Three stories from today’s Irish Times caught my eye. First, the good. The Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman launched their first annual report yesterday. The press industry undoubtedly did a good thing in establishing the Press Council and the Ombudsman, and yesterday’s report on the first year of operation shows the wisdom of that decision. The launch of the report is covered in the Home News section of the Irish Times, and welcomed in the lead editorial . From the report [with added links]:
AGGRIEVED READERS made over 370 complaints about newspapers and magazines last year during the Press Ombudsman‘s first year of work, his annual report reveals. … Reviewing the performance of the Press Council of Ireland and the Office of the Press Ombudsman in their annual report published yesterday, council chairman Prof Tom Mitchell said the innovative and effective regulatory system offered significant benefits to the press and public. …
Moreover, speaking at the launch, the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, said he hoped that the long-delayed Defamation Bill, 2006 would become law by the summer, an aspiration which Prof Mitchell greeted as “wonderful news”.
Second, the bad. Well, it’s no much that it’s bad as that it’s not enough. At present, Irish broadcasting law bans political advertising, and tightly regulates religious advertising. It was originally intended simply to restate this position in the Broadcasting Bill, 2006, but the Minister for Communications, Eamon Ryan, has announced that the restrictions on religious advertisements. This, too, is a good thing. But it is not enough of a good thing. The ban on political advertising should also have been revisited. And the failure to address this issue is a bad thing. From the report:
MINISTER FOR Communications Eamon Ryan will soften current restrictions on religious advertisements that are broadcast on television and radio. … “Advertising shouldn’t be used for promoting a particular religion or as an agent for recruitment. At the same time, I don’t want to completely restrict advertising that has a religious connotation.” …
Third, the ugly. And this is downright ugly. When the Defamation Bill, 2006 was introduced into the Seanad, it had an ugly twin, the Privacy Bill, 2006. However, as the Defamation Bill proceeded on its fitful way through the Oireachtas [Parliament], the Privacy Bill seemed to fade. Now, it is back with a bang. I do not for one moment doubt that Irish law on privacy is in need of reform, but I likewise do not think that the Privacy Bill as it was introduced in 2006 is the answer to that need. It was overly-restrictive on the meida, whilst ignoring almost every other aspect of privacy protection (eg, cctv, online privacy, genetic privacy, and so on). It now seems that the revived Bill will address some at least of those other issue, but the tone of the Minister’s comments yesterday suggest that the draconian media provisions will remain. And if they do, that would be an ugly thing. From the report:
MINISTER FOR Justice Dermot Ahern has revived plans to introduce laws to protect the privacy of individuals, citing a “worrying trend in media intrusion in order to get a good story”.
Yesterday, however, Mr Ahern announced he planned to inject fresh momentum into the Bill by updating its provisions to reflect recent legal and technological developments. … The violation of privacy was not the exclusive preserve of the media, he said, and many complaints over privacy now concerned actions by individual citizens against others. …
He made these comments at the launch of the Press Ombudsman’s annual report referred to above, and today’s Irish Independent‘s report of the launch led with this aspect of his speech. This was where he made his comments on the prospects for the Defamation Bill’s eventual enactment (which I think is a good thing). But he said that he had “misgivings” about the defence of reasonable publication. And if these misgivings translate into the removal of the defence from the Bill, that would be a very ugly thing indeed.
Update (5 April 2009): Leave Press Council to do its work: in the Sunday Independent, Emer O’Kelly argues that the Government’s plan to amend the law on privacy will restrict freedom of enquiry, and it would be better if the Press Ombudsman and Press Council were to develop a body of decisions to cover the area.