Analysis

Thursday 24 July 2014

Willie O'Dea: This is just a mock battle between paper tigers

Willie O'Dea

Published 06/01/2013|05:00

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Shatter and Rabbitte should concentrate on tackling real issues rather than posturing over privacy laws, writes Willie O'Dea

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Though normally a staple of the holiday TV schedules, none of the major TV networks ran either the 1981 or the 2010 version of Clash of the Titans this year.

Perhaps this explains why two of the biggest egos in the Cabinet have decided to do their own re-enactment of the movie and go to war over the issue of privacy laws.

For the past few weeks and months, the Justice and Communications ministers have been circling each other like two of Ray Harryhausen's mythical stop-motion beasts, except more unconvincingly.

In a delicious irony some of the protagonists in this clash on privacy seem to have decided that any cabinet discussions on privacy should not be conducted in private, but rather in public.

In fairness, they have not so much decided that the full debate should be conducted in public, but rather that one side in particular should be heard by way of lots of juicy quotes given to journalists.

On one side we have Alan Shatter, who appears to be returning to his party's dogmatic blueshirt roots, ominously suggesting that he is prepared to introduce privacy laws to impose restrictions and controls on the media wherever he can.

While on the other side we have Pat Rabbitte, who seems to be eschewing the centralised control that was synonymous with his stickie past and declaring himself set to oppose the introduction of any privacy laws by his Fine Gael cabinet colleagues.

Hearing Rabbitte throw down the gauntlet like this to his partners in Government must be truly stirring and inspirational stuff for his Labour Party colleagues. Surely this was the reason why the Labour Party went into Government – to put a halt to Fine Gael's right-wing conservative gallop.

Just a pity that he was not as feisty and worked up when it came to backing junior ministers Penrose and Shortall or for standing up for carers, the disabled or those in need of genuine help and support.

Like much of the self-serving leaks and spin we hear from ministers and their staff, this appears to be just one more faux battle that absorbs more energy, time and intellectual resources than the real battles that they should be fighting.

The debate on the merits of regulation and the forms it might take, including whether we need or don't need privacy laws, has been running for years. The debate has as often as not run within parties as much as between them.

The last government made some progress in the area with the Defamation Act 2009.

It abolished the distinction between libel and slander and introduced a new tort of defamation, with a limitation period of one year.

It significantly overhauled the potential defences available and, most importantly, placed the Press Council of Ireland on a statutory footing. While the move was opposed by some at the time, it has been seen to have bedded itself down since. Indeed, the Irish regulatory model was commented upon favourably during the course of the recent Lord Leveson Inquiry into the "culture, practice and ethics of the press" in the UK.

While the last government did look at introducing a full Privacy Law, it concluded that such a law would be so complex and cumbersome that it would fail to achieve its aims and would also risk damaging the freedom of expression that is central to our democracy.

This last reason may possibly be a pointer as to why the issue is being revisited by some in the more conservative and traditionalist wing of Fine Gael.

Another likely reason is that spin-obsessed Fine Gael ministers imagine that threatening the introduction of a strict privacy law gives this Government, particularly its zealous justice minister, another stick to keep media criticism of it to a minimum.

On the other side of the skirmish, an equally coverage-obsessed Communications Minister thinks that ostentatiously championing the cause of press freedom will aid his goal of getting 24/7 coverage for his every utterance.

The basic reality, however, is that this is a mock battle between paper tigers.

This Government is finding itself sufficiently hard-pressed to work cohesively to tackle the issues it is committed to solving without seeking new battle-lines for itself.

Willie O'Dea is the Fianna Fail TD for Limerick City; www.willieodea.ie

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