now diminished or is in the process of diminishing the ability of the press to carry out that function. Equally so, the resources available for radio broadcasting and some television broadcasting are not sufficient to carry out that function.
I would hope in the years to come that Government may take some measures to ensure there is a better balance between what the multinationals take out of the country and what they give back in comparison to what the indigenous media do. A good example of that is Sky. I read recently that Sky takes in excess of more than €100 million out of the Irish economy each year. What does it out back into the Irish economy? Practically nothing. It is, therefore, a loss of resources that could be used to ensure that the Irish media have the resources to carry out its function.
Of course, there will be accusations that when one goes down that path, Government will then be funding or supporting the industry through commercial considerations but one can argue that the licence fee does that already for television broadcasting. I find very few politicians who will say to me that RTÉ is on the side of the Government or politicians. They will argue that it is actually too critical at times. I am not sure funding is that significant a factor. The key thing is that the Irish media play an important part in the democratic process and any measure that can be taken should be taken to ensure that they survive a rapidly changing and internationalising environment where resources are going out of the country rather than into it.
Having said that, I am really pleased that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. all have big operations in Ireland. I remember talking to my Dutch colleague recently and telling her that Facebook was just up the road from me and has thousands of direct employers and indirect contractors working in Dublin. She said her problem was that they have nobody from Facebook working in Holland. It is just such a different environment. At least we have it here and we can engage with it. In a way, that is a lever the Government can use. It is a carefully balanced lever, however, because if too much pressure is put on it, Facebook might say it will move elsewhere and that it will be more welcome in another country. Brexit may have contributed to that slight fear.
At the moment, however, all the social media companies have invested heavily in Ireland and are here because they think it works. That gives the Government some leverage to say let us try to see if we can hold companies to account more and see if we can work on the redistribution of resources that are available.
Members will have seen in Australia recently that Facebook agreed to pay newspapers for putting up links to Australian newspaper articles on Facebook. Up until now, Facebook got the advertising and went with that because it was based on clicks. Now, however, it is saying that if it refers to the Sydney Evening Postor whatever it is, it will give some payment to that publication because that information and journalism in the Sydney Evening Post is really attracting people; not the fact that Facebook just put up a link. There are, therefore, signs of improvement but companies will need to be put under pressure.
Earlier, one of the Senator's colleagues questioned how seriously social media companies take this. They respond to pressure and to having to do things for reputational reasons. Therefore, legitimately, they can be put under some degree of pressure.
I will submit this quickly. A Scottish newspaper sued a person, either on the person's website or Facebook, I am not sure which, for republishing its article by putting up a link to it. I guess there is a role for Mr. Feeney's office there. I would hope that the Press Ombudsman's office would be used as a precursor to any litigation for defamation and that that in some way would mitigate and reduce the outrageous awards that are made. I thank Mr. Feeney for his time.
I am conscious that it has been a long session. I appreciate the time Mr. Feeney has given. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media, which produced a report on the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022. I welcome Mr. Feeney's comments on that. The Bill will be taken in the Seanad, on Second Stage, next week. I suppose I am disappointed that I do not have the Future of Media Commission report going into that debate considering it has been with the Minister for almost seven months. I wonder is it frustrating to Mr. Feeney that we have not seen that Future of Media Commission report. I could certainly do with it going into the debate.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
I will answer that first, if the Senator does not mind. I completely agree with him. We made a submission to that. There were 50 other significant submissions made. The report is finished and people who were on the commission that looked into it are frustrated it has not been published.
I read, although I do not know whether it is accurate, it is in part to do with the funding of public service broadcasting. If that is what is holding it up, there are many other issues which that commission was dealing with that need to get out in public.
It diminishes the value of inquiries if you do not publish the results of them. That is a generalisation but it is absolutely the case. There is no point in having an inquiry if you do not publish the outcome. I hope that it is published as soon as possible.
