Colum Kenny: Irish watchdog gave Leveson a blueprint for change in Britain
Published 30/11/2012 | 05:00
IT looks like an Irish solution to an English problem. When all is said and done about Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into press standards in Britain, the controversial report that he published points towards the creation of an independent UK regulator along the lines of the current Irish Press Council.
Leveson has been digging dirt on the British press for months, as a parade of celebrities including Hugh Grant and Charlotte Church complained that their privacy was violated by tabloids.
But it was allegations about intrusion into the private grief of families of dead British soldiers, of civilian victims of terrorist bombings and of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler that really set the inquiry cat among media pigeons.
Now Leveson has dodged demands for strict new laws and left room for politicians and the media to reach a compromise. The UK outcome may eventually look like the Irish Press Council, commended yesterday by UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
So, says Leveson, there should be a new body of which the board and chair would all be appointed by a fair and open process. It would include a majority of members who are independent of the press, but also a sufficient number of people with experience of the industry such as former editors and senior or academic journalists.
Leveson seems to want his proposed new independent watchdog to be supported lightly in law, just as the Irish Press Council is supported by sections of the Defamation Act 2009.
Ireland learnt from past UK failures when we came late to setting up a press complaints body. But it is also true that there are fewer gross intrusions by the media into privacy here than there are in Britain.
Irish privacy law first developed because of government interference in people's lives. Restrictions on contraception and homosexual acts were struck down by the courts as intrusions into the bedroom. Journalists Geraldine Kennedy, Vincent Browne and Bruce Arnold got damages because the then Taoiseach Charles Haughey had their phones tapped. But cases of media intrusion here are rare.
When Ruth Hickey objected to the 'Sunday World' taking pictures of her and Twink's estranged husband after they had registered the birth of their baby she got nowhere. But the president of the High Court, Nicholas Kearns, did take a sideswipe at what he saw as some of "the lowest standards of journalism imaginable".
Irish people who are unhappy with media standards now have recourse to the Irish Press Ombudsman and Press Council. And Ombudsman John Horgan has been hearing complaints about breaches of privacy.
In July last, he found that the 'Irish Sun's' publication of an identifiable photograph of David Doyle while he stood at his front door, without his permission and in a place where he would have had a reasonable expectation of privacy, was not justified by considerations of the public interest. Mr Doyle's son had been convicted for murder.
But in October he dismissed part of a complaint against the same paper that concerned privacy.
In a sequence that may hold the key to Leveson's conclusions, the UK judge includes in his report exchanges with Irish Press Ombudsman John Horgan, who went to London last July to give evidence. Leveson also includes an account of the Irish Press Council that is lengthy compared to other models considered by him.
He notes that Horgan made it clear that the Irish press industry had considered there to be a very real threat that the Government would legislate for press regulation in the absence of an adequate self- regulatory solution. That is the position in Britain today.
Leveson asked Horgan: "So in other words, it behoved the press interests to come up with a solution that was less than the club that was being held over them?"
Horgan replied: "That is absolutely the case ... in quite a few countries this threat has been the engine which has generated or promoted the successful establishment of press councils of the same kind."
Media intrusion into privacy can sometimes be justified in the public interest. That happened in Aherne v RTE, when Judge Frank Clarke refused to prevent the broadcast of a programme that included secret filming at Leas Cross Nursing Home because both the Irish Constitution and the law generally recognises the need for a vigorous and informed public debate on issues of importance.
The public's attitude towards privacy can also change. It used to be almost unknown for the Irish media to publish pictures of funerals that showed family members in grieving detail. Now one frequently sees such images.
Yet the media can still cross a line when it comes to the dead. The family of Michaela McAreavey are suing a newspaper in Mauritius for publishing photos of her body that they see as an outrageous affront to her dignity.
But no kind of press council would have made any difference to those who decided to hack phones of victims of violence. So long as there are laws and regulations, there will always be a minority who break them.
Dr Colum Kenny is Professor of Communications at DCU