Last week, the press ombudsman wrote to the editor of this newspaper on behalf of a celebrity. "My office has been contacted by the representatives of Ronan Keating in relation to current press coverage of his activities," John Horgan said in an email. "They have asked me to pass on to editors a request that any coverage should reflect in particular the implications for his children of Principle 9 (Children) of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Periodicals, and I am happy to do this on their behalf."
Principle 9 is an important part of the code, which seeks to protect the privacy, feelings and innocence of children from some of the madder excesses of the media. It stresses that regard must be given to the age of the child and to whether parental consent has been granted for whatever coverage is being planned. It then urges journalists and editors to take into account what circumstances, if any, make the story one of public interest.
Unfortunately for Keating's children, what made them of public interest over the last few weeks was the decision of their parents to announce to the media that their marriage was over when possibly it wasn't, and then to engage in a choreographed farce involving comings and goings from the family home and highly public visits to local restaurants and the K Club with the kids. Any editor looking at Principle 9 over the last week might very quickly have decided that she or he would be within the code of practice in publishing some photos of the Keating children. And, in fact, pics that were published, of the Boyzone singer playing with the kids at the K Club, were among the few images from the last fortnight that actually created some sympathy for him.
Professor Horgan shouldn't have sent his email for two reasons. Firstly, a quick glance at the code would have shown that Keating was not exactly on firm ground asking the ombudsman to protect his children from the public interest he created with the premature ejaculation of the separation statement. Secondly, editors don't need to be reminded of their obligations under the code. This is because the Office of the Press Ombudsman has been a success in its first two years in operation and has won the support of all of the newspapers involved, even though they have disagreed, sometimes very strongly, with decisions that have gone against them.
Indeed, they appear to have a lot more respect for the office than the government minister responsible for it, Dermot Ahern, the Louth-mouthed minister for justice. On Monday, Ahern attended the launch of the second annual report of the press ombudsman, which showed there were 351 complaints to Horgan's office last year. Most of these were resolved quickly with the newspapers in question. Thirty-three complaints went forward for a decision by Horgan. Around half of these complaints were upheld; the newspapers won the other half.
Asked for a comment on the workings of the ombudsman's office, Ahern recalled a "pretty nasty" story that had been written about him, although he didn't say in which publication it had appeared. He had complained to the editor and was disappointed when the newspaper "pulled in their horns and apologised. I wanted to see how the ombudsman's office worked in practice," he said.
This statement can be interpreted in two ways: as the minister for justice warning the ombudsman's office to be very careful about how it deals with any future complaints from him, or as the opinion of a man genuinely curious about the workings of this new office.
The problem I have with this second view is that last December, a Sunday Tribune reader wrote a letter to the editor criticising minister Ahern in robust terms. We published it and the minister took offence, but instead of looking for a right of reply or complaining to the ombudsman if he didn't get one (which he would have), Ahern sent us a solicitor's letter threatening legal action. We published an apology the following week. Offered the opportunity of going to the ombudsman route he purports to be so interested in, Ahern decided that the old ways were best, and used a sledgehammer to crack a nut and silence a critic.
The differing approaches of Keating and Ahern to the press ombudsman's office suggest that it has still to find a settled role for itself in the public consciousness. Keating thinks he can use it as part of a media management campaign; Ahern disdains the idea of using it at all. Only when they, and people like them, get over themselves, can the ombudsman's office look forward to a really relevant future.
M3 motorway: we're on a road to nowhere
The M3 motorway – the übersymbol of Celtic Tiger stupidity and bad decision making – opens officially next Friday after years of controversy over its cost, its route through the Tara/Skryne valley and its very necessity. A vanity project for the fundamentalist roadbuilders in the NRA and for local political hacks like Noel Dempsey, who will set the white elephant officially on its way on Friday, the M3 will allow motorists in Co Meath to reach the Blanchardstown tailback 10 minutes earlier than they normally do.
Built in the expectation of years of migration from Dublin into Meath and Cavan, the road has been rendered effectively useless by the economic downturn before it has even opened. After the initial novelty has worn off, it is set to be one of the most underused motorways in western Europe.