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Review: The Law: Privacy and Libel Law by Paul Tweed

I usually groan when I receive anything bearing Paul Tweed's name. For the most part though, I wear it as a badge of honour. This is because the threat of a legal writ from the renowned Belfast-based libel lawyer and other legal eagles warning of gross defamations emboldens me to believe that maybe the prospective litigant is protesting just that little bit too loudly.

By his own admission Tweed, who has represented celebrities and Irish property developers in their battles against various media outlets, has a love/hate relationship with the press. And this tension permeates every inch of his new tome Privacy and Libel Law: The Clash with Press Freedom.

Suitable for lawyer and layman alike, Tweed's text is an authoritative and insightful -- if unashamedly pro-plaintiff -- account of the perennial war of attrition between press and personal rights that seems, now, on the brink of convulsion.

Tweed's timing is impeccable as the media, particularly in the UK, has been rocked by a series of controversies including the phone hacking scandal that gave birth to the Leveson inquiry.

The superinjunction saga and the growth of libel tourism -- illustrating the gaps between the British (generally stringent) and US (generally liberal) libel regimes -- has also made Tweed's book essential reading for anyone interested in the debate about who and what should determine the balance between these competing rights.

Tweed is remarkably frank that extraordinary developments in the realm of privacy and libel law in recent times have been "a lawyer's dream".

It is noteworthy too that the largest single group of people he acts for are journalists and lawyers -- go figure. But none of this detracts from the sharp and lucid analysis of a rapidly changing area of the law that has a bearing not just on lawyers' pay packets, but on us all.

For the most part, the debate about free speech and personal rights such as privacy and reputation are viewed through the very narrow lens of high-profile legal cases involving the media (as it is traditionally understood) and celebrities such as Max Mosley, the former head of Formula One and the model Naomi Campbell.

"What about the rest of us,?" asks Tweed, noting that it took the hacking of dead schoolgirl Milly Dowler's mobile phone to shine a light on some of the darker practices deployed by some elements of the media.

Tweed deplores the lack of access to justice for the man on the street, whose rights are infringed. But the fact remains that it is a small number of people with money who will continue to shape the development of privacy and libel law for the rest of us.

There will always be casualties at the battlefront between the public interest and what the public are interested in and rules are needed to minimise the body count.

This is especially the case when many of the changes are taking place on the internet, the final frontier where the law -- as Manchester United player Ryan Giggs knows only too well -- can be rendered meaningless.

Tweed doesn't just explain the ever-evolving clash -- he is at the heart of it, provoking the debate each step of the way.

As a working journalist, with my own biases about press freedom and regulation, some of Tweed's more radical suggestions for reform enraged me.

But they also engaged me and regardless of where you take up arms in this timeless battle, this book will help you weigh up where the vital balance should lie.

Dearbhail McDonald is Legal Editor of the Irish Independent

Indo Review