Monday 24 November 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: With all his problems, why is Shatter now tackling privacy issue?

Published 19/09/2012 | 17:00

BETWEEN gangland hits, shows of strength by dissident republicans, DIY crystal meth labs and worrying deaths from drug-taking, you'd expect the Minister for Justice would have plenty to occupy his mind.

Instead, Alan Shatter is pre-occupied with the publication of photos of a member of the royal family.

Ill-judged as it was to publish the images of Kate Middleton, it hardly merits the minister entering the fray, like a latter-day knight on a white horse.

The fear is though that those coming under legitimate media scrutiny, including politicians, would seek to use the Privacy Bill as a sword, rather than a shield.

Mr Shatter views the publication of the topless photos of Ms Middleton as fitting reason to regurgitate a clampdown on the media.

Six years after it was dumped by the Fianna Fail/PD administration, Mr Shatter is bringing the Privacy Bill back on to the agenda.

He argued yesterday that he was trying to combat "creepy keyhole journalism".

The minister has had plenty of run-ins with the media since entering office and adopts an extremely hands-on approach to his engagement with the media.

He frequently responds directly to reports in newspapers with little enough provocation.

However, this is merely an aside to Mr Shatter's primary role as a talented legislator.

Nobody doubts his intellect and grasp of his brief, although several figures in Government discreetly say he's not the easiest to deal with.

In going off on personal solo runs, though, the Justice Minister runs the risk of getting distracted from his core brief and losing credibility.

And he wouldn't be the first talented legislator in that department to go astray.

The drafter of the original Privacy Bill, Michael McDowell, frequently ended up in sideshow spats about cafe bars and stamp duty that detracted from the vital role he played in standing by the institutions of the State as the Provisional IRA was being wound down and passing criminal justice laws.

Mr McDowell's Privacy Bill was ultimately dropped in favour of regulation via the Defamation Act, the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman.

The country has changed irrevocably since the privacy legislation was first conceived in 2006.

The fabric of society, the economy and the politics have been torn apart.

Within months of Mr McDowell's own legislation being published, he was himself thrust into a crisis of conscience over revelations about then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's personal finances being investigated by the Mahon Tribunal.

Mr Ahern consistently argued the questions surrounding his financial affairs were all related to his marital break-up.

Would a Privacy Bill have allowed him to seek to restrict some of the coverage of the controversy that ultimately forced him to resign from office?

The Planning Tribunal eventually found several senior politicians to be untruthful in their dealings with a statutory inquiry set up by the Oireachtas.

What chance does the media have in getting to the truth in extracting information in the public interest if those under examination have another weapon in their arsenal to evade questions?

Unfortunately, the economic downturn and the surrendering of Ireland's sovereignty have enormously damaged the public's trust in its political leaders.

Despite the dramatic transformation in the lives of so many people, the political system is still playing catch-up.

The apparent changing of the guard hasn't actually resulted in a complete clean slate.

The deputy leader of the main government party has become the first ever Cabinet minister to be listed in 'Stubbs Gazette' as a debt defaulter.

A newly elected TD, who was apparently elected as part of a new generation of politicians, was listed as a tax cheat with an outstanding bill of €2.1m.

In both of these cases, their exposure came about only because they were named or about to be named officially.

During last year's presidential election, candidates attempted to avoid valid questions about their record, despite seeking election to the highest office in the land.

The manner in which the rules governing the Oireachtas expenses and allowances continue to be twisted to the advantage of TDs, the downright abuse of facilities and the continued cronyism within the political system mean a high level of vigilance and questioning of those in office is still required.

Politicians, by their nature, have a fraught relationship with the media. They need the media to put out their message to their voters but they don't want to be subjected to the spotlight.

Mr Shatter argues it is his "responsibility" to introduce measures while still "protecting good news and investigative journalism".

The habit of elected representatives for clamming up when it suits them and claiming they are being victimised because they are under pressure to explain their position means caution is required when politicians claim they only want to protect the public interest.

The behaviour of politicians in this country shows exactly why a free and unshackled media is still a vital resource for society.

Irish Independent

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