Friday 19 July 2019

Defamation Act poses 'a major threat to freedom of the press'

Call for change: Chairman of Press Council of Ireland Seán Donlon. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Call for change: Chairman of Press Council of Ireland Seán Donlon. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Breda Heffernan

Breda Heffernan

The chairman of the Press Council of Ireland has said a revised Defamation Act should be enacted without further delay as currently it poses a "major threat to press freedom".

Seán Donlon added that international organisations which monitor press freedom have reduced Ireland's ranking, in part because of our "draconian defamation legislation" and the delay in completing a review into it.

He said substantial awards have been made by juries which were later deemed excessive by higher courts. He said this casts doubt on the appropriateness of allowing juries to determine the size of payouts.

The Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman will launch their 2018 annual report today.

Ombudsman Peter Feeney received 464 complaints last year, up from 330 a year earlier. A cartoon published by the 'Sunday Independent' in the aftermath of the abortion referendum accounted for 160 complaints.

Mr Feeney said only one of these complaints ended in a formal decision being made by him and the complaint was not upheld.

The subject matter of the cartoon was a surgeon in an operating theatre removing a set of rosary beads from a female patient in a hospital bed. The accompanying caption read "The 'rosarectomy'..." with the surgeon saying to a nurse "mission accomplished...obstruction removed...".

Mr Feeney said the newspaper published a "large selection of letters, mostly critical" on the cartoon in the following two editions. It also published a letter from the cartoonist explaining his reasoning behind the sketch.

He concluded: "There is no doubt that the cartoon offended some people. However there is a degree to licence available to cartoons to engage in ridicule, satire and irony which is not available to other forms of journalism."

Of the 464 complaints received, 30 were decided upon by the Ombudsman, 272 were not pursued by the complainant and 111 were found to be outside of the Ombudsman's remit.

Irish Independent

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