independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Colum Kenny: Privacy Bill is another attack on free speech

Instead of reviving a defunct Privacy Bill, Alan Shatter should focus on crime, writes Colum Kenny

ON THE same day last week that he later threatened to revive a controversial Privacy Bill, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter found himself and his wife in the news.



The story related to properties that they own in Florida. Pesky journalists.

Last year Mr Shatter had to climb down from his high ministerial horse to apologise to RTE's security correspondent, Paul Reynolds. The minister had accused Reynolds of frequently getting things wrong and of "tabloid sensationalism of the worst kind".

Reynolds had asked Shatter about the appointment of one of his political donors to a part-time post dealing with whistleblowers in An Garda Siochana.

Quite why Minister Shatter decided to go on a solo run and revive a defunct Privacy Bill last week is unclear.

Some people were annoyed by the decision of the Irish Daily Star to publish photographs of a UK prince and his wife sunbathing topless. But Prince William can complain to the Irish Press Council if he wishes, and Kate already has grounds to sue in civil law for the invasion of her privacy.

As a political ploy, the Privacy Bill 2006 achieved its purpose, and was left to die with the last Dail. It was seen as a threat to the press, and used as a way of forcing the media finally to set up the long overdue Press Council. It had not been expected to be revived, until Alan Shatter talked it up last week.

Monday was a big news day for the minister. The day dawned with the Irish Independent running a story about his property interests. The Dublin solicitor and his wife were reported to co-own 15 properties, four of them in Florida where they had taken legal action to evict an ill tenant in arrears.

Shatter's case in the Sunshine State was settled amicably, but Mr Shatter declined to comment on it to the Irish Independent. He cannot have been happy to see his business affairs featured so prominently in that paper on Monday morning.

Monday closed with Minister Shatter making headlines again. This time he did so by attacking people in the media who fail to distinguish between prurient interest and public interest when it comes to private matters. "It is perceived financial gain, as opposed to any principled freedom of expression, that for some is the dominant value," he complained.

But already the Code of Conduct of the Irish Press Council makes it very clear that privacy must be respected. It points out that privacy is a human right, already protected as a personal right in the Irish Constitution and in the European Convention on Human Rights, which is incorporated into Irish law.

"The private and family life, home and correspondence of everyone must be respected," it insists.

The Press Council, to which Irish newspapers have signed up, also states that public persons (such as Prince William and his wife) are entitled to privacy, and that, "taking photographs of individuals in private places without their consent is not acceptable, unless justified by the public interest".

By "public interest" they mean something important for the public's welfare and not just interesting gossip.

One weakness of the Press Council is that complaints will only be heard if they are made by the person whose privacy has allegedly been invaded. Someone may not wish to become involved in further controversy, even where a newspaper has clearly broken the Code of Practice.

But the defunct Privacy Bill 2006 was not merely a means of providing justice to those whose privacy needs protection. Critics regarded its strict terms as intended also to make it harder for the media to report facts that many citizens would find relevant to how the inner circles of Irish society operate.

Alan Shatter is not the only Fine Gael minister who may be smarting from press coverage of his financial affairs. There are quite a few Fine Gael members of the Cabinet who have been in the news for personal reasons. The picture that the stories paint is not one of a party sharing the experiences of most people.

Minister for Health, James Reilly, was forced to try and explain himself to the Dail after he was listed in Stubbs Gazette in relation to an unpaid €1.9m judgment. He lives in a mansion and gets tax breaks for letting the public visit it.

Reilly was also in the news defending his colleague Phil Hogan for failing to pay an outstanding service charge on a penthouse that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Hogan owns in Portugal.

Hogan and his Government have perpetuated an Irish second-property tax that does not apply to properties like his or Shatter's that are overseas.

The Sunday Independent's Jody Corcoran has also reported that Hogan bought the penthouse in Portugal and a house in Dublin 4 with "soft loans" that were personally approved for him by toxic building society boss Michael Fingleton, who has cost the State €5.4bn. Hogan should be grateful that other media have been slow to follow up on this particular story about his business dealings.

More recently, the Sunday Independent's Nick Webb reported also that Small Business Minister and Sligo Fine Gael TD John Perry was given a mortgage by State-owned AIB in June despite issues over his credit history. The minister is understood to have loans of up to €5m from a variety of banks related to mortgages on properties around his hometown of Ballymote in Co Sligo.

Meanwhile, banks are refusing young people credit cards for even small amounts that parents are willing to guarantee, and making life hard for small businesses.

The good fortune of Fine Gael ministers in such matters

may make it harder for them to understand the present position of the man or woman in the street.

Many citizens would regard such stories about Fine Gael ministers as matters of public interest. It is not claimed that any of them have engaged in wrongdoing. But the media should still be free to report on them.

The media -- hit hard by the recession and by laws that make its job of telling the truth complex -- has not yet painted an entirely clear picture of what exactly went wrong and who benefited from the Irish economic collapse. Not enough has been revealed, and not enough has changed in business and politics.

Will Alan Shatter now revive Fianna Fail's Privacy Bill and make it more difficult for the media to tell stories in the public interest? If so, then that Bill should again be resisted vigorously by those who care for freedom of speech.

William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, can take their chances with the Press Council or the Irish civil courts if they wish to pursue the Irish Daily Star for publishing Peeping Tom photos. The privileged couple can actually afford to take High Court actions.

Meanwhile, let Minister for Justice Alan Shatter forget about reviving the defunct Privacy Bill. Instead, he can use his energies to ensure that criminals who are burgling what are the only properties of other citizens get caught more often.

Sunday Independent

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