Defamation Bill 2006: Committee Stage (Resumed).


I move amendment No. 44:

In page 30, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following subsections:

"(2) Any such order made under this section shall be for a period not to exceed five years.

(3) After the expiry period for each order the Minister shall conduct a review which will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas, together with a copy of any new or renewal order.".

This section deals with the press council. The press council has been set up independently of the Houses of the Oireachtas, and it appears the legislation retrospectively will rubber-stamp it. I feel that is inappropriate. That is not an issue for the Minister because it happened during the lifetime of the last Government. However, I do not think that is the way we should establish something as important as a press council. An attempt has been made to make it look like it is independent, but it cannot be so, given the structure that has been put in place to establish it. That is regrettable. When the Bill is eventually finalised in the Houses of the Oireachtas, I encourage the Minister to advertise for bodies and personnel to make an application for recognition as the press council. A proper evaluation of those bodies should take place before the press council is put in situ.

As I read section 43, there is no time limit for the press council. Once it is put in place, it could continue ad infinitum. I do not think that is the most appropriate mechanism for us to establish a new press council. I was going to suggest that it should not be for a period longer than three years, but my amendment is for a period not to exceed five years. There should be a review and it will be particularly important at the early stages to monitor its effectiveness, impartiality and impact on the issue of defamation, as well as whether apologies are compliant with recommendations and the like. My amendment calls for this review at the end of the period of five years or less, and it should be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas, together with a copy of any new or renewal order.

The press has a very powerful influence and if we do not have something like this in law, it would be much easier to take the option of not carrying out the review and having an argument with the body that represents itself as the press council. If the normal procedures applied and there was an independent process of assessing what would be defined as the press council, there would be periodic reviews, as happens in all Government regulations to set up bodies. I hope this amendment will be an improvement to the section.

I am inclined to disagree with Senator Walsh on this aspect, but we might get clarification from the Minister on the progress in setting up the structures within the press council. The press has called for defamation reform over many years and we have got there now. I would welcome the establishment of the council. We are in a quandary when it comes to its independence, but the whole area of self-regulation is under threat in many walks of life and it will be interesting to see the manner in which the press council has been structured. For those of us who have dealt with the press, we must accept that there are some very good guys out there. Hopefully, the council will prove its own independence by its actions, and this is where I differ from my colleague to some extent.

The press council is in a test mode at this stage. There has been a debate for the past 30 to 40 years about freedom of speech and all the trappings that go with that, as well as the natural curtailment to ensure that people are not defamed and that freedom of speech is not abused. I accept that the press council must act independently of this House, but the spotlight will be on this council for the next two or three years. If cases such as the Lawlor one or that of the tragic situation of a family in Carlow or Kilkenny arise, then we will have to revisit the entire issue. If it is not seen to be working, the obligation is on the Oireachtas to ensure it does.

Having said all of that, I have absolute confidence in the press ombudsman and that a press council will be effective, fair and transparent. If that occurs, we will have no fears. After a fair trial period of two to three years, if the council is not being seen to be effective as a restriction on the abuse of the rights of freedom of speech, then we will have to revisit the matter. Hopefully, my reservations will be seen as being unnecessary.

We must have the courage of our convictions. If we are to establish a press council, we must provide for it to act independently. There is a provision in section 43(5) which states:

If the Minister is of the opinion that a body for the time being standing recognised by order under this section no longer complies with the provisions of Schedule 2, he or she may revoke that order.

I would have thought this provision is adequate to address the concerns of Senator Walsh. I do not believe the amendment is appropriate.

There are issues of law and issues of policy here. On the narrow issue of law, as Senator Regan points out, I have the power to revoke the recognition of the press council as it is written into the Bill. That can be exercisable at any time. If the council does not comply with the minimum standards prescribed for it under this Bill, I can revoke it. That is clear and it strikes the balance correctly. If I go down Senator Walsh's route of announcing a legal review, I fear I will put myself in a position where the council is no longer independent in the performance of its functions and I will have to engage in a comprehensive audit of it in a designated period as a matter of law. The period referred to in Senator Walsh's amendment is five years. I would prefer to take the approach, as I have outlined during this debate, of leaving the Privacy Bill on the Order Paper of this House, reviewing developments and giving the Press Council, as a matter of practical policy, an opportunity to flourish and address the issues Senators have raised in this debate.

I want to refer again to the behaviour of the media on people's deaths. The use of the libel law will not address all the issues involved because there are profound issues of taste as well as truth and falsehood, for example, the photographs taken of people in mourning. The Press Council must address these issues as well as other matters mentioned in this debate.

I take Senator Regan's point, which the Minister mentioned, that the power to revoke the order exists. If that is the conventional view on this, that is fair enough. However, should a future Minister have the courage to revoke the order he will no doubt be excoriated in the press for doing so, given that the Press Council is the product of the media. That is why a statutory review term would take it out of that area. I take the Minister's point that one could be seen to be interfering.

What about a review of the Press Council? We may all form different opinions based on one or two cases but there should be a system of evaluating how it is progressing so that it could be debated. If we give legislative force to a body that has been established, it is right that it be accountable. Perhaps it will be accountable to some of our joint Oireachtas committees, I do not know. I would hate to think we are setting loose a body established outside the Houses and giving it statutory recognition which it will continue to enjoy. I will not say it will enjoy it with impunity because that section on revoking it puts a brake on it.

I would welcome the introduction of the Privacy Bill, which was initially envisaged as part of this process. People have an entitlement which is not recognised or respected by many in the media. As Senator Callely said, there are many fine people in the profession but many are driven by sales and circulation, and that reduces standards.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 43 agreed to.
Government amendment No. 45:
In page 31, paragraph 5, line 1, to delete "under the Constitution" and substitute " by law in the State".
Amendment agreed to.
Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to.

On behalf of Senator Norris I move amendment No. 46:

In page 33, paragraph 4, line 8, to delete "shall" and substitute "may".

Section 2 sets out the minimum requirements on the Press Council. Adherence to these requirements is a vital element in the future recognition of an independent Press Council and the list of requirements is self-explanatory. Section 4 of Schedule 2 provides that the owner of any periodical in circulation in the State shall be entitled to be a member of the Press Council. The provision does not force an owner of a periodical to be a member and he or she may choose for whatever reason not to be. I see no purpose in the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 47 not moved.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported with amendments.

When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.