Wednesday, 2 February 2005
Order of Business.
The Order of Business today is No. 1, statements regarding the tsunami disaster in south-east Asia to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude at 1 p.m. with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes and the Minister to be called upon to reply no later than five minutes before the conclusion of the statements; No. 2, Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2004 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage to be taken at 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes; and No. 21, motion 17 to be taken from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. There will be a sos from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
We on this side of the House are grateful the Leader has so swiftly organised statements on the tsunami disaster. We appreciate that the call was made last week and the debate is taking place this week.
I understand the only House of the Oireachtas to debate the libel laws in recent years is this House.
The debate that took place earlier this year was successful and well-informed and we all learned something from it. Will the Leader arrange another debate on the issue of the intrusion into citizens' private lives by some newspapers in particular? This is an issue we must debate.
It is not an issue that relates only to celebrities and those who are in the public eye. It concerns also those who are not routinely and regularly in the public eye but whose lives are paraded on the front pages of newspapers. We need a genuine press complaints system whereby complaints regarding intrusions into privacy will be taken seriously and adjudicated upon by independently minded people.
Standards in journalism are important not only for the safety of our democracy but also to ensure that the records of the State are held on a daily basis. Where standards drop to such an abysmal level, whereby people's private lives are paraded in an unseemly fashion on a daily basis, we must cry halt as soon as we can. The House has a fine record of debating such issues and I call for such a debate. More importantly, the Government, in consultation with the newspaper industry, must move forward on this issue.
I could not agree more with what Senator Brian Hayes has said regarding the media. As Members will be aware, last Wednesday in the House I raised the issue of newspaper intrusion into private lives. The problem has got substantially worse in the meantime. I am conscious that in dealing with this matter we must be very careful. Senator Norris made an impassioned input to the recent debate on libel laws here and everything he has said has proved to be true. Last week I raised the issue of a person associated with a member of the Government, whose private life, in the words of Senator Brian Hayes, was being paraded to the public, with no interest involved.
The worst I have seen in all this concerned a young man of 29, studying in Trinity College, who got a full page to himself in one of the Sunday newspapers, having tried to live and order his life. His only so-called crime — he has never been involved in any criminality — was that his father happens to be Malcolm McArthur. He has lived a life with that cloud hanging over him for 29 years. He and his mother have done the best for their lives. The person who wrote that article is guilty of what must be close to a criminal act. He has upset and overturned a person's life. It cannot be right nor acceptable.
When I spoke on the libel laws here I said that in my view the issue was not just the libel laws, but that in a well-ordered fair society a bipolar approach was needed and that we needed both privacy and information legislation. One is no less important than the other. In supporting what Senator Brian Hayes has requested, I ask that it be more focused on the issue of legislation to protect privacy than simply a press complaints council.
I welcome that responsible journalists also consider that something needs to be done about this matter. We should seize the initiative, have a serious and focused debate, with a recommendation from this House to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to introduce complementary legislation dealing with press complaints, libel legislation, information legislation and, above all, privacy legislation. This is what ordinary people want and demand.
I agree with my colleagues on the urgent need for a debate on privacy. The Houses of the Oireachtas need to send out a very clear statement that if the media cannot regulate themselves to defend people's privacy then somebody else may have to do it for them. While it is not a route I would wish to take, if the power of the media is on one side and the vulnerability of individuals is on the other side, it is a function of the Oireachtas to mitigate abuse of power. If those who have that power do not find it in themselves to deal with it in a responsible way, those of us who have the duty to regulate the order of society will need to think about doing it for them, which would be a matter of great regret to me. I am not in favour of legislative regulation of the media. However, I believe we need to legislatively protect the privacy of individuals.
I cannot help being somewhat sceptical and quizzical that the onrush of debate about privacy in the media seems to have followed rather than predated an intrusion into the private life of a person from the media. I am more than a little concerned about this aspect. It did not seem to matter that a member of the Government, with whom I agree on nothing and who may well have political issues to address on something he did, had his private life filleted by a newspaper. Apparently his children were visited by representatives of a newspaper. It is better to have political opponents say this than to have political allies do so. What was done to that member of the Government by a newspaper was a disgrace. This was followed by the matter to which Senator O'Toole referred. Now, because a member of the media rightly took exception it is suddenly of concern. However, it is a critical issue and of concern to the least powerful, most vulnerable in our society.
I ask the Leader to ascertain why the director of the National Museum was prevented from speaking to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government yesterday about the M3 and its intrusion into the Hill of Tