Proposed press council a joke
Fianna Fáil TDs are some suckers if they buy into the trade-off of libel reform in exchange for the press council. The libel reform will be exploited by newspapers to engage in further recklessness, while the press council will be treated by many papers with the contempt it deserves.
The background to all of this is that the media has become a profit-aggressive enterprise. The primary purpose and driving force is not to enlighten citizens in the exercise of their democratic entitlements, or any such lofty idea of the role of the media. The point is to make money and as much as possible, on as low a cost-base as possible, to the enrichment of its owners and managers. Changing the libel laws is central to the profit objective. Libel awards leak a significant amount of money from the company accounts of these media corporations. They have been campaigning for almost 20 years now to rectify this, not to bring the public much-needed information that otherwise would be hidden from them, but to make more money.
That is the point of this and don't be deceived by the spin.
But there is a point to changing the libel laws. There are some media enterprises that do try to engage in responsible journalism and they are much constrained in that by the threat of libel. The recent award to Denis O'Brien of €750,000 for an admittedly outrageous libel published about him in the Irish Daily Mirror is disconcerting, although because of the nature of the libel and the manner in which the newspaper handled the case, in many ways, it could be said, they were asking for it.
There is a strong case to be made for removing libel penalties from the media when it can be shown that the newspaper or broadcast station in question made every reasonable effort to get the article in question right; that they sought the views of the other side; that the issue involved affected the public interest and there was no malice. In such circumstances it is unfair that penalties should apply, but only if these criteria are met.
This would not absolve the media for defaming, for instance, a private person (or indeed a public person) on an issue that did not affect the public interest.
The quid-pro-quo for this libel reform is the establishment of a press council that, supposedly, would enforce proper media standards on the press and broadcast companies. These standards would have to do primarily with privacy.
There is a necessity for some such body. Media organisations have deliberately and flagrantly abused the privacy rights of citizens, again for profitability, there being no public interest justification. If they think a story will sell newspapers they will go for it, irrespective of the privacy invasion and of the resultant harm to those affected.
Privacy is not an absolute entitlement. For instance, someone who murders another is liable to have not just their liberty invaded but their privacy as the criminal justice system and the media explore his/her background. But only where there is a genuinely overriding public interest (note, not public curiosity) justification should this be permitted.
There should be a statutory independent press council, appointed independently of the government and the media, invested with powers to investigate alleged abuses of privacy on its own initiative, and with the capacity to impose substantial fines and/or other penalties on media organisations that breach privacy rights without just cause.
There has to be an independent body to protect privacy rights because those whose privacy rights are abused very often will be reluctant to go through the courts because this would involve further painful invasions of privacy. So a regulatory agency has to have the capacity to investigate privacy invasions off its own bat.
The point of giving this statutory backing is so that its decisions could be enforced by the courts and the courts could also have oversight of its conduct and procedures.
The press council announced recently is laughable. It will have no powers, no sanctions available to it, no entitlement even to require the media to publish its decisions. Some newspapers have made it clear at the outset they will treat it with contempt – one editor has said that his newspaper's press council will be its readers.
The consensus seems to be to give this press council “a try”, but what is the point since it is obvious from the outset it cannot and will not work, however distinguished the panel of eminences that will make appointments to it?
The only just outcome is for the Dáil and Senate to refuse to pass the libel reform bill until and unless there is attached to it another bill establishing a statutory press council with powers.