Privacy law could hamper investigative journalism says NUJ

The Irish Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Séamus Dooley, has expressed strong reservations about the proposal by Independent senators David Norris, Séan Barrett and Feargal Quinn for a new Privacy Bill based on the 2006 Privacy Bill published by the Fianna Fail/PD government. Mr Dooley said there was no overwhelming demand by private citizens for legislation to curb media freedom in Ireland. Mr Dooley said it was “deeply ironic” that leave to introduce the Bill had been granted on the same day as the publication of the Mahon Tribunal, given that many politicians had managed to use the law to prevent media investigations into their activities.

NUJ Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley. Photo: Ronan Quinlan

Mr Dooley said: “The establishment of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman has given aggrieved citizens a fair and efficient means of lodging complaints against the print media. The BAI has shown itself to be a robust, independent body when it comes to investigating breaches of the broadcasting act. We do not need further curbs on media freedom and the cornerstone of the 2006 Bill was the creation of a tort of privacy which would expose journalists and media organisations to prosecution for legitimate journalistic activities carried out in the public interest.

“The Code of Practice for Newspapers and Periodicals recognises the responsibility of the media to respect privacy. Most journalists and media organisations operate within an ethical framework, value the concept of truth and do not set out to cause unnecessary hurt or offence. While I have no doubt that the sponsors of the Bill will be able to quote exceptions to the general good behaviour of the Irish media I do not think exceptions should provide the basis for new legislation.

“The 2006 Bill set out to assign to the judiciary editorial functions, including assessing the merits of individual stories. It was deeply flawed in many respects and I am disappointed that it is being resurrected at this time.

“The proposed introduction of legislation comes at a point in time where the courts are only starting to engage with the nuances and rights based complexities of the interaction of personal privacy rights and press freedoms, in the light of the European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence. The PCI and Office of the Press Ombudsman are still developing and in that context the creation of a new tort of privacy is certainly premature.

“Over the past 48 hours I have been struck by the manner in which the media was inhibited by defamation law from investigating corruption in the planning process. I’ve no doubt that privacy legislation could also have been invoked by the same figures. Privacy legislation protects the right and powerful and is all too frequently used to inhibit investigative journalism. That was the basis for the NUJ’s opposition to the original Bill and we would be opposed to the re-introduction of the Bill.”