Another issue, which one of the members touched on at the beginning of the discussion, is the individual complaints mechanism. Given the online commissioner has the power to set that up, does Mr. Feeney agree that should be part of the commissioner's work? It is going to an expert review, which will take as long as the Bill takes in the Seanad which is also disappointing to me.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
It is important the new online safety commissioner has the powers to investigate and the powers to impose sanctions if he or she finds standards have not been met. It would be quite easy to put in place a commission that does not have the resources and the teeth. Very quickly, public confidence would be diminished. This will be a real challenge for the Government to put in place a commission which can deliver safer social media and which at the same time protects freedom of expression and the right to express your views, but forces companies to take down harmful material effectively, quickly and honestly.
The jury has to be out on how difficult that legislation will be and how well social media companies will react to it but it is critical they should not be left off the hook. There are positive signs. You get the head of Facebook saying that he welcomes regulation because they cannot do it on their own. That is a recognition that algorithms and fellows paid €15 an hour to be fact-checkers cannot do the job. It demands expertise, experience and structures. I hope the new online safety commission has those powers and has the resources to be able to do that.
Ireland will be a model for other European countries if we do that because we are well ahead of most other European countries in terms of even thinking about these issues. I hope the European Commission works on this too because we are talking about multinationals with significant resources. The Irish proposal to introduce this safety regulator - there are similar proposals in Britain - is important and I would welcome it in every way possible.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
One of the ways in which the Government can help journalism is to ensure that journalists are well-trained and there is not a financial burden on the training. One of the issues I would be conscious of is that nowadays most journalists in Ireland tend to be university graduates and they tend to be overwhelming middle-class. The media should reflect the whole of society and that should mean that people who have skills and something to say who have not had the advantages of a good secondary education or good third level education should not be excluded from the media. I would like to see schemes put in place of apprenticeships, attachments or secondments to encourage people who have not come through the formal structures of studying media in Dublin City University, University of Limerick or wherever to be able to get in to journalism. None of us would disagree that there is no particular correlation between people's ability and their formal qualifications. It is where you are born and what changes you that contributes so much to where you end up. You have got to accept a society where you recognise that not all people start off with equal opportunities and put in place measures which help them. Bursaries, apprenticeship schemes, etc., are one way of dealing with that.
This is also relevant in Ireland for the sons and daughters of immigrants. We still have an overwhelmingly white Irish media. If you walk down Kildare Street, you will see that we are now living in a different society. We are living in a society with many people of African origin and many people of Asian origin. They are not reflected in the Irish media. There is an onus on the media and the Government to try to ensure that media reflects what Ireland is like today. Any measures that will do that would be very welcome.
I have seen it. I have seen the change in the age and the demographics of some of the journalists around Leinster House. They are also affected by the housing crisis and all the issues young people are facing. I thank Mr. Feeney for his time.
I will be brief. I thank Mr. Feeney for his honesty - he is breath of fresh air - and for all the great advertising for the real capital, Cork. Everything I wanted to ask has been well covered and Mr. Feeney addressed it nicely, bluntly and honestly. I thank him once again. I have learned a lot today.
I have a couple of questions, Mr. Feeney. You said earlier that you pass complaints about RTÉ on to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, and the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland. As RTÉ is one of the biggest press outlets in the country, how come it does not seem to be under the remit of the Press Ombudsman?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
RTÉ is licensed by the BAI and it is answerable to the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. No broadcaster has ever been part of the Press Ombudsman's operation because broadcasters have a separate regulator in the BAI. I would hope - this is only a personal view - that with the creation of the new media authority of Ireland, a structure will be put in place which will mean the broadcast industry is held just as accountable as the print media in Ireland.
The record of the BAI in regulating the broadcast media is a matter for the BAI in essence. In terms of impact on public opinion, there is no question that broadcasting has a significant role to play. It is important that objectivity, fairness, etc., are paramount in their news and current affairs output and so on. Anything that can be done to increase that and to increase public confidence in that is important.
