I spoke briefly on this Bill last week. As I stated, the Labour Party welcomes this Bill and the establishment of the Office of the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council. I wish to raise a number of issues. I spoke briefly in the Seanad on Committee Stage and one of the amendments I proposed was subsequently adopted, which I very much welcome. In his speech the Minister referred to this, stating that following amendment in the Seanad, the Bill now provides that in situations where an apology is made and published the apology will be given the same or similar prominence as was given to the original statement.
Other issues were also raised in the Seanad and I imagine we will table amendments on those issues on Committee Stage. I hope the new Minister will take some of the additional points made by the Labour Party through its amendments when we come to Committee Stage. The former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform referred to the provision in the legislation of a new defence of "fair and reasonable publication on a matter of public interest" and he then mentioned the Jameel case, stating, "The court in the introduction to its judgment noted the balancing factor between this new defence with a strengthening of the law of privacy". The first case in which the press ombudsman found in favour of the complainant related to the privacy of a Member of the Dáil. The decision vindicated the Member's privacy. The decision was appealed to the Press Council, which upheld it.
Deputy Flanagan raised the issue of the Privacy Bill 2006 remaining on the Order Paper. He supported the comments of the former Minister who said we should wait to see how the Press Council and the press ombudsman operate before a decision is made on the Bill. However, while that is also the position of the Labour Party, our former spokesperson on justice, equality and law reform in the Seanad, Kathleen O'Meara, an NUJ member and a former journalist, stated on Second Stage of this Bill in the Seanad that the Privacy Bill was fundamentally flawed and:
The reason for this is that it has not been the subject of extensive consultation or the subject of a Law Reform Commission report. It has not had the input from the industry nor from those with knowledge and experience in the area. We could not support the current privacy legislation as it is framed.
At the same time, it is wrong if the Minister's approach will be to leave the Bill on the Order Paper in limbo with nothing happening about it. Suddenly, if he decides later to proceed with the legislation, no consultation will have taken place in the meantime. The Defamation Bill should be passed and the House should monitor how the Press Council and the press ombudsman operate but a consultation process on the privacy legislation should be commenced. Does the Law Reform Commission investigate an issue at the request of the Government or does it make a decision itself? The Minister should take steps to initiate a consultation process on the privacy legislation because it is an important issue.
The Press Council and the press ombudsman will deal with many privacy issues. We tend to think of high profile cases and significant costs awards in this context but the approach under the legislation is to introduce procedures that result in courts being used and significant damages being paid as a last resort. Negotiation is provided for and it is proposed newspapers can take steps to address the public's concerns. For example, a newspaper can print an apology, which is not necessarily an admission of liability. The most important aspect of the legislation is how the wider public will deal with the new procedures and how they will fare under them. A free press is important, as is freedom of expression, and the legislation recognises that while at the same time striking a balance on the protection of the reputation of the individual.
Senator O'Meara also referred to how the wider public will fare and journalistic standards. A key element of the legislation is to ensure journalism is ethical, truthful and so on, thereby providing a balance. For example, Damien Tiernan, who is chairman of the NUJ Irish Executive Council, raised issues in the reporting of the tragedy in Clonroche involving the Flood family in a recent letter to The Irish Times. He referred to an article in the Irish Daily Mail, which, coincidentally, I had also read. What was stated as fact in the headline transpired to be mere speculation when I read through the article. Damien Tiernan picked up on this and he referred to an issue also raised by Kathleen O’Meara, as a journalist, which is the commercial pressures on journalists and editors and how that is leading to slippage in journalistic standards. He stated, “There is massive pressure on many journalists working on big stories, a pressure which comes from certain news desks demanding they have the “real” story first and that a rival doesn’t scoop them”. He also said journalists have “a duty to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards and strive to ensure the information he/she disseminates is fair and accurate”.
This also leads to the issue of the privacy of the individual and families and how stories can cause hurt to families. Those who are hurt by stories that invade their privacy or defame the dead will not necessarily want to go to court. They would probably feel they would fare badly in an adversarial court system and, therefore, it is important the Press Council and the press ombudsman protect ordinary people. They are not high profile but sometimes an unfavourable story relating to them or their families might be published and they might seek redress in a way that is fair and sympathetic to them. In the operation of the legislation, they are the most important people for whom we must watch out.
The former Minister stated the legislation does not deal with the defamation of the dead. I have not looked into how that is addressed in other countries but it also relates to privacy. A family in my constituency has an issue with information published about a family member when he died. How would the family fare under the legislation given it does not provide for the defamation of the dead? That needs to be addressed. I do not necessarily mean court cases should result but a family with an issue about coverage of a deceased relative should have the opportunity to make a complaint to the press ombudsman or the Press Council. A mechanism should be in place to address their concerns or grievances.
John Horgan, a former chairman of the Labour Court, resigned from the Press Council recently. He stated in a letter the council took a decision with which he did not agree not to publish minority decisions and that is why he resigned. He felt that it would be much more positive if it did that, which is the practice in certain press councils in other countries, as well as in some other quasi-legal institutions. The issue he raised is worthy of further discussion and should be looked at down the line by the Press Council and possibly by these Houses in terms of our monitoring of the legislation.
Obviously, when this legislation is passed, it is very important that we have some process of ongoing monitoring of how it is working. At the official launch of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman, the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, said:
There has been much comment in the media recently about the perceived ills of self regulation. Notwithstanding the independence of the Press Council and its Chairman and the eminence of the Press Ombudsman, the model of accountability we are launching here today is, by any regulatory standards, on the light side of the scale. Essentially, the Press Council will be relying on its moral authority and I do not mean in any way to slight that authority. But, be warned: there are many sceptics out there. You would do well to prove them wrong at an early date.
This is something in which I hope the new Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will take an ongoing interest and that we will monitor how the Press Council operates. In respect of monitoring, one of the matters mentioned by the Minister in his speech is the fact that some newspapers and media institutions have not registered with the Press Council. If this is true, it is a worrying development. We do not want some kind of parallel operation there. The Press Council should be the primary institution. It looks like there could be a parallel operation and that some newspapers might not register and have their own system in terms of dealing with grievances brought to their attention. I worry about that kind of parallel process, which needs to be monitored.
The Labour Party opposed the privacy legislation as it stands but I reiterate that there is now an opportunity to consult the industry and the different parties in the House about what kind of privacy legislation we might foresee down the road. Hopefully, the Law Reform Commission might look into it or some other reform. The Minister should be proactive in taking steps in that regard.