Tag: Defamation Bill 2006

Is the Press Council system working?

Press Council and Ombudsman logoWith the recent publication by the Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombudsman of their Annual Report 2010 (Report (pdf) | Press Release), it is an opportune time to consider whether the system of press self-regulation by those two bodies is working. I think that, overall, the answer must be yes. Within the remit afforded to the Ombudsman and Press Council, they are working very well indeed. The Ombudsman and Council are energetic in spreading the word about the speedy form of redress which they operate; the growing numbers of member-periodicals show that the industry has embraced the system; and the numbers of complaints show that an increasingly-aware public are taking advantage of it. Apart from the figures, 2010 saw two very important developments: the recogition of the Ombudsman and Council pursuant to the Defamation Act, 2009 (also here); and the extension of their remit to purely online publications.

As the Council’s new Chairman, Dáithí O’Ceallaigh, notes in his Introduction to the Report, the year covered by the Report began with the coming into force of the Defamation Act, 2009, section 44 and Schedule 2 of which allowed for the formal recognition of the Press Council, which duly followed in April:

This has been no mere formality, but a significant and public recognition of the degree to which these new structures, since their institution in 2007, have met the exacting requirements laid down for recognition in the Act, and have contributed to the climate of enhanced accountability and public service within which our press industry operates.

It is the final step in a long, but stately and carefully choegraphed, dance, which began with the publication of the Report of the Legal Advisory Group on Defamation in 2003, and proceeded via the establishment by the press of the Ombudsman and Council, through the publication of the Defamation Bill, 2006 and its enactment in 2009, to this recognition. Perhaps emboldened by it, the Ombudsman and Council are becoming more visible and more muscular.
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O’Rorke on the Defamation Act

Irish Times clock, image originally hosted on Irish Times websiteWriting in today’s Irish Times, Andrew O’Rorke, Chairman of Hayes Solicitors who are that paper’s legal advisors, welcomes the recent commencement of the Defamation Act, 2009 (much as the Editor did at the time of its enactment):

Defamation Act will facilitate more sensible, efficient justice

… The impetus to change the law on defamation originated in 1987. … Government has always been suspicious of media’s perception of its own importance to society. It is an uneasy relationship, which has probably deteriorated in recent times with the increasing examination and analysis of executive action and conduct. There was a marked reluctance to proceed with new legislation, as is evidenced by the almost 20-year gap in finally introducing the Bill in 2006 and the delays since then, …

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, a cornerstone of any democratic, tolerant society, and when sought to be exercised by journalists it should be for the benefit of and on behalf of that same society and the public’s right to know. It is a precious right, but not one that can be exercised in defiance of others’ rights and certainly not if it vilifies another person or paints an untrue picture of that person, their character or actions, which is the essence of defamation. … It is right that healthy tension should divide the two, representing the democratic choice of the people and the resultant scrutiny of the exercise of power. Defamation law to some extent mirrors that contrast, as is evidenced by the contributions to the Oireachtas debates on the passage of the legislation.

The 2009 Act modernises the law and puts it on a par with other civil legislation governing the conduct of litigation. There are no revolutionary changes in its provisions .. To some extent it is lawyers’ law incorporating amendments which will facilitate all sides in the better and fairer conduct of cases. … These modest changes should lead to more efficient, sensible procedures in the interests of the parties and smoother administration of justice.

Read all about it here.

Defamation of a company in the still un-commenced 2009 Act

Photograph of South Hetton Colliery 1831-1983 via aditnowIn the important decision of the House of Lords in Jameel v Wall Street Journal Europe Sprl [2007] 1 AC 359, [2006] UKHL 44 (11 October 2006) the House of Lords by a majority confirmed the traditional common law rule (see South Hetton Coal Company v North Eastern News Association Limited [1894] 1 QB 133) that a trading corporation was entitled to pursue a remedy in a defamation action without being required to allege or prove that the publication complained of had caused it actual damage; it is sufficient for a trading corporation to show that it is likely to be damaged in the way of business. Rossa McMahon has some strong words to say about the retention of the rule as a matter of Irish law by section 12 of the Defamation Act, 2009 (pdf), which provides

The provisions of this Act apply to a body corporate as they apply to a natural person, and a body corporate may bring a defamation action under this Act in respect of a statement concerning it that it claims is defamatory whether or not it has incurred or is likely to incur financial loss as a result of the publication of that statement.

Among many excellent points, I think that Rossa’s most telling point is this:

While the ability of companies to sue for defamation was regarded as already established in the common law, the explicit provision that financial loss need not be established appears to heighten the risk of McLibel type actions in Ireland.

He concludes with a comment about the timescale for the publication and commencement of the Act. It was enacted on 23 July 2009; it was finally officially published (pdf) about three weeks ago (it seems it was in a long queue for translations into Irish of all of the Bills enacted at the end of that session); but it is not to be commenced for a while yet: the Department of Justice website currently provides

The Act is expected to be commenced in January 2010 following the making of the relevant Rules of Court (an announcement will be made in due course).

We have waited for a long time for the Act, if not from the publication of the Law Reform Commission’s Consultation Paper and Report on the issue in 1991, then at least since the publication of the Report of the Legal Advisory Group on Defamation in 2003. It took more than six years for the Bill in that Report to lead to the 2009 Act; waiting more than six months for that Act to come into force hardly seems too much longer to wait.

President signs Bills

President McAleese via WikipediaFrom the Irish Times breaking news site:

President McAleese signs controversial Bills into law

President Mary McAleese has this morning signed the Defamation Bill 2006 and the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009 into law. …

Updates: from RTÉ news: President signs controversial bills into law; and from the Irish Times: Ahern welcomes Bills’ enactment; see also Belfast Telegraph | BreakingNews.ie | CCJHR blog | IrelandOnline | Irish Election | New Humanist | New York Times | Press Association | Slugger O’Toole | Tribune.ie. Further update: it’s now listed on the official list of Acts signed by President McAleese, as the Defamation Act, 2009 (No 31 of 2009) / An tAcht Um Chlúmhilleadh, 2009 (Uimhir 31 de 2009).

In a press release, the Minister for Justice welcomed both enactments, and he had this to say about the new Defamation Act, 2009:

Modernisation of our Defamation law is now complete on the enactment of the Bill. I believe the legislation in what is a complex area strikes the right balance in the public interest.

For Michael Nugent, the campaign to repeal the new blasphemy law begins now.

President’s decision tomorrow

Patience image, via AmazonFor anyone who is as impatient as I am to find out what President McAleese has decided after her meeting this evening with the Council of State, the RTÉ News website is reporting:

The meeting of the Council of State called by the President ended at around 10pm. … The President has indicated she will announce her decisions tomorrow morning. …

Update (23 July 2009): Irish Independent | Irish Times here and here | Jason Walsh here and here | Slugger O’Toole.

And so we wait. Patiently?

Bonus link: meanwhile, the RTÉ news report has a link to the following story from a few weeks ago: OSCE argues against blasphemy law. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) press release to which that story refers is headed: OSCE media freedom representative welcomes Irish draft law decriminalizing libel, asks to drop ‘blasphemous libel’, and begins (with added links):

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, welcomed today the Irish Parliament’s final preparations to decriminalize defamation, but warned that the proposal to introduce a new article on ‘blasphemous libel’ risked jeopardizing OSCE media freedom commitments. …

Blasphemy provisions clash with Constitution

Cover of Levy's book on Blasphemy, via the publishers' website.In today’s Irish Times, a piece by yours truly under the above headline:

Blasphemy provisions clash with Constitution

The President has very few unconstrained powers, and the Council of State is convened only rarely, but this evening they will all move centre stage, when the Council convenes to advise the President whether to refer two controversial Bills to the Supreme Court. Whatever she does about the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, 2009, she should certainly refer the blasphemy provisions of the Defamation Bill, 2006 …

Read all about it here (it’s a development of my argument here).

The cases I mention in the piece are:

  • the case against Gay News magazine (wikipedia) is Whitehouse v Lemon [1979] AC 617 (HL) (wikipedia);
  • the case against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses is R v Metropolitan Magistrate ex p Choudhury [1991] 1 QB 429;
  • the case against Jerry Springer – The Opera is R (on the application of Green) v The City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court [2007] EWHC 2785 (Admin) (05 December 2007);
  • the relevant decisions of the European Court of Human Rights include Wingrove v UK 17419/90 [1996] ECHR 60 (25 November 1996), and Klein v Slovakia 72208/01 [2006] ECHR 909 (31 October 2006); and
  • the case against the Sunday Independent for publishing the divorce referendum cartoon is Corway v Independent Newspapers [1999] 4 IR 485; [2000] 1 ILRM 426; [1999] IESC 5 (30 July 1999).
  • Another twist in the tale of the Defamation Bill

