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Citizens should be wary of 'rush to privacy law'

Justice Minister Alan Shatter astonished the observers by saying he intended to "revisit" the provisions of the Privacy Bill 2006 -- and by linking this suggestion with the publication by the 'Irish Daily Star' of topless pictures of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge.

He regarded this incident as proof that "sections of the media believe that public figures are fair game and have no right to privacy in respect of any aspect of their lives".

It proved no such thing.

It was nothing more or less than an appalling lapse of judgment (and, as his Cabinet colleague, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte observes, lapse of taste).

Independent News and Media -- owners of this newspaper, and part-owners of the Star -- have issued their deepest apologies.

The editor of the Star has been suspended while an inquiry is undertaken.

To link all this with the question of the Privacy Bill is more than eccentric. It is dangerous.

For the Bill, as introduced by independent senators in 2006 and as restored to the Seanad order paper this year, illustrates a hatred of the media -- one sometimes fears, a hatred of press freedom itself -- on the part of many Irish politicians.

In this country, privacy is trebly protected: by the Constitution, by the European Court of Human Rights, and by Irish case law. By 2006, the need for further protection was widely acknowledged, but several of the Bill's provisions appeared to violate basic principles of justice with the extraordinary burden they sought to place on anyone accused of a breach of privacy.

The measure was shelved by the then Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, but restored to the Seanad order paper after the present Government took office.

In the meantime, the Press Council and the office of Press Ombudsman were established. They have been an outstanding success. The Press Ombudsman, Professor John Horgan, recently gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry, and Lord Justice Leveson may recommend a similar system for Britain.

This is the right way -- the only way -- to proceed in an adult political world. Hysterical, publicity-seeking denunciations should be left to Dail backbenchers, not find a reflection in legislation.

If Mr Shatter really means to proceed with a revised version of the Privacy Bill, its contents will give us a sharp insight into the man himself, the Department of Justice -- and the Government as a whole.

The Irish media continue to labour under oppressive defamation laws.

Oireachtas members would do better to amend these laws than to increase the burden with unnecessary new legislation. And citizens would be well advised to scrutinise with unusual sharpness whatever measures the Minister may propose.

Irish Independent