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Press Ombudsman

Ombudsman hits out at politicians suing journalists in wake of Sinn Féin TD's suit against Irish Times

Politicians who choose to sue rather than complain to her office should ask if it’s in the public interest, Ombudsman says.

THE PRESS OMBUDSMAN Susan McKay has said she deplores the practice of powerful public figures suing individual journalists in response to public interest news reporting.

In a statement issued this afternoon, McKay welcomed the Taoiseach and National Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) support for journalists “who are subject to this intimidating practice”. 

Her strong words come days after Sinn Féin TD Chris Andrews filed a suit against The Irish Times and its political correspondent Harry McGee over coverage of Sinn Féin’s response to the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October.

That case was raised in the Dáil yesterday, with Leo Varadkar stating that politicians suing newspapers and journalists “is wrong” and is “designed to make journalists afraid”. 

Varadkar said there are other ways to get redress and corrections and clarifications.

“At the very least, the first step should be the Press Council of Ireland and not suing a news organisation, and particularly not suing a journalist individually. I think that is frightening actually,” said Varadkar.

McKay said she welcomed the Taoiseach’s support for her office by those seeking redress if they believe they have been wronged as a result of press coverage.

She said her role as Press Ombudsman is to consider complaints in terms of the Press Council’s Code of Practice, a document which strongly supports the rights of the individual to defend their good name.

Repeating the Taoiseach’s comments yesterday, she said “people are entitled to sue the media, but they don’t have to”. 

McKay said the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman are recognised under the 2009 Defamation Act as an alternative mechanism to resolve such disputes. 

“The services my office provide are free and open to everyone and we respond swiftly to all complaints we receive.

“The freedom of the press is at the heart of our democracy. We recognise that this carries responsibilities and that is why the Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman were established.

“A defamation case, even if not upheld, will almost certainly be financially ruinous for an individual reporter, and will cause severe financial problems for a newspaper, potentially impacting on its ability to invest in quality journalism,” said McKay.

“The press is already struggling against a range of difficult circumstances,” she said.

McKay said:

Politicians, whatever their party background, who choose to sue rather than making a complaint through the Office of the Press Ombudsman, need to ask themselves if this is in the public interest.

The chair of the Press Council, Rory Montgomery, also welcomed the Taoiseach’s remarks.

He said:

“We welcome Mr Varadkar’s statement of support for the work of the Press Council. While we respect the right of all individuals to defend their good name, and to use the law if they consider it necessary, we urge public figures and in particular public representatives to follow his advice.

“We offer an alternative form of redress based on upholding the highest journalistic standards. In relation to the suing of individual journalists, the Press Council shares the Taoiseach’s stated opposition to the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.”

McKay’s statement comes after The Irish Times NUJ branch passed a unanimous motion expressing full solidarity with McGee.

The statement from the group reminded political figures that the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council exist as pathways to resolve complaints. 

In her comments today, McKay said the Press Council are active participants in EU-wide efforts to prevent the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, McKay said. 

SLAPPs are typically initiated by powerful individuals, lobby groups, corporations and state organs. Their purpose is to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition.

EU member states reached a common position in June of this year on a draft law which will protect journalists and human rights defenders against manifestly unfounded claims or abusive court proceedings. 

Last month, McKay said that a public awareness campaign will run next year to encourage people to use the Office of the Press Ombudsman “effectively”. 

McKay said today that she is pleased that in response to her office’s advice, the new Defamation Bill will include an instruction to solicitors to inform clients considering litigation to consider using the Press Council services instead.

The Taoiseach confirmed yesterday that the revised defamation bill will be published “quite soon”, stating that the Justice Minister Helen McEntee is working on heads of the Bill with a hope to have it enacted next year.

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