Sunday 23 October 2016

Colum Kenny: Scared in a bar, then bullied in cyberspace over story

Whatever your opinion on what is in the public interest, there's no excuse for attacking reporters, writes Colum Kenny

Published 05/08/2012 | 05:00

Niamh Horan reported last week that a big builder attacked her in Portugal
Niamh Horan reported last week that a big builder attacked her in Portugal
Niamh Horan (above) reported last week that a big builder attacked her in Portugal

A cat may look at a queen. And a reporter may take a picture of a builder in a bar if she is acting in the public interest.

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There is no excuse for threatening a journalist in a public place. Last week, Niamh Horan reported that a big builder had attacked her in Portugal when she snapped him having a drink.

He may feel that she invaded his privacy. The law may even agree that a pub, oddly enough, is not always public.

But the proper response to an intrusion into privacy is the law, and not lawlessness.

Her report of the attack, in last week's Sunday Independent, prompted a rash of nasty and sometimes woman-hating comments on various websites.

"Tough lesson. Guess she should have asked his permission before sticking her camera in his mug," tweeted one competing journalist. She was asking for it? She deserved what she got? What did she expect?

She no doubt expected a good time. She was out for the night in what she describes as "the millionaire's playground of Quinta do Lago" in Portugal.

But journalists seldom let a story go. And when she saw what she thought was a good story, she approached a man who looked to her like a builder who has been in the news and in the courts.

Have journalists a right to take pictures in pubs? Have their newspapers a right to publish them?

The answer depends on whether or not it is in the public interest to do so.

Given a builder who has left homeowners living in debt, despair and substandard housing -- and who uses the courts vigorously to resist claims against him -- many would feel that it is in the public interest to see how that builder is living today, despite everything.

But being "in the public interest" is not the same as being "of interest to the public".

Just because people like to see pictures of a famous or notorious person having a good time does not mean that media are entitled to publish those pictures. European courts hold that simply because something happens in public, that does not make it fair game for the media. So, despite being a chancer and a cheat, someone might still sue successfully for a reporter going too far and breaching their privacy.

But Horan published nothing. It was up to her editor and her paper's legal advisers to decide if her picture could appear in print.

Being chased through a bar with a broken glass, as she reported happened to her when she took her picture, would put anyone in fear of their life.

No European court would agree that an assault on a journalist is a proper way to defend your privacy.

Yet some bloggers and emailers who abused Horan last week seemed unconcerned about her welfare. There is no evidence that any of them are personal or political associates of the builder she photographed.

Too often, the media make the mistake of treating bloggers as typical. A few dozen random blogs are not representative of public opinion.

In any event, the vast majority are anonymous. If people will not put their names to their insults, then why treat them seriously?

Some criticism of Horan was moderate. Some saw the report as badly written, breathless, a bit "girly", egocentric. Never mind the story, get the prose.

One critic wrote: "The SI had a decent story -- obese developer in a pink shirt, living the high life in Spain and acting like a thug." But the same critic added, "there was no need for the hysterics". Is it really hysterical to run screaming from a man who is wielding a broken glass?

The term "hysterical" is often used to belittle women. But "hysterical" is still a lot kinder than some of things that were said about Horan. There was a rash of offensive and boorish blogs or tweets that do not deserve to be dignified by repetition here.

Niamh Horan thought that her Irish readers might like the sight of a notorious builder living it up abroad while resisting efforts to make him accountable at home.

Many readers believe that those who have created the mess in which Ireland is now floundering have escaped too lightly, and that some of the worst offenders have no shame.

Even a Supreme Court judge last week remarked on how inadequate the law is when it comes to getting justice for victims of bad builders, how it "does not seem to encompass much in the way of assistance or remedies for the blameless owners and users" of property.

Yet journalists fear that Irish courts will extend privacy protection in ways that will make it even harder than at present to shed light on injustice and social inequality.

Media suffering from the effects of recession and other ills are investing too few resources in serious, in-depth reporting on the agents, causes and extent of Ireland's problems.

When they see an opportunity to highlight an aspect of that bigger story, reporters should be protected against assault and intimidation on the ground, and spared the attention of bullies in cyberspace.

Sunday Independent

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