Friday, January 31, 2014

Journalists Their Own Worst Enemy in Libel Reform

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Frank Sinatra cared little for journalists. “All day long, they lie in the sun,” he said once. “Then they get up, and they lie some more.”

Ouch. Thanks for that, Mr S. But despite Old Blue Eyes’ disdain, journalism has a vital role to play in a democracy. What a pity then that the profession is betrayed on two sides in contemporary Ireland – unfair libel laws on the one hand, and extraordinarily scurrilous journalism on the other.

What is news? News is something that is in the public interest, something that the public are better off knowing than not knowing. But the public interest is not always what the public is interested in.

News in the public interest is like eating broccoli – you don’t like the stuff, but you know it’s good for you, and so you chomp it down regardless. News the public is interested in is like eating sweets – you could happily munch them all day every day, but if you do you shouldn’t be surprised when your teeth fall out and you need a block and tackle to get into your trousers in the morning.

The coverage of a recent alleged murder in Dublin is a case in point of news that is not in the public interest at all. Some newspapers spared no detail in giving the very gory details of the death, a standard of journalism that makes journalists the kind of people who are looked down on by money-lenders, three-card-trick men and ticket touts.

A man died violently, and another man is accused of his murder. What more do you need to know? We are none of us better off wallowing in gory details. All that happens when we do that is that our lives have got that little bit cheaper, and our world that little bit meaner.

Where journalism is meant to come into its own is in telling people what’s going on and keeping them informed about the world, both near and far. The whole idea of democracy is that the voter is in a position to make an informed decision. When the voter doesn’t have time to read every Ministerial Brief or EU Directive, he or she expects the press to report on these things fairly and accurately, leaving the citizens to make up their own minds now that they’ve been informed.

That, at least, is the theory. There have been tremendous successes in journalism, but most of those are in cultures where press freedom is either long established, such as Britain, or constitutionally guaranteed, such as the United States. In Ireland, it’s trickier, and that’s to do with the libel laws.

The principle of libel law is that every person is entitled to his or her good name. This is not something that any rational person would disagree with, as anyone who has been traduced can tell you. However. It’s one thing to respect someone’s good name. It’s another to give them 100% of the benefit of the doubt, especially when awkward questions just won’t go away.

Finding the correct balance is the trick. Balancing the individual’s right to a good name with the public’s right to be fully informed on matters of the public interest. Right now, the balance favours the rich, the powerful and the comfortable and that’s not how it should be. Everything else favours those three groups; why should the press as well? Who stands for the ordinary citizen?

Just how much the balance favours the rich, the powerful and the comfortable, and how the people suffer for that, can be seen from one of the most telling images in contemporary Irish politics – Trevor Sargent waving a cheque he had been sent from a developer during a Dublin City Council meeting in the 1990s, and his being stormed by a mob of fellow councillors trying to get him to stop.

At no stage during the contemporary reporting of that incident were any of the councillors who attacked Sargent named. If journalists saw them do it, and if those same journalists were covering every council meeting, there’s no way the press couldn’t have known who the misbehaving councillors were. But their names never appeared in print when it could have made a difference.

The reason being that it would not take long for a lawyer to make a case that, by naming the councillors, a paper was implying they were somehow guilty of wrongdoing, and that would be a terrible suggestion to make.

In a better-regulated press, such an allegation would not be presumed. The story would have been that Sargent waved a cheque, and Tom, Dick and Harry tried to get it off him. Why Tom, Dick and Harry would do that is up to themselves to answer, but that Tom, Dick and Harry actually did it is something the public has a right to know. There would be no obligation on the press to stand over the worst-case scenario. The press would be entitled to put the question out there, in the public interest.

The tight constraints of the libel law mean that the corruption that was going on in Dublin City Council was let go on for far longer than would have happened in a country with a freer press. Planning corruption is not a minor crime; planning corruption is one of the reasons people are living in Blanchardstown instead of Ballina, why childcare is so expensive, why hospitals are closing in the west and so on and on and on.

The press has a duty to point to incidents and say: there are questions to answer here; this is something the people need to be aware of. And the press should have leeway to raise the question, rather than put together a hard and fast case that stands up in a court of law against the assaults of the best lawyers money can buy.

Press freedom is a democratic necessity. But every time a paper goes into the gory detail of a murder, or reports on the private life of somebody that is nobody’s business but that somebody’s own, they cut themselves off at the knees by giving the enemies of press freedom a stick with which to beat them. It’s a crying shame.