    Áras an Uachtaráin = Residence of the President of Ireland, via the President's siteThe saga of the Defamation Bill, 2006 is not over yet. Article 26 of Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution) allows the President, after consultation with Council of State, to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court for a determination of its constitutionality. President McAleese has chosen to convene the Council of State to advise her on the qustion of whether to refer not only the (controversial) Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, 2009 (an unsurprising move) but also the (equally controversial) blasphemy elements of the Defamation Bill, 2006 (which has come as a great surprise). (See Belfast Telegraph | BreakingNews.ie | Bock the Robber | ICCL | Irish Emigrant | Irish Independent | RTÉ news | Irish Times | PA | Slugger O’Toole. Update (18 July 2009): see also Irish Examiner | Irish Times here and here | Irish Independent | MediaWatchWatch).

    There have been 15 such references to date. If the Court holds that a Bill is unconstitutional, the President must decline to sign it; whilst if the Court decides a Bill is constitutional, the President must sign it into law, and the resulting Act is immune from constitutional challenge in the future. As my colleague Oran Doyle has pointed out, this means that

    … unlike in ordinary constitutional litigation, a decision made under the Article 26 reference procedure without consideration of a particular issue cannot be reopened when that issue is brought to light by another aggrieved litigant. … The tenor of the court’s reasoning in several references suggests that the court is more likely to hold legislation unconstitutional when the effect of its decision is absolute immunity for legislation considered only in the abstract.

    Admittedly, the reference procedure is imperfect (see, eg, Niamh Howlin “Shortcomings and anomalies: Aspects of Article 26” (2005) Irish Student Law Review 26 (pdf)), but if it means that the odds are in favour of striking down the blapshemy provisions of the Defamation Bill, then bring it on!

    The last sentence of Article 40.6.1(i) of the Constitution provides that the publication or utterance of blasphemous material shall be an offence. In Corway v Independent Newspapers [1999] 4 IR 484 (SC), the Supreme Court declined to give any effect to the constitutional clause in the absence of a statutory provision, but that decision will be of little help in any Article 26 reference. Rather more recently, in R (on the application of Green) v The City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court [2007] EWHC 2785 (Admin) (05 December 2007) (discussed on this blog at the time), a Divisional Court of the English High Court held that it was the prevention of imminent public disorder probably which ensured the compatibility of the English common law offence of blasphemous libel with Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights:

    [17] … The Article 10(2) basis for the crime of blasphemous libel is best found, as it seems to us, in the risk of disorder amongst, and damage to, the community generally.

    The key question will be whether the influence of the Convention will mean that the Court will take a similar approach to the Constitution. Let us assume that it will. Section 36 of the Bill provides that

    (2) … a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if—
    (a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive 10 or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and
    (b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

    (3) It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.

    Subsection (3) is a welcome saver, but the main question will be whether subsection (2) is constitutional. There is a large gulf between the outrage envisage by the subsection and the risk of public disorder envisaged by Green. If that case is right, then this provision must be questionable under the Convention; and if a similar approach is taken under the Constitution, then this provision must also be of dubious constitutionality. I will therefore await with great interest both the President’s decision and any subsequent decision of the Supreme Court. Of course, even if she decides not to refer either Bill, a constitutional challenge is likely the first time any of the controversial provisions are invoked. Either way, therefore, the blasphemy provisions of the Defamation Bill will get their day in court.

    The template for journalism?

    Irish Times clock, image originally hosted on Irish Times websiteA Leader in today’s Irish Times welcomes the passing of the Defamation Bill, 2006, and argues that it will set an appropriate template for the practice of journalism in Ireland:

    The template for journalism

    The Defamation Bill has concluded its passage through the Oireachtas, with a few deserved wobbly moments on blasphemy, and now awaits the signature of President McAleese. It will set the template for the practise of journalism in the years ahead. …

    The new regime for journalism will operate on twin pillars. The Bill attempts – quite successfully – a balancing of constitutional rights: between the public’s right to know and the citizen’s right to a good name. … The concession to the practise of journalism is the new defence of “reasonable publication” allowing newspapers to publish stories of public importance for the public benefit if they can be shown to have been thoroughly investigated and done in good faith – even if allegations made in them turn out to be untrue.

    The quid pro quo for these changes is the Office of Press Ombudsman and an independent Press Council which are given legal privilege for their findings in the Bill. These offices give readers a formal and free complaints system which has been in operation for more than a year. The Irish Times supports them wholeheartedly. They face a huge challenge to stem the slide in standards in Irish journalism. …

    Read all about it here.