Matters of public interest and privilege
Published 02/06/2015 | 02:30
Claims that free speech is being challenged to the extent that it may precipitate a constitutional crisis have dominated the headlines in recent days. On one side, you have a powerful businessman and media owner seeking to keep his banking arrangements private. On the other, you have a member of the Dáil using Dáil privilege to put these matters on the public record.
So you have two sets of competing rights and a standing army of commentators insisting that they know with certainty where the public interest lies.
Yet quite clearly there is confusion, judging by the clarion call for answers. What matters above all else is that there is absolute clarity.
The media knows to its cost just how punitive damages may be. Many media outlets have chosen to await further direction on how best to proceed.
It is easy to zone in on one individual, but the real public interest lies in making sure that there is no room for doubt. That is to define that which is private and that which lies in the public interest.
As Minister Paschal Donohoe expressed: "I do not believe it's tenable that media in Ireland cannot report on what is taking place in our parliament and media outside of Ireland can."
It is up to the courts to square the circle. It would also be instructive to know, if an injunction is in place, how precisely does it impact privilege.
Put another way: If an injunction trumps privilege, what use is privilege? If privilege trumps an injunction, what use is an injunction?
And what of the rights of the private individual? All freedoms must come with responsibilities.
Yesterday, Health Minister Leo Varadkar insisted politicians should be free of legal restrictions when speaking in the Dáil but should also be "careful" not to reveal personal information that might be incorrect. The courts must be given the opportunity to examine these issues as the appropriate forum.
Their import is such that they go to the heart of public life and there must be no ambiguity or room for doubt.