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Column: David Norris's Privacy Bill recycles a flawed earlier version

Secretary of the Irish NUJ, Séamus Dooley, on his concerns about the recent legislation proposed by a number of independent senators.

Seamus Dooley

TODAY THE IRISH Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, Séamus Dooley, expresses 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.

Speaking in the in the Seanad on Wednesday, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter described the Privacy Bill tabled by David Norris as “premature”. Shatter said lessons could be learned following the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry in Britain but said, “We share many of the same media outlets and influences, but we would hope none of the significant defects and behaviour involved”. Seamus Dooley writes:

SENATOR DAVID NORRIS recently moved a Privacy Bill in Seanad Éireann and in doing so managed to compare me to Mandy Rice-Davies.  It’s not the first time I’ve been cited in Seanad debates but it’s definitely the first time I’ve been compared to a British show girl.

Mind you my reputation was quickly restored when Senator Norris acknowledged me as a decent man. So where does Mandy come in?  She famously coined the phrase “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”)  during the Profumo affair after Lord Astor denied ever meeting her or having an affair.

The senator is correct in characterising my reaction to his Privacy Bill as predictable only to the extent that the NUJ is opposed to poorly drafted legislation.

The Norris bill was essentially the same bill as that brought forward in 2006 by the former Justice Minister Michael McDowell and subsequently put in a sort of legislative abeyance. The Privacy Bill was intended as a a quid pro quo for long awaited defamation reform.

It was a sloppy piece of legislation which was brilliantly dissected by media lawyer Andrea Martin, commissioned by the NUJ to examine the implications of the bill. Norris dismissed her professional analysis of the bill “a commissioned hatchet job” but was unable to address the fundamental flaws identified by Martin, including the absence of a definition of privacy and the failure to adequately provide for a public interest defence for a breach of privacy.

The bill also included injunctive powers which would have the ability to prevent legitimate investigative journalism. The Norris bill is effectively a cut and paste job which replicates this flawed attempt which is best consigned to the dustbin of history.

For decades Irish journalism had been inhibited by a draconian libel regime which inhibited investigative journalism.  As Frank McDonald has pointed out in The Irish Times, libel laws was a barrier to journalists such as himself and Mark Brannock in their investigations into planning corruption in Dublin in the Eighties.

Irish media organisations and the NUJ failed to convince the public and the political establishment that libel reform was not just an imperative for journalists but would be in the public interest.

Many libel cases were settled on the steps of the High Court because media organisations could not risk a hearing

The old libel regime was good for lawyers and good for those with deep pockets, including prominent business people who engaged lawyers on tap, ready to pounce with a gagging order with the merest whiff of a story.   Many libel cases were settled on the steps of the High Court because media organisations could not risk a hearing.

With the establishment of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of Press Ombudsman newspaper readers have been given a new and more accessible form of redress than the courts. Of course the likes of Denis O’Brien still opt for the courts rather than the Press Council but at least there’s a cost-free option for those who want a retraction, a clarification or an acknowledgement that they have been wronged without incurring the risk of a massive legal bill.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter has indicated that he favours a Privacy Bill but has identified flaws in the 2006 Bill recycled by Senator Norris. Those concerned with the right to freedom of expression should remain vigilant and we will be monitoring his proposals. If there is to be a privacy bill there is a need for a genuine consultative process which examines all aspects of privacy, including media, the internet, data protection and privacy in the workplace, issues largely ignored in the Seanad this week.

Meanwhile media organisations need to prove their commitment to investigative journalism by investing in editorial resources and by adhering to the Press Council Code.

Back to David Norris. It should be pointed out that he’s no Mandy Rice-Davis. He was advocating privacy legislation long before his failed presidential bid.

There’s no doubt that his views are coloured by his recent experiences and we can expect further pronouncements from the senator. Bring on the debate.

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Seamus Dooley

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