Do I hear drumbeats for privacy legislation?

And they’ll just put you in the spotlight
And hope that you’ll do alright
Or maybe not

Now why do you wanna go
and put starz in their eyes?
Why do you wanna go
and put starz in their eyes?

Just Jack, Starz in Their Eyes

Drumbeats for privacy protection in the face of press intrusion are most often raised by politicians and celebrities. The Economist recently reported that the age at which celebrities become famous is dropping, at the expense of ultimately shorter spells in the limelight. Just Jack’s astringent Starz in the Eyes (above) reflects on the often immense price of fleeting fame: one reason certainly is a hungry media pandering to the public’s interest in celebrities and their lifestyles. For example, much of the coverage of the aftermath of the death of Irish tv and radio personality Gerry Ryan concentrated on his drug taking during his career and in the lead-up to his sudden and untimely death.

Hot Press cover, 26 Jan 2011, featuring Brian O'Driscoll, via their siteReferring to this in a wide-ranging interview featured on the cover of the current issue of Hot Press magazine (cover, right), rugby star Brian O’Driscoll said:

I thought some of the coverage relating to his death was absolutely disgusting … I don’t feel as if the toxicology report should be made public knowledge. But that’s tabloid sensationalism for you.

He accepted that he and his wife, actress and writer Amy Huberman, are a celebrity couple with little control over what people say about them, and whilst he finds much of the attention “flattering”, he said that “maintaining a private life is very difficult” in the face of media persistence.

It would not surprise me if O’Driscoll’s is not the only call for privacy legislation in the wake of Ryan’s death, much as, this time last year, politicians sought to use TV3’s revalations of Brian Lenihan’s illness as a reason to suggest privacy legislation – notwithstanding the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland rejected (pdf) a number of complaints about TV3’s coverage. The loudest calls for privacy legislation came from the Seanad (an institution whose days may very well be numbered):

Senator Rónán Mullen: here: … [I] raise the media treatment of the Minister for Finance over the Christmas period. I ask the Leader for a debate at the earliest opportunity on the media and how they operate. I am not talking about a session in which everybody comes in and vents their own personal spleen, vendettas or gripes against journalism. There is already too much of politicians giving out about the media. We do not need a culture in which people constantly give out about the media. We need a culture in which people hold the media to account. We will do so by identifying that the libel laws alone are not sufficient to protect people, whether in private life or in public life from the depredations of the media. We need a more thorough analysis of how the media operate. While we need to consider that under the heading of privacy, we also need to consider issues like taste and decency, and fairness and balance. We can all outline occasions and instances where the media have been unfair. However, we live at a time when all institutions are coming under scrutiny and there is very little support for self-regulation. While I commend the work being done by the press council, that does not cover broadcast matters. There is no sense that the broadcasting regulatory authorities have any teeth at all. We clearly need to reconsider how we can hold the media to account in a way that does not impact unnecessarily or inappropriately on media freedom.

I say this with great sympathy to individual journalists who are caught up in a web of bad practice because of the pressure they face from their editors and media bosses. This is not targeted against any individual journalist or media practitioner. However, we definitely need a debate on how we can get the media to observe better standards. It was simply not acceptable to hear a series of journalists in recent weeks defend, as they had to do, bad practice. The most that some would say was that they would not have done it that way themselves, as if there were no objective standards which all should uphold. Clearly the timing of telling that story was a matter that should have been negotiated with the Minister’s family. The idea that anybody was done a favour by being given merely two days over Christmas is an insult to our intelligence.

Senators: Hear, hear.

Senator Rónán Mullen: I am asking seriously for a debate on the media in which we will not be hearing just rants about the media, but also constructive thoughts about how we can get the right balance between media freedom on the one hand and the right of all members of the public, including people in public life, to good standards on the other.

Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: here: I also support the call for a debate on media very strongly, given the way things are going in this country in relation to politics, since I believe the media are unhelpful at the moment in that regard. It would be quite something to have a live debate on RTE television and radio from the Seanad, so that we might get our points across unedited. Quite often, the difficulty with media is that we are talking about spin and the segmenting of the things we actually say. It would be important to get matters before the public, live and directly, rather than having debates edited all the time.

These calls died out last year, and politicians now have other things on their plates at the moment, but the next government might be tempted to unpack the deeply flawed Privacy Bill, 2006. It is a temptation they must resist.