Tuesday 17 July 2018

Traditional and social media 'not on level defamation playing field'

Professor Eoin O’Dell, Trinity School of Law; Andrea Martin, MediaLawyers Solicitors; Professor Todd Gitlin, Columbia University; and Fionnán Sheahan, Irish Independent editor, at the ‘Behind the Headlines: Where Journalism and the Law Collide’ lecture at Trinity College, Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron
Professor Eoin O’Dell, Trinity School of Law; Andrea Martin, MediaLawyers Solicitors; Professor Todd Gitlin, Columbia University; and Fionnán Sheahan, Irish Independent editor, at the ‘Behind the Headlines: Where Journalism and the Law Collide’ lecture at Trinity College, Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron

Ryan Nugent

Traditional media are operating on an uneven playing field with social media giants when it comes to defamation laws in Ireland, according to a panel of experts.

They were speaking at a freedom of speech event jointly organised by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute and Columbia University in New York.

Professor Todd Gitlin of Columbia University highlighted unsatisfactory action from social media sites in addressing posts online.

"While they said they would double the number of employees they have working to scrub posts, to inspect online content, they just pointed out in a conference call with investors that many of the new workers are not likely to be full-time employees but largely will be third-party part-time contractors," he said.

Also speaking at the 'Freedom of Speech: Where Journalism and the Law Collide' event, Irish Independent editor Fionnán Sheahan called for a reform of "draconian defamation laws" in Ireland.

Mr Sheahan said that while traditional Irish media were operating under laws that "are arguably the most stringent in Europe", the social media giants were operating under no rules when it came to defamation.

"The playing pitch is not level here," Mr Sheahan said. "Social media and online posting sites are effectively given carte blanche while traditional legacy news publishers are punished for what people say in comments posted on their sites.

"I do think the game will change on defamation when we see the social media giants sued more widely.

"I think the influence wielded by the tech sector over government now is somewhat comparable to that of the Catholic Church in decades gone by, where they have direct access to the top of government and can ring the Taoiseach at the drop of a hat and their calls will be taken," he added.

Media lawyer Andrea Martin insisted that Ireland's libel laws were too restrictive - with changes necessary during a review of the most recent Defamation Act.

"As we have seen, what is going on online is completely different to what is going on offline," Ms Martin said.

"I believe that our defamation laws are restrictive and are not supporting freedom of expression as best they could."

Ms Martin added that defamation cases were being settled by media organisations - even if they have a good defence - who find themselves in a commercial situation where defending the case overwhelmingly outweighs the costs of defending their own journalism.

Eoin O'Dell of the Trinity College School of Law was on the legal advisory group for the 2009 Defamation Act.

"We need to understand what the real online debate is, and we shouldn't make the mistake of over-regulating online simply because we've already made the mistake of over-regulating offline. We should get the regulation right in both places," he said.

Irish Independent

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