Monday 20 May 2019

Leave Press Council to do its work

The Government's plan to amend the law on privacy will restrict freedom of enquiry, writes Emer O'Kelly

THERE was an interesting irony last week when the Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern made public the first annual report of the Press Council. The council was set up by the industry with the encouragement of the Government under the chairmanship of Professor Tom Mitchell, the former Provost of Dublin University (Trinity), in part to defend individual rights against invasion of privacy by the media. There was an understanding that this was a more enlightened way to deal with perceived dissatisfaction with aspects of the media and preferable to either new privacy legislation or failure to reform the ancient and draconian libel laws.

But instead of allowing the council to catch its breath and get its feet under the table of media regulation, the minister has pre-empted its brief by announcing at the publication of the report that he plans to revive and "substantially amend" the Privacy Bill of 2006, which has been more or less buried in the Seanad for over a year.

When he announced this move, Dermot Ahern insisted that the Privacy Bill created no new law, and posed no threat to investigative journalism. The National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) thinks differently. The newspaper umbrella organisation believes that the (fairly) newly established Press Council has proven itself an effective means through which to defend an individual's right to privacy in the vast majority of circumstances.

Further, the NNI also believes that the privacy rights of citizens are adequately protected through our own Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights, and indeed by European and Irish case law.

Professor Mitchell would seem to agree. His reaction to the minister's announcement was that it would be preferable if a decent interval were allowed for his council "to build up a body of case law. . . (until) . . . it became clearer whether or not this legislation was necessary."

Nobody, least of all Tom Mitchell, is suggesting that media freedom should encompass the freedom to stick a long lens camera through people's bedroom curtains. That is both distasteful and offensive; it is also not in the public interest, which must always be the criterion. And "the public interest" does not always coincide with what the public is interested in: there is always a market for smut, and there will always be commercial enterprises, be they photo agencies, some newspapers and TV programmes, or internet outlets, which will serve that market.

It can also be argued that if a public figure is caught in flagrante in a homo-erotic position, for instance, but has publicly condemned homosexual practice and called for the imposition of laws against it, then there is an issue of public interest involved. Personally, I think that what consenting adults do with each other in private is entirely their own business, even if they're hypocrites. But I can also see a grey area in which, for instance, Senator David Norris's homosexual love life is entirely his own business because he is a defender of gay rights, but perhaps if Mrs Iris Robinson were to be found having an affair with another woman, it might be argued that the public had a right to know, since she is both married and has publicly condemned homosexuality.

These, apparently, are the kinds of issues which the minister is concerned about regulating, since he claims that reviving the 2006 legislation will pose no threat to important investigative journalism. Individual journalists fear that it will, however, because we have felt the heavy weight of government disapproval on our collars when we do go to investigate matters of genuine public importance. It has become a hugely costly and cumbersome business to get information under the Freedom of Information Act, that piece of legislation which was supposed to make public affairs transparent.

Yes, there are publications which launch a general trawl under FoI, hoping to uncover "something, anything". Such requests are frequently malicious, and for the organisations being queried, are incredibly time-consuming, and therefore costly. But in this country, where openness has never been part of our culture, and where integrity has been proved to be alarmingly subjective, (and is frequently notable by its absence) that practice is worth the cost, just as (in my opinion) the tribunals were worth the cost, although they would have been worth even more if witnesses had not merely been under compulsion but had not been given immunity from prosecution.

And, of course, there is the issue that the Press Council has been used by cranks to

make complaints. A total of 372 complaints were received about the print media during the year under review, 113 of them were dropped after a preliminary hearing; that was almost a third which were unfounded. Ninety-two cases were fully processed, 12 were successfully conciliated and 35 were decided by the Press Ombudsman.

Three articles were the subject of 75 of the complaints. One of them was headed 'Africa is giving nothing to anyone . . . apart from Aids'. The Press Council upheld those complaints, as anyone with any sense would expect. And that is the point: nobody with any sense would sympathise with such an opinion. It was an opinion that, in my view, and the view of most people with a sense of dignity, is offensive . The council merely described it as "seriously insulting to Africans as a whole".

But because it was so outrageous it was not worth the attention of the Press Council; it was as silly as the fuss about the Brian Cowen portrait, which will undoubtedly also create an avalanche of complaints to the Press Council.

To take up the time of the Press Council with such nonsense will only lend fuel to the Government's inflammatory intention to revive the 2006 legislation which will, despite Dermot Ahern's claims to the contrary, restrict genuine freedom of enquiry and expression in this country at a time when we need it more than ever.

And I am a lot more concerned about that than I am about protecting the breast implants of some attention-seeking glamour model who regularly bares all in a professional capacity but might object to being photographed when she ventures out in public.

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