Dearbhail McDonald: Beware Enda Kenny bearing pre-election gifts of press freedom
Published 19/01/2016 | 02:30
Is it just me or does anyone else suspect that Taoiseach Enda Kenny's sudden embrace of press freedom has little to do with the protection of journalistic sources and a lot to do with fears of critical media coverage mere weeks away from the General Election?
Not for the first time, Mr Kenny has been usurped by his young Health Minister Leo Varadkar who last year stole a march on Mr Kenny.
That was when Mr Varadkar called on former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan - retired, resigned or sacked depending on your view of how Mr Kenny handled that departure - to withdraw his (Callinan's) "disgusting" remark about two garda whistleblowers.
Read more: Taoiseach lashes GSOC for phone-snooping row
Last Friday, Mr Varadkar once again nibbled at his leader's bum (to borrow an iconic phrase from the recently departed PJ Mara), when he took the political lead on the latest controversy to beset the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).
That was when he described the beleaguered garda watchdog's accessing of the phone records of journalists as "a little bit odd and sinister".
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald spent last weekend in a spin as she announced (on foot of a threat of legal action by the country's media) a review of GSOC's secret, if wholly legal, accessing of journalists' phone records without any judicial oversight or other safeguards - such as notification and a right of appeal - that are standard in many democracies.
As the controversy intensified and extended beyond the privacy rights of journalists to the privacy rights of all citizens, Mr Kenny last night moved to quell the controversy.
He did so by defending the "critical and primary importance" of the constitutionally recognised - and European Convention-enshrined - reporter/source privilege "in a country like ours".
The Taoiseach's eleventh-hour concerns fall like crocodile tears in a country like ours that pays lip service to press freedom and the privacy rights of its citizens.
Mr Kenny appeared surprised that the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011, which allows gardaí and other authorities - including GSOC - to access journalists' phone records and other communications such as emails, may not contain adequate safeguards.
This is utterly disingenuous, in my view, as successive governments have been on full notice for years that the 2011 law did not and does not now contain sufficient safeguards and flies in the face of international privacy norms.
Mr Kenny sought to draw a distinction last night between "this particular kind of incident" - namely the alleged leaking of information by gardaí following the death in 2007 of the model Katy French - from one where "national security might arise".
He's dead right.
The 2011 data retention law is meant to be used to prevent and investigate serious crimes, safeguard the security of the State and safeguard human life.
Because the stakes are so high, proportionality and independent oversight are essential.
Reporter-source privilege is not absolute and journalists are not above the law.
However, the accessing of journalists' records without any judicial oversight, independent review or notification/appeal procedure is questionable at best.
GSOC, strangled at birth by An Garda Síochána, which as an institution refuses to be subject to any independent oversight, does itself no favours.
But it does not help that the Taoiseach and his Cabinet can kick GSOC around like a political football whenever it suits them to support its independence - or throw it under the bus.
For all the sudden political bleating about press freedom, reform of our extensive - many say excessive - data retention laws, is not high on the political agenda.
Last year, in a much anticipated ruling, the European Court of Justice struck down the EU's data retention directive because it interfered with our privacy and personal data rights.
Ireland's 2011 law gave effect to that directive.
But despite all the advance warning and the Grand Chamber's ruling, Mr Kenny & Co have not moved one inch to protect the privacy rights of Irish citizens.
So, take the Taoiseach's concerns for press freedom and citizens' privacy with a heavy pinch of pre-electoral salt.