One of his key points is that Cowen is no longer a public figure: “It is difficult to connect information relating to Mr. Cowen’s college activities, such as eating lunch and attending lectures, with the validity of what he had done in public office”. From that, it would follow that he is therefore entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy as he goes about his life after front-line politics, and that, whilst the public may be interested in Cowen’s college activities, there is little public interest in media coverage of his lunch and lectures. This invites two responses. The narrow one is that Cowen was pursuing a leadership course, which he himself accepted had the potential to lead to his return to the public eye, which would bring the matter squarely within the category of the public interest.
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.
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 flawedPrivacy Bill, 2006. It is a temptation they must resist.
Today’s Irish Times carries two interesting interlinked reports. The first is about yesterday’s Press Councilseminar in Cork, the second is about TV3’s exposure of Brian Lenihan’s illness, which – unsurprisingly – was one of the issues discussed at the seminar.
Freedom would mean less without a free media, entrepreneur Ben Dunne told a seminar organised in Cork yesterday by the Press Council of Ireland. … He condemned the broadcast of the Brian Lenihan story on TV3 on December 26th, saying that it “crossed a line it did not need to cross”. However, he added that TV3 was not the only offender in relation to breaches of privacy.
Another speaker, Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes, told the seminar that the phenomenal development of the internet posed challenges to traditional ideas of privacy and data protection. …
Tightening privacy laws is a recipe for “non-accountability, secrecy and duplicity”, the seminar was told by Paul Drury, managing editor of the Irish Daily Mail, who added that he was wary of any proposal to legislate for heightened privacy.
Lenihan says he was rushed into telling children about cancer
Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan has told a local newspaper [the Community Voice newspaper in Blanchardstown] he was rushed into telling his children about his cancer diagnosis on St Stephen’s Day because TV3 had decided to run the story. …
Mr Lenihan said while he did not see what public interest was served between St Stephen’s Day and the new year by TV3 broadcasting the story, he did not intend to lose sleep over it.
Update: Three quick comments. First, thanks, Damien, in the comments below, for pointing me towards the Examiner report on the seminar Dunne slates TV3 for lack of fairness. Second, I couldn’t agree more with Noreen’s comment below that ” the notion that there is supposed to be some kind of journalistic obligation to keep politicians’ secrets is deeply unsettling. It’s in the nature of the media to report the news about public officials. If you’re a journalist, it’s called doing your job”. And, third, there is more about Brian Lenihan’s interview with the Community Voice in a story in today’s Irish Independent.
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) has received 70 e-mails complaining about the TV3 news broadcast on St Stephen’s Day disclosing the cancer diagnosis of Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan. …
Meanwhile, Minster for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin said she and her Government colleagues were “appalled” at the way the story was disclosed. …
ANALYSIS: TV3 had no more than a rumour about Brian Lenihan’s health, and no attributable source. …
Unlike journalists, politicians like rules, and the Minister for Justice has already warned he will revisit his privacy proposals if the media does not behave. The insensitive invasion of a popular politician’s privacy might be just the example he needs.
Expect to see lots of references to this piece as the clamour for privacy legislation begins to grow.
Joe Ryan wrote both an interesting comment on this morning’s post and a great post about the issue on his own blog. My reply to him became too long for a comment, so I’ve upgraded it to this post.
First, I should say that I worked with Brian Lenihan for a few years in TCD, and my thoughts and best wishes are with him and his family at this difficult time. It may be a cliché, but it’s nonetheless true for all that, and I hope he returns to rude good health as quickly as possible.
Second, as TJ McIntyre and Jason Walsh argue, Brian’s illness must be a prime example of a public interest in disclosure. On the other hand, Jim Tormey argues that it is a legitimate matter of public interest only when Brian finds or it appears obvious that he cannot do his job. This is a strong argument, and even some who are wary of overbearing privacy laws are discomfited by TV3’s insensitivity and lack of self-restraint. In the circumstances, I think that Brian showed great restraint in not seeking an injunction to prevent TV3’s broadcast, and I agree with Joe (and with Myles Duffy on The Crimson Observer) that, if Brian chooses to make an issue of it, the matter should go to the recently-fully-established Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). Compare the adjudications of the Press Ombudsman and Press Council upholding a complaint by Tony Gregory TD that a reporter for the Evening Herald confronting his brother at his home was an invasion of privacy justified neither by the complainant’s public position as a Dáil deputy, nor by the significance of the information being sought about his ongoing battle with cancer. (Ironically, the Herald now thinks that TV3 treated Brian and his family badly).
However, my point – indeed my worry – in my previous post, is not what he himself would do but what others might do ‘on his behalf’, and seek to resurrect the moribund (but flawed) Privacy Bill, 2006?
When he was Minister for Justice in January 2008 (amplifying something he had said two months earlier), Brian did not rule out introducing such a Bill, but instead gave the media 2 years to prove that it was not necessary. Last April, his successor as Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern (rathercontroversially) said that he plans to revive the dormant Privacy Bill, citing a worrying trend in media intrusion to get a good story. We’re nearly at the end of Brian’s two year grace period, and TV3’s actions are being seen as another example of just such intrusive gutter journalism. As a consequence, I think it very likely that those who want privacy legislation are even now lining up to use it as an excuse to drum up support for it. It would be a great pity if the politicians were to legislate in haste, leaving the rest of us to repent at leisure. Let us first see if the BAI can resolve the issue; only then, with cooler heads, should we proceed to consider whether further legislative intervention is required. If that comes to pass, then TV3’s short-sighted decision to broadcast may have gained them some short-term beneift but in the long-run we will all be short-changed.