The members will be aware that these polls of public opinion about what professions are most highly regarded show that both journalists and politicians are sliding down the scale and we are less highly regarded as the years go on. Even with the doctor, the dentist and the parish priest at the top of the scale, there is a loss of public confidence in people in positions of authority in general anyway.
We must do anything we can to arrest that process and re-establish public confidence in fairness. Ombudsmen in general do that and play an important role in doing so because they can hold people to account where something untoward has occurred and correct injustices, etc.
If an article appears on the front pages of a newspaper and is subsequently found to be in breach of the code of practice, what is the rationale for requiring that the reference to the upheld complaint be published in the first four pages of the newspaper in question? Why does it not appear on the front page, like the initial article?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
It is a fair question, and one I asked too when I got the job. When the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman were being established in 2007, my understanding is that editors resisted putting complaints about front-page stories on the front page. The tabloids, in particular, felt that the whole of the front page would just be a decision of the Press Ombudsman and that would interfere with their sales. The agreement reached at that time was that the decisions on complaints would have to be published in the first four pages.
An additional problem I have, and I mentioned this already, is that it is far harder for a decision of the Press Ombudsman to have the same impact regarding an online article, as compared with print. As the Chair will be aware, online publication is much more fluid, it is far harder to find articles and they disappear very quickly. We have an ongoing issue with trying to establish a means whereby if our decision must be published online that it will have impact in the online edition of the publication. The argument for publication on the front page was lost in 2007 when the editors would not agree to it. That is the honest answer, as far as I know.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
That is a fair question. We were set up in a specific way. We are funded by the industry, so we are different from all the other ombudsmen offices, which are, essentially, funded by public moneys. We are funded by a levy on the industry. The view was taken that our main function would be in assisting individual citizens to seek redress when something wrong is published about them. It has always been the case, therefore, that we can only respond to complaints rather than initiate them.
We must walk the line between satisfying the print industry that we are independent, fair and of value while also satisfying the public that we are independent and of value. We sort of walk a tightrope in our decisions between understanding where the industry is coming from, while also understanding the importance of the rights of individuals. If we were to move into the area of being able to initiate complaints, we would come much closer to the functions of some of the other ombudsmen. They are all backed by legislation and we are not. It must be remembered that we are an independent and voluntary body and newspapers do not have to be members of the Press Council. Some 20% of regional newspapers are not in it. We would find it more difficult to navigate that path between the industry and the public if we were to have the power to initiate complaints. It would also add to our costs and, obviously, we are conscious that we are being funded by an industry which is in severe financial difficulty. We would not like to add to its costs in any way.
I welcome Mr. Feeney to our meeting and thank him for his presentation and time. Taking up from where the Chair finished, in the context of the initiation of complaints, Mr. Feeney said that "Complaints can only be considered about something that has been published in the last three months". Why is it that prescriptive? For example, if a newspaper were to write an article that someone wanted to complain about to Mr. Feeney, why must a complaint be made within three months? Why can the time not be open-ended?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
It could be. The reason it is not open-ended is that the decision was taken in 2007 that there would be a three-month deadline. I was not in the Press Council or the Press Ombudsman then. My understanding, however, is that given the importance of journalists remembering the details, have their notes, etc., three months seemed like a reasonable amount of time. As I said, we did a survey of 25 other press councils and we found that three months was, more or less, the average. There is no reason the period could not be six months. The impact-----
Mr. Peter Feeney:
No, I cannot. We would have to change our rules because they currently specify a period of three months. If we were to recommend a change to a six-month period, or any other length of time, that decision would have to go to the editors of publications. We only receive a small number of complaints about articles that are more than three months old. That may be because people go to our website first. The evidence is that most people do go to our website before they make a complaint and, accordingly, they may already know about the three-month rule. Therefore, there may be potential complaints about things which are six months old, but which do not lead to complaints being made. The three-month period is not set in stone; it is just what the agreement has been for the last 15 years.
