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Sunday 15 February 2004

Thank you, Albert, but we should be so lucky here

LAST week, John Humphrys, one of the BBC journalists still reeling from Lord Hutton's onslaught, reminded us that the British media owe much to our most litigious Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds.

Now, you have to hand it to Albert. As Mandy Johnston now knows, suing for libel is a risky and expensive business. (I did it myself once and won, but even though the case was open and shut and the offence so outrageous I had no option but to sue, there was always the niggling fear that the law might once again prove to be a mega-ass.)

Until 1999, in the UK, a newspaper had to prove that what it published was true or it would lose a libel action, but then came the judgement in the case of Reynolds v Times Newspapers, that "At times people must be able to speak and write freely, uninhibited by the prospect of being sued for damages should they be mistaken or misinformed. In the wider public interest, protection for reputation must then give way to a higherpriority."

Now Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead also pointed out the obligation on journalists to verify their stories, give the person under scrutiny the chance to comment and so on, but his key point was that if there was that there was a strong defence if a report on a matter of public interest published without malice proved to be untrue. This judgement, commented a lawyer last week, "has become a liberal bulwark to protect responsible, questioning journalism in an open democracy".

We in Ireland should be so lucky. Most of the public seem neither to know nor care that their media are prevented from properly scrutinising those in power. In Through Irish Eyes, a report published last week, young (well, under 40) Irish people were questioned about their attitudes to the UK: only nine per cent thought the British media more honest than the Irish.

Now I know well the deficiencies of British tabloids, but I would like one of those young persons to tell me how a gagged RTE and a gagged press could possibly be more honest than their British equivalents.

Twenty years ago, I raged to my father - whose life was dedicated to promoting the Holy Grail of objective history - that surely some newspaper should have the courage to take on Charlie Haughey. "Forget it," he said. "He would ruin the journalist and the newspaper."

And so he would have, and it was for fear of him and people like him that Liam Lawlor and Ray Burke and George Redmond and innumerable other public representatives and servants thought they could do what they liked without worrying about the hacks.

In Britain, there is little political corruption: most recently, the media assisted two Conservative luminaries, Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer, into jail for perjury. When Gerry Adams and his clones next make political capital about the corruption of constitutional politicians, would some interviewer please remind them that the press was choked by oppressive libel laws and ask if they're in favour of reforming them?

Since journalists might then be able to expose how the criminal activities of the IRA enrich Sinn Fein, expect an obfuscatory reply. Republicans adore the Irish libel laws, most have access to obliging lawyers and behind the scenes they take pots of money off the media and keep them timid.

It is rare for a newspaper to refuse to settle quietly: it was only because the Sunday Times was rich and
Thomas 'Slab' Murphy had lost the run of himself that that the newspaper fought, and won, a case where the IRA Chief of Staff was suing for being accused of being a member of his own organisation.

Michael McDowell, one of the few members of the government who seems to take much interest in the potential of the IRA to undermine Irish democracy, knows much of this. Last weekend, in an address to a media conference (organised by Opus Dei, those enthusiasts for transparency and accountability), he indicated he was rowing back from a lunatic proposal to set up a statutory press council with political appointees.

Even more encouragingly, he said he hoped proposals for a new defamation bill would be ready this year and doubted if there was a need to strengthen the law on privacy. (Mind you, if his eye was really on the ball, he'd stop the Government introducing unverifiable electronic voting: the IRA has its share of computer whizz-kids.)

So far so good.

And it was good news last week too that a jury threw out Mandy Johnston's idiotic case. David Norris was outraged that newspapers had "gloated" and warned against any weakening of the libel laws.

So hurt feelings take precedence over freedom of speech, Senator?

What would James Joyce think of that?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards