Wednesday 15 August 2018

Taoiseach praises 'independent stance' taken by INM journalists


John Downing and Cormac McQuinn

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said it is time to introduce a new law to protect journalists and their confidential sources.

Mr Varadkar was speaking following an alleged data breach at Independent News & Media (INM) which is now the subject of High Court proceedings with a hearing fixed for May 8.

The Taoiseach said that an independent and free news and media service was “a cornerstone of democracy” – and he praised journalists at INM who had reported the recent controversy with independence. 

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) is seeking to appoint High Court inspectors to investigate corporate governance issues at INM.

Among the accusations is that email records, including some belonging to journalists, were taken from company headquarters and examined by third parties in 2014.

In the first Dáil debate on the INM issue, Mr Varadkar praised the journalists who have written about the issue in recent weeks.

“I commend journalists who worked on this story, including journalists at Independent News & Media, who haven’t allowed their independence to be compromised,” the Taoiseach said.

Mr Varadkar was replying to questions from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.

Mr Martin said the developments at INM were “a real deep and worrying concern” for people who recognised that a healthy media was essential to supporting democracy. He said that there were a number of reports recommending how press freedom could be improved.

Mr Martin said a report, which included recommendations on legal protection for journalists’ sources, had been published by the former Chief Justice, John Murray, last year. There were a number of other expert reports recommending a strengthening of the law.

The Fianna Fáil leader also asked about a legal move by INM’s biggest shareholder, Denis O’Brien, to hold the head of the ODCE, Ian Drennan, personally responsible for leaking information about him.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the reported INM data leaks were “deeply alarming” as potentially hundreds of thousands of emails could be compromised. She said this included data from investigative journalists and lawyers working for the Moriarty Tribunal.

“We know that a former chairman of Independent News & Media ordered that data investigation. We don’t know his reasons for so doing,” Ms McDonald told the Dáil.

Ms McDonald said the ODCE had investigated the case for a year without any leaks. She said that once an affidavit was delivered to INM leaks began.

“It appears to me that there is now an attempt being made to silence the ODCE,” she added.

The Taoiseach said Government would consider a new law and he would ask the Communications Minister to look at the issue. It may also be a job for the Oireachtas communications committee.

In relation to the ODCE head being held personally responsible, the Taoiseach said all State officials legally carrying out their functions were indemnified by the State.

Elsewhere the Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has told TDs and Senators she cannot answer questions about her probe into the alleged data breach at IINM.

Ms Dixon's office is also probing the matter. At a hearing of the Oireachtas Communications Committee Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley raised the issue of the alleged data breach and asked Ms Dixon for an update.

He said there are "great concerns" about the potential that such a breach would have on the work or journalism and particularly the impact on sources.

He asked if there needs to be an update on laws in the area or if the office of the Data Proection Commissioner needs greater powers.

Committee chairperson, Fine Gael TD Hildegarde Naughton reminded members of rules about raising matters that are sub judice and that they cannot encroach on the role of the courts.

Mr Dooley said he was almost sure his query wouldn't impact on the courts.

He said he is "concerned about protecting the data of journalists" and that this is "fundamental" to the role of the media in a democracy.

Ms Dixon said: "I can’t answer those questions other than to confirm we are investigating those matters."

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