independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Making a stand for free press

IT MIGHT appear self-interested to praise the British PM David Cameron for his courage in declaring that he will not ''cross the Rubicon'' of legislating to control the freedom of the press. However, defiance in the face of public hysteria is a quality rarely seen in modern politics. The stance of Cameron on this occasion is all the more courageous, given the libidinous attitude the British media has taken to its situation as the 'last chance saloon' during a period when six major investigations into its workings have taken place. The tenacity with which it continued to misbehave has at times been staggering.

This latest unveiling of a culture of graft, hacking, illegal interference with emails, unhealthy political relationships and the 'outrageous' wrecking of the lives of countless private citizens reads like the tabloid equivalent of the Mahon Tribunal. But, despite the excesses embraced by Mr Murdoch, hard cases and excessive concerns about 'public perception' make for bad law. As we see from the 'light touch' style response by RTE to the electoral consequences of the tainted presidential debate on Frontline, state-regulated broadcast institutions are as susceptible to imperfection as the free market.

The merit of the Leveson Report is also qualified by its failure to satisfactorily deal with the dangerous question of the consequences of an unhealthy concentration in press ownership. In fairness, many others, particularly amongst the Irish political and media elites, have skirted around that chalice. Within Ireland, meanwhile, a somewhat different situation to the UK applies. And not merely in the fact that one cannot imagine any Irish politician, with the possible exception of Pat Rabbitte, echoing Mr Cameron.

It is important to note this difference does not constitute a claim that our still, relatively free press, is without sin. Claims of media "purity" are by definition hostages to fortune. We make mistakes and we must correct them. But while in theory a perfect media of virtuous lay priests should be a good thing, in reality it would have a poorer capacity to empathise with or understand what Philip Roth termed 'the human stain'.

Ireland is, when it comes to the condition of the media, different to the UK in one other critical area. The claim that 'comment is free but facts are sacred' may once have been true. However, whilst it would be excessive to suggest a garrotte has been placed upon comment in Ireland, the confluence of a series of separate recent controversies around varied issues and the increasingly regular private litigation against journalists, has facilitated the evolution of a subtle frost over how freely we believe we can speak.

Unsurprisingly, alas, the response of Fine Gael to such a development has consisted of much smirking over the silencing of lips that are too loose for certain tastes. Thankfully, unlike uncouth advocates of harsher privacy laws such as Mr Shatter, those who view the world with a more sophisticated eye are increasingly concerned about the perception that our courts are being used as a scarecrow to frighten off the sort of comment that, in mature democracies such as America, is still free.

Sunday Independent

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