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Dublin: 16 °C Thursday 30 October, 2014

Column: Could Leveson affect press freedom in Ireland?

Leveson’s recommendations on data protection have been largely overlooked – but could have serious implications even here, writes Seamus Dooley.

Seamus Dooley

IT SEEMS THE truth is destined to be the first casualty in the war against Leveson. Last Friday, the British Culture Secretary, Maria Miller startled the British nation by warning that if the Leveson report was implemented British MPs could impose restrictions on the press because they did not like the way parliament was being reported.

No wonder the public are worried about political interference in the media. Ms Miller was responding to a challenge from a BBC interviewer who asked for an example of the sort of thing which might happen if the new Leveson style press regulatory system were introduced. She plucked from nowhere an example which has no basis in fact.

Nothing in Lord Leveson’s report would enable politicians to exercise editorial control over the press. In fact he recommends “a high degree of demonstrable independence from both political and commercial interests”  in the new structure to be devised by the press industry. Yes, Leveson has suggests that any new structure would have to meet minimum standards, including an independent Chair and a guaranteed majority of non-industry representatives on the revamped press commission but he has emphatically not put forward a State controlled model.

Irish model elements

There are strong parallels with the Press Council of Ireland. Leveson has not put forward an Irish solution to the British problem but has borrowed elements of the Irish model and it has provoked a very British reaction. Cameron has been hailed as a champion of press freedom in over the top reactions from publishers who incidentally were opposed to Leveson even before the work of the Inquiry was complete.

Despite the fact that both Associated Newspapers and News International have signed up to statutory underpinning in Ireland, the Mail (Associated Newspapers) and the Sun (News International) managed to convey the impression that any form of statutory recognition would place the British media in a perilous position akin to Zimbabwe.

Both companies were represented on the Press Industry Steering Committee, which led to the establishment of the PCI; and their UK legal departments had a direct input into the committee’s strategy of campaigning for libel reform and seeing off proposals for a draconian privacy bill while devising a genuinely independent model of co-regulation. It was the Irish equivalent of Leveson – the so-called Mohan report – which forced the Irish press industry to devise a self-regulatory system underpinned by legislative protection in order to avoid a State appointed regulatory body.

Conscience

Leveson has recommended a conscience clause which would serve as a protection for journalists who refuse to engage in unethical behaviour. The NUJ has long campaigned for a conscience clause in employment contracts and it was encouraging to hear Cameron expressing support for such a provision. Given their support for Cameron’s stance on Leveson, it will be interesting to see how British editors react to this proposal.

As the voice of journalism, the NUJ will be insisting upon a direct involvement in the new regulatory body and on the code committee. One of the failures of the old PCC was the emphasis on editors to the exclusion of other journalists, reflecting the British notion that editors  exercise something like the divine right of kings.

Predictably the focus on structures  has framed the Leveson debate at the expense of other far reaching proposals. Lord Leveson makes potentially far reaching recommendations which pose a far greater threat to the protection of confidential sources of information.

Data protection

New data protection legislation could compromise investigative journalism and insufficient attention has been paid to Leveson’s sweeping recommendations, which would impact not just on the print media but on all journalists.  Effectively data protection law could be used as a gagging order to prevent ongoing investigation.

Leveson’s  report is informed by the behaviour of a small group of journalists and private detectives and their relationship with the police. But journalists must have the freedom to carry out initial research without being impeded by repressive legislation which could sound the death knell for investigative journalism.

Mike Jempson, director of the MediaWise Trust has warned:

Leveson appears to be saying that journalists should lose their conventional protections, and may be required to disclose any data they gather, on request. Put that together with a suggestion that the police should have even more power to gain access to journalistic material and you have a recipe for disaster – an end to investigative journalism and another step on the road to a police state.

That’s the most relevant aspect of Leveson to journalists in the Republic, where the Supreme Court has upheld the protection of sources as a constitutional right.

We need to be vigilant lest Leveson should give Justice Minister Alan Shatter, an advocate of privacy legislation and someone who has shown himself to be no friend of media freedom, further notions of restrictions on journalism.

Séamus Dooley is Irish Secretary of the NUJ. The NUJ was granted core participation status at Leveson and he was a member of the steering group which prepared the union’s submission to the inquiry.

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