Is cúis áthais dom é an seans seo a bheith agam cuidiú leis an díospóireacht seo ar Chéim a Dó de An Bille um Chlúmhilleadh 2006. Tréaslaím leis an iar-Aire, An Teachta Brian Ó Luineacháin, leis an Aire nua, An Teachta Diarmuid Ó hEachthairn as an jab atá déanta agus atá á dhéanamh acu. Molaim freisin na hoifigigh atá ag comhoibriú leo chun an Bille seo a chur faoi bhráid Pharlaimint na tíre. Tá an Seanad críochnaithe leis an díospóireacht ar an Bhille seo agus táimid anois á phlé chun cothrom na féinne a thabhairt do ghach éinne, idir dhaoine aonra agus chomhlachtaí cumarsáide, eagarthóirí, iriseoirí agus éinne eile a bhfuil baint acu leis na meáin.
Tá dualgas orainn go léir féachaint chuige go mbeidh cothrom na féinne ar fáil i gcónaí. Tá dualgas orainn freisin, mar pholaiteoirí, labhairt go cruinn beacht aon uair a bhíonn óráid á dhéanamh againn, cibé an sa Teach nó taobh amuigh den Teach atá muid ag labhairt. Tá an dualgas sin ar cheannairí polaitiúla, ceannairí áitiúla agus ceannairí náisiúnta ar fud na tíre.
I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, on his reappointment, with all his colleagues, and wish them well. I congratulate the incoming Taoiseach and the new Government and wish them well also.
We are gathered to consider as colleagues the very important Defamation Bill 2006 which has had a very long gestation period. It is a long Bill of 36 pages with six Parts and two Schedules. In normal standards it would be a medium-sized Bill that has been in gestation for a long time. There has been a huge amount of consultation and a great demand for the Bill over many years. There has been a reluctance — "resentment" is not the word — among the media that we should go down this road to introduce laws to ensure a balance of equity and fairness prevails for all citizens, whether private, public or corporate, in the media industry.
We all have serious responsibilities. We are guaranteed freedom of expression under the Constitution which gives us a responsibility in that what we say should be factual, truthful and focused. Since I joined this House 26 years ago, there has been a major change in the number of publications available each day and week and their sources not just on this island, but elsewhere. We have a mass media market and a discerning consumer base, which the media investors see as an opportunity on which to capitalise. They also have to compete with each other and the international broadcasting media to assert their position and hold onto a certain segment of the market to maintain a viable operation.
I read the Bill with some interest and have listened to the debate and observed what people have said. This is a very balanced document. It seeks to take account of our archaic laws, modernise our legislation, give protection and an opportunity for correction to media people, editors, journalists and directors, in that if a person's character has been assaulted or otherwise, the media body has a right to apologise without an admission of liability. In the Bill we have been very open in finding a balance that gives an opportunity to those who may have offended to correct the matter. That is as it should be. As the legislation proceeds and as people have rights, they can exercise those rights in the courts. That is important.
The freedom and pluralism of the media are also respected in the Lisbon treaty and particularly the Charter of Fundamental Rights. On that basis the Bill is timely. It is also timely as a result of the Press Ombudsman and Press Council being established on 1 January. On the Lisbon treaty, it is important that the freedom and pluralism of the media are respected. We have a market of 500 million people across the European Union. As a politician in this House, I am obliged to consume at least 18 media operations every week when one takes into account the daily newspapers available here, the weekly newspapers that Deputy Burke and I must observe locally and the Sunday newspapers that often tax us after church services. We have to purchase them to see how things are going. We have to consult all these organs for other reasons to ensure we are in touch with our constituents in all kinds of life events.
The media have a significant role to play and with that role comes serious responsibilities. If, when I entered politics in this House 26 years ago, a humble backbencher like myself gave a speech of reasonable magnitude and veracity containing good ideas, often the Deputy could find himself or herself on the front page of a national newspaper. No matter what speech one makes today one will hardly find oneself on any page of a newspaper. The entire scene has changed. We have moved to a more sensational type of reportage than the de facto reportage of the sincere contributions of Members of Parliament. That is a pity.
As far as I am concerned, we operate here with a collective constitutional capacity to serve our people. We operate here with collective commitment and collective wisdom to do what is best for our country and to implement the best laws possible on behalf of our people. Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom. It is consensual debate that leads to consensual conclusions that eventually will create the best legislative process that will modernise our country and its statutes and ensure we can go forward together serving our people and maintaining a balance in society between that which is right for society and that which is correct within the laws of the land as implemented by the Legislature of which we all are proud to be Members. There is a serious balance in that regard.
There is also a serious responsibility, not just on us as politicians, to have our utterances focused and factual in this House. Speaking of that, given our responsibilities as Members of Parliament and the ethics to which we must adhere which we ourselves have legislated for, in the current debate on the Lisbon treaty there are posters on poles around this country giving misleading direction and impacting on our citizens as if the proposals thereon were facts when they are fiction. There is no name of any organisation on them. There is no indication of who printed them. There is no indication of who they represent. This is a matter which we, as legislators, must focus on and we must ensure as we change the laws for ourselves, for our people and for the media that report on the day-to-day happenings of this island and in the world, those who we serve and those that we work for and with, whether they co-operate with us or not, have the right of expression, but with that right of expression comes a commensurate responsibility and the information that they purvey to people should at all times be factual rather than fiction or misleading. It is a pity in the modern world that intelligent, educated, sophisticated people in this island stoop to such practices on a serious matter so important to our country.
I warmly welcome the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to the House and I wish him well in his new office. I am pleased with the changes he proposes here. I pay tribute to him and his officials, as well as to his immediate predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, who did significant work in this area and who held considerable consultation pertaining to the Bill before us.
We have a serious responsibility to modernise our laws. We saw a similar situation arise in the past with the insurance industry, where people could submit claims three, four or five years after an accident when much medical and legal documentation was built up on a file and a major case could be sustained. Large claims were submitted and honoured, and mostly these were agreed on the steps of a court and recorded in the court without being heard there at all. We had to change all that by modernising the laws.
I am delighted that such major change is contained in this Bill. In the past one had up to six years to make a claim for damages and the Bill provides for a minimum of a year and a maximum of two years, which is as it should be. If people are not able to make up their minds in the space of a year, the court will decide within the second year whether the matter is grave enough to allow, as proposed in this Bill, a case to be considered outside the 12 month period. That is a balanced and fair provision. I commend the sensible, practical proposals in the Bill in this regard.
Like my colleagues and the Minister, I welcome the establishment of the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman. These developments are important and not before their time. I read with interest the statement made by the then Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, at the launch of the Press Council that he felt the rules, regulations and impositions on its members were, perhaps to say the least, light. This legislation is certainly lifting that lightness and making a stronger legal mechanism available to citizens and anybody who feels they have been badly treated.
We have reached a new level in this country where McCarthyism seems to be very much in vogue in the media. Some people are guilty by association with certain people, certain situations and certain occasions. That is a pity.
In addition, we have reached a position where there is significant invasion of privacy. The new Taoiseach has made a special appeal in that field and I echo that. Particularly as public representatives, we all are public figures. We go before the people and are elected by the people. We understand the ramifications of public office and public service, and we are totally committed. I can confidently state I have never met a politician in any party, elected to this House or outside this House in another chamber or fora, who was not committed and, indeed, who was not imbued with an enthusiasm of service to their people. We all are driven by service to our country, love of nation and service to our people. When one takes our position into account, given that we go before the people, who are the adjudicators and the arbiters of whether we enter the public arena and whether we stay in the public arena when we ask them to give a validation on our position, it is important our families are treated as private citizens. The family in Irish history, in Irish tradition and in the Irish value system is a strong unit.
The basis of the success and the fabric of our society has been woven by our commitment to family, to tradition and to that close value system. It is unfair that one should be exposed just because the person is a politician's wife or husband, son or daughter, brother or sister, niece or nephew, or uncle or aunt. That should not be alluded to in situations where such persons find themselves in the public arena in their own right. There should be no reason whatever to exploit the fact that these are linked to political persons. It is unfair. It is something that has happened far too often of late.
I am pleased too that in the Bill the Minister has allowed judges in court to give a direction to juries in particular situations. That is an important provision. We have eminent judges. They are protected within the Constitution. We, as parliamentarians, have a clear role. The Executive has a clear role under the Constitution. The Judiciary has a separate role under the Constitution. I am pleased with the proposal within the Bill that juries can get direction from the eminent judges of the day.
I commend the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, who this week, after coming into office, approved the removal of the upper age limit for jury service. There are senior citizens who have given significant service to this country. Many of them are mentally and physically fit. They all are committed to the country but many, in particular after retirement, want to make a special and unique contribution to the evolution and progress of our nation. It is important that their expertise, experience and wise counsel is available to the Judiciary and the courts of our land, particularly in the jury system. These eminent citizens, who have gone through life experiences as parents, as leaders in society, as workers who have built up a nation, or as heads of families or within families or in other vocations or careers, who have certain expertise and knowledge and who are able to make an assessment of how the country has evolved and what is good for society at a time, can bring a balance of their own youthful experiences, mature adult experiences, working experiences and retired experiences in a calm fashion to ensuring conclusions in law fair to all sides are reached. I commend the Minister on having lifted the age limit on jury service, allowing people over 65 to serve on a jury if they so wish.
We live in times of instant communication via the mass media. These are big challenges for society. We have a responsibility to make sure that there is a balance within society and that consumerism and mass media communication do not direct the pace of a nation or erode the values of our country. It is important that we ensure that the laws we enact, the decisions we take and the utterances we make are relevant, factual and focused. We have a responsibility to maintain that balance in society and to take into account the speed of modern telecommunications and their impact on all members of society, be they young children, elderly people or anyone in between.
I recently listened to a debate on the future of the communications industry, especially the written media. It is predicted that over the next 25 years there will be a major reduction in the amount of printed newspapers. With the explosion in modern communications, we may be able to get all information on our iPod or mobile phone and we will not have to read newspapers. That will be a sad day. Newspapers embody the old adage of verbum scriptum stat, or the written word remains. It is important to recognise this when debating the Bill, and it is also important for media organs to recognise that the written word remains. Once written, it stays. If an individual has been damaged by that written word, then there is a serious responsibility to ensure that the perpetrator of that unfounded or unsubstantiated allegation rectifies it by way of an immediate apology.