Transparency International Ireland (TI Ireland) has called on the Government to develop statutory guidance for local authorities to prevent undue pressure being placed on print or broadcast media. The call comes on foot of a TI Ireland survey of Irish local broadcasters and newspapers. The survey suggests that local authorities interference in local media’s editorial decisions, as shown in a recent Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) finding against Wexford County Council, might not be an isolated incident.
The initial survey based on responses from 18 participants from broadcast and print media found that 39% of editors and journalists reported unfavourable treatment after covering news that is critical of local government. A further 50% suggested that they had difficulties accessing information or having their queries answered by local officials.
The majority of respondents (67%) believe that local government officials do not welcome media questions or scrutiny, while 45% described their contact with local government as not ‘open and welcoming’.
These findings echo concerns raised through TI Ireland’s Speak Up Helpline, as well as the SIPO investigation into allegations that Wexford County Council sought to unduly influence South East Radio’s coverage of the Council in 2021. SIPO found that the Council’s Chief Executive had been ‘in effect ‘throwing around the weight’ of the ‘Council’s purse’ and had acted inappropriately in tying his dispute with the radio’s broadcast to matters of public procurement.
‘The survey findings suggest that while the majority of councils have a healthy relationship with local media, this problem is not confined to Wexford. Broadcasters and print journalists have told TI Ireland that they are facing threats to their advertising income if they are seen to be critical of some local authorities. The Taoiseach also said that there can be no connection between advertising sponsorship and editorial control. However, we now need action as well as words from central government if we are to uphold media freedoms’, said TI Ireland Chief Executive, John Devitt.
Despite the significant challenges faced in reporting on local government, the majority of respondents (78%) said that they feel free to report on or discuss the performance of local government, even if that reporting might be critical. However, 22% of respondents reported that they would be nervous about the consequences of such coverage.
The Chair of Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI), John Purcell recently reported to an Oireachtas committee that nearly all of their members came ‘critically close’ to shutting down radio stations in the wake of the pandemic.
‘Independent radio stations in Ireland operate in a commercial environment and rely entirely on advertising to fund broadcasting and operational activities. However, the pandemic and worsening economic outlook for the country means that some councils will be in an even stronger position to use their economic clout to influence media output unless action is taken to address the risk of undue interference in editorial decisions. The Government should undertake a review of existing concerns with a view to publishing clear statutory guidance and protocols for local authorities so that officials understand what is and what is not acceptable in their interaction with local media,’ added Mr Devitt.
Notes to Editors
The survey was conducted during May and June 2022. TI Ireland sent invitations to participate in the survey to 96 independent broadcasters and print media working on local issues. 18 responses were shared anonymously with TI Ireland.
TI Ireland published its National Integrity Index – Local Authorities reports in 2018 and 2019 showing some improvement in the disclosure practices of county and city councils over the period. It hopes to undertake the third report on the sector in late 2023.
Examples of statutory guidance on council publicity and transparency can be found in several jurisdictions including New Zealand and the UK, where A Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity has been implemented by the governments of the England, Wales and Scotland.
The underlying objective of the code to ensure the proper use of public funds for publicity and ensure information is made available to all those who want or need it. The code sets out principles to ensure that local authority decisions on publicity are properly made, in accordance with clear principles of good practice.