In response to Mr. Feeney's remark that "many complaints are resolved at conciliation" and going back to the Chair's contribution regarding redress, it irks me on behalf of many people - and I know we have already gone over this aspect - that the apology or clarification, in some cases, is so minute or, in many cases, so hidden, that it is actually very unfair.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
This is a genuine issue. If an article appears on page 4 of a publication, and if I make a decision to uphold a complaint about that article, my decision can be published in full on page 4. If the complaint is resolved through conciliation, however, and all that is required is a correction, that correction can be published anywhere in the newspaper.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
-----and the clarification appears a week later on page 27. I understand that seems to be unfair. At the moment, we have no requirement that a clarification must appear in any particular location in a newspaper as long as it is published. When the apology or correction goes into the publication, the complainant can still make another complaint to us within three months. If I uphold that complaint, then it will be published wherever the original decision was. Frequently, members of the public are satisfied, especially because where a clarification is about something that is inaccurate, the online version will also be corrected. Therefore, even though the apology may be buried on page 27, the correction will be the record that can be googled afterwards. I think that helps.
I still think the odds are stacked against the complainant and that the rights of the newspapers are being protected the whole time. That is very unfair, in my view. In the context of the debate we are having regarding the future of media, a broadcasting levy provides funds to local radio stations. Does Mr. Feeney think it is time we considered giving money to newspapers?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
Many journalists would be reluctant to see their newspapers take money directly from the Government. They would feel that would compromise their independence. Other measures could be taken. Senator Warfield mentioned the possibility of training schemes, apprenticeships, etc. There could be means by which the Government could support newspapers without directly funding them. The problem with directly funding newspapers is that for some people it would create the perception that they were no longer independent of the Government. Credibility demands that newspapers are seen to be independent of the Government, and other vested interests of course, including employers and business organisations, etc. Getting the balance and perception right is not easy. Therefore, direct funding of the media by the Government could present problems and there is a need to explore other means of doing this.
One of the suggestions could be levies on social media, which are taking 85% of the revenue of newspapers. Such revenue could be channelled to local media without it being seen to be part of Government funding. There are mechanisms that could be explored. In some countries, for example, newspapers have a preferential rate for being posted out, making it cheaper than having the newspaper delivered by regular post. There are other little measures like that could be used.
Consideration could be given to the Government being involved. We see this happening, for example, in the Department of Foreign Affairs, which funds journalists doing stories on Irish aid. Their airfares or accommodation costs will be paid. The Department is not paying the salaries of the journalists concerned, but it is assisting them in carrying out the research. Therefore, mechanisms exist which can be explored and which would allow support for journalism without "contaminating", if I can use that term, that journalism by giving funds directly.
Absolutely. Going back to Mr. Feeney's comments on the review of the Defamation Act being overdue, there is still, as he said, a need for the citizen to have redress and be protected. I am slow to move on defamation processes because redress to the citizen affected in some cases is quite low. We have had this conversation in the context of the apology and Mr. Feeney is right that the legal costs are high. Is there any way, in terms of Mr. Feeney's office, that we could see the whole issue being intertwined?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
A simple proposal I made, as mentioned earlier, was that all solicitors should be obliged to inform clients when talking about defamation that there is a faster and free mechanism to establish reputation, that is, to use the Office of the Press Ombudsman. I do not want to malign solicitors but we have found many solicitors are slow to ask their clients if they have considered going down the Press Ombudsman route, because it is free and there is nothing in it for solicitors. It would lead to a quick resolution in some cases and does not stop the client or member of the public subsequently suing, if they want to do that.
Someone suing a newspaper is looking at two to five years, paying costs if they lose and maybe paying publisher's costs as well. It is a risky business. Going to the Press Ombudsman costs nothing and there is no threat of any cost at any stage. I would like to see measures to encourage that. We have this in family law, where solicitors are obliged to inform clients of mediation services etc. Saying solicitors must inform clients of our services would not restrict people's constitutional right to go to the courts. If we do not work or they are not satisfied, they can still sue.
That is a fair point and a mechanism we should explore more. As a member of this committee over two parliamentary terms, I think having Mr. Feeney and other ombudspersons here is an important conduit to information and I hope we will see the Office of the Press Ombudsman being used more. Is the right to information about politicians being overused by journalists? I give the example of the hospital or medical records of politicians being put on public record without their approval.
Mr. Peter Feeney:
I was freedom of information officer for RTÉ for 13 years and ceased ten years ago. I dealt with a lot of freedom of information material on both sides, as poacher and gamekeeper. We used freedom of information within RTÉ to access records but I was also subject to members of the public using FOI to inquire about RTÉ. I came away from that convinced of the value and importance of freedom of information. It is an important power which provides information citizens are entitled to. I am 100% in favour of freedom of information but am aware that it is sometimes used by journalists and others in a fundamentally unfair and trivial way. It is used to disparage people for doing legitimate things in a legitimate way.
Getting the balance right is difficult. However, the Ombudsman, who is also the Information Commissioner, has in place highly skilled staff who are good at weighing up what is in the pubic interest. I agree that it is sometimes frustrating to see FOI used in a way that trivialises it and to disparage people but it is an important power for the citizen and for journalists. I would be reluctant to see any reduction in use of freedom of information legislation. It can be nuanced. Sometimes information is used in a disrespectful and unfair way.
I will give a specific case. Given we are coming out of Covid-19, if a member of this committee was a close contact or had Covid-19, should that information be published in a newspaper or radio or television programme without the person's consent?
Mr. Peter Feeney:
In my view, no. Medical records are private and the only reason to publish it is if one could argue effectively and forcefully that is was in the public interest. If Senator Buttimer had Covid in February this year and did not tell anybody about it, I cannot see any reason why any member of the public should know that. If spouses or children of public figures had Covid, I cannot see any reason to publish that.
Early in the pandemic, a newspaper published a well-intentioned article on five people who had died of Covid but it had not thought of asking the families of those people if they wanted the public to know that the person had died. We upheld that complaint. It was not done out of malice. It was done with good intentions and was a good article which brought home the human tragedy of Covid. One family said they did not want people to know their relative had Covid, put in a complaint and I upheld it. I would say the same about politicians. Unless it is shown that the politician having Covid has influenced his or her public statements, stances or policies, I cannot see how that could be justified.
Going back to the death of Brian Lenihan Jnr., I will give a personal opinion. I was disappointed that reports of his illness were published. One could argue that a healthy Minister for Finance is important but there was a degree of insensitivity there which surprised me. My recollection is it was published on St. Stephen's Day, when he was home with his family. His family had to be rushed to be told because it was to be published a couple of days later. It was broadcasting, rather than print. There are times when the privacy of the general public and politicians, in particular, has to be respected.
Just in case people think I am referring to that, I am not. I thank Mr. Feeney for being here. It has been a good meeting. The issues of the online safety commissioner and the future of media are important. We need a serious conversation about anonymous accounts on social media that are trolling all of us and creating vitriolic messaging and sentiment that does none of us any good. I hope we can come back again with Mr. Feeney. His contribution was refreshing and interesting. It has been one of the good meetings we have had in the committee.
I think Senator Buttimer will get widespread support in the committee for the assertion that it has been a good meeting. We, as politicians or a committee, need to come back to the situation of anonymous accounts and how they are dealt with. I do not see any hands up so I invite Mr. Feeney to make closing remarks.
I thank Mr. Feeney on my behalf and that of the committee for coming here, even if only virtually. This discussion has been beneficial and informative. I agree with Senator Buttimer that it has probably been one of the better meetings. We have had very good meetings with other ombudsmen, but the depth of information we got from today's meetings----
No, we would not even think of that. The information we got from the Ombudsman today has been a massive help. I have no doubt we will come back to it again and we hope Mr. Feeney will be able to visit us in person in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, stay safe.