Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland too small to have Press ombudsman

By Paul Connolly

Should Northern Ireland have its own Press ombudsman? That was the question posed recently by a group acting for relatives of people who have been killed in Northern Ireland.

In truth, the idea hasn’t had a lot of traction so far, but it deserves a wider debate.

The issue was raised by SAMM NI (Support After Murder and Manslaughter) and it was presented by chair Pam Surphlis to the Leveson inquiry into Press standards this week.

It’s central premise, it seems to me, is that many local journalists are unduly deceptive, ruthless and insensitive. SAMM makes a range of conclusions, including that journalists should only contact families via police liaison officers, must seek family approval for photo usage and that families should have an opportunity to satisfy themselves with the factual accuracy of stories before publication.

The submission to Leveson is well-intentioned and a welcome contribution to the debate on Press ethics. However, I feel it goes too far.

If these strictures were applied, news would take weeks to emerge, if at all. Should SAMM’s guidelines be followed, we would not know the vast majority of the human suffering of the Troubles and of countless ‘ordinary’ criminal events.

Further, in my opinion, the report is flawed: methodology was inadequate, context and balance were absent, and the sample size — just 10 responses, it would appear — alarmingly small.

For every bad example cited by SAMM, I can point to a hundred examples of good, honest reporting. That’s not to doubt there has been journalistic crassness on occasion, or to deny the competitive pressures on newsgatherers.

These are, of course, honestly-held opinions from people who have suffered profound loss and must be treated with respect.

I should at this juncture declare an interest. Pam Surphlis’s father, the Rev Eric Davidson, and her sister, Judith, were found murdered in Cookstown in 1992.

The details of the killings were exceptionally gruesome and harrowing. I remember reporting events at the time, mainly an |associated high profile murder trial some time later, as a relatively inexperienced journalist. So, perhaps, some of what I wrote helped form Pam’s opinion of the Press. Whatever the flaws in the report, what of one of SAMM’s central arguments: that Northern Ireland needs a Press ombudsman?

My opinion is we do not. Northern Ireland is too small. Legal and ethical issues can correctly be addressed by the courts, the soon-to-be-reformed Press Complaints Commission (note, however, that Northern Ireland needs proper representation) and others.

Additionally, the PCC has very sound new guidelines on dealing with bereavement, a subject I’ll return to next week.

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