Thursday, 23 June 2005
Question 4: To ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he intends to move to implement reforms of libel laws designed to bring them into line with those of other states in the context of a statutory press council and improved privacy laws as provided for in An Agreed Programme for Government. [21640/05]
I am in the process of finalising the details of the proposals for the defamation Bill and following Government approval, which I have obtained, I intend in due course to publish the heads of the draft Bill so that they are in the public domain. As in the case of other Bills, in the course of formal drafting I will take account of the comments I receive on publication of the draft heads.
I confirm, as indicated in response to questions in the House on a number of occasions, that the Bill will contain provisions in regard to a press council, a press ombudsman and a press code of standards.
The Legal Advisory Group on Defamation Report in 2003 suggested a particular model involving a State appointed press council. That model did not attract me. The approach I favour is statutory recognition by way of a resolution to be moved in both Houses of the Oireachtas, of an independent organisation which would request to be recognised as the press council of Ireland for the purposes of the legislation. Recognition would bring certain privileges such as immunity from action in respect of its decisions, judgments and directions. I also envisage that such a press council would have, as its central focus, a code of standards supported by and subscribed to by print media organisations with operations in the State. Such a code of standards would provide an additional protection for citizens' privacy from media intrusion and harassment. It is also envisaged that the press ombudsman would be established by the press council to deal with complaints from those affected by breaches of the code of standards. One of the major issues in regard to a press council is the question of who will select the independent members and whether they will be genuinely independent because it cannot be a poodle of the media, no more than it can be a poodle of the Government.
The focus of efforts before and during my time as Minister has been on reform in the area of defamation but in the meantime there have been notable developments of jurisprudence in the area of privacy in the European Court of Human Rights, in English courts and in our own courts. There is a view that the developing jurisprudence in this area, as well as the capacity of our courts to develop the principles of law on a case by case basis, could have been sufficient to protect the privacy of persons. However, the Government's considered view is that the area is worthy of study with a view to seeking an appropriate legislative basis for the protection of privacy which would be consistent with freedom of expression. I am in consultation with the Attorney General with a view to progressing that matter. The details of any proposals for legislation on the privacy area will be announced in due course following the Attorney General and myself working on the issue and bringing the matter to Government.
I get a distinct sense that there is not a united approach on the part of the Government on this issue. In fact, I suspect that reform of the libel laws will fall within the cracks in the coalition and the Minister's reply does not allay that suspicion.
I want to focus on a number of issues. First, do I take it from the Minister's reply that he does not consider legislation to be necessary in the privacy area because of developments in jurisprudence both here and in Europe? Second, on reform of the libel laws, is there a direct connection with some decisions in the privacy area or will we have action soon? I say that because I always understood the Minister was very interested in this area. He produced a Private Members' Bill about eight or nine years ago. We have consultations, advisory groups, major conferences and God knows what else, yet nothing seems to be happening. Will the Minister indicate a timeframe? When will we have a Bill on reform of the libel laws? I want reform in that area and, while I do not want the statutory press council promised in An Agreed Programme for Government, I want a voluntary press council.
It all depends on what one means by the term "statutory". A purely voluntary body would be wholly ineffectual because its judgments, decisions and so on would be subject to being sued. In other words, it would not have any teeth. By the same token, a statutory press council of the other kind, in which the State, through the Government, decided what a press council would be and who would serve on it, is also unattractive. There is a middle way, namely, recognition of an independent voluntary body which comes up to certain criteria of independence and effectiveness, and the creation of statutory consequences for such a body once its comes into existence. That is the model on which I have been working and which will be in the proposals to be published by Government.
With regard to privacy, rather than see it as a major split between the Government parties or between me and members of the Government, it is more constructive to see this as one on which——
No, it is possible to have two points of view. One of them is that privacy is a very complicated issue. For example, at one level, one could claim the intrusion into Leas Cross nursing home was a breach of patient privacy whereas at another level, it could be claimed it was in the public interest that the information should be published.
How, in a statute, to work out the exact line of demarcation between what is acceptable and what is not is a matter that will undoubtedly cause difficulty. However, by the same token, the programme for Government intends, in the context of a statutory protection of privacy, that defamation reform will proceed. The Attorney General and I will be able to put together a privacy law that will not be overly prescriptive but will make it clear that breach of privacy which is not lawful or constitutional by other considerations should be actionable.
This is necessary because many current cases lead people to wonder exactly where the law of privacy does and does not run. There has been English jurisprudence concerning supermodels being photographed in gyms and so on and a case involving Princess Caroline of Monaco and the German press, which hounded her and published photographs of her day-to-day existence.
These are the kinds of cases where drawing an exact line between what is and is not permissible is difficult. The Government's point of view is that we should not shy away from the issue just because it is difficult if we can come up with a law which is a help and protects privacy. The Attorney General and I will work on that in the next few months.
The Deputy asked for an indicative timeframe for this. I hope that by early autumn — in September or October — I will be in a position to publish the heads of the defamation Bill, which will then be at a fairly advanced stage of drafting, and, with the Attorney General, to bring to Government proposals for a privacy law.
I only used the term "statutory press council" because it was included in the programme for Government and the report of the legal advisory group set up by the Minister. I am not in favour of a statutory press council but of an independent press council. However, on that point, is there hesitation on the part of the media to provide the funding necessary for this independent council? Does the Minister honestly expect he will introduce legislation with regard to privacy or that he will depart from his original and apparently current view that no such legislation is necessary?
I will give the Deputy a Delphic reply to his last question: watch this space. With regard to funding, I have never known the media interests in Ireland to have an unwillingness to fund an independent press council. They could not reasonably expect the State to fund a press council which was genuinely independent and not accountable to the taxpayer. That is not a runner.
The media in our society are sufficiently well-to-do to pay the cost to the community of policing their own activities through a press council. It would not be fair to tell pensioners, hospital patients and others that the resources they seek should be taken away and given to a press council, when the media are in a good position to fund it.