If you have a problem with your local news publishers, the best course of action is to get in touch with them.

That was the message given by Dave O’Connell, Editor of the Connacht Tribune, at an Oireachtas Committee hearing on alternatives to court action.

Mr O’Connell was speaking on behalf of Local Ireland, which represents 33 newspapers and their online websites around the country.

He told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Media: “If you are wronged or you believe you are wronged, the first port of call should be either the reporter of the story, who will then raise the matter with his or her editor – or alternatively, the complainant could go straight to the editor.

“Resolving an issue locally is the best course of action for everyone because it avoids the stress and cost, for both sides, that can arise from going the legal route.”

Mr O’Connell told TDs that if anyone was still not satisfied, they could go to Press Council, where the independent Press Ombudsman would give a binding judgement on the issue, which would oblige the publisher to report the judgement with the same prominence as the original story if the complaint was upheld.

The TDs and Senators were told that a defamation action could threaten jobs and the future of some news publishers,

Mr O’Connell said: “We all recognise the right of everyone to their good name and when we make the, hopefully, very occasional mistake, we absolutely believe we should rectify it.”

Either raising issues with the publisher or the Press Council were “simple and straightforward steps which can avert very long, drawn out and costly legal actions.” He added “a half-decent action, without any malicious intent, could close us down.”

The Editor of the Business Post, Daniel McConnell, speaking on behalf of NewsBrands, which represents national publishers, expressed support for the new defamation legislation being drawn up by the Government. But he called on lawmakers to introduce a serious harm test for all defamation actions.

He said: “The Irish media faces, on an almost daily basis, unwarranted and exaggerated claims for defamation. The costs of defending these cases are significant and these costs are often unrecoverable even where the defence succeeds.

“A serious harm test for all defamation proceedings would alleviate the costs of such unwarranted claims and the risks to Ireland associated with SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) and ‘libel tourism’.”

The Press Ombudsman Susan McKay noted that the proposed legislation would oblige legal advisers to point out the alternatives to legal action to their clients.

She added: “Our structures were set up to offer the public a route to redress which did not involve litigation. In our submission to the review of the 2009 (defamation) act we stressed the need to ensure the public knows that we offer a free and fast alternative dispute resolution system, and we are pleased that the new act will require solicitors to inform persons considering suing of this.”

After the hearing, the Executive Director of Local Ireland Bob Hughes said: “It is clear the current defamation legislation is not fit for purpose and we would urge the Government to ensure that the new legislation is enacted within the life of the current Dáil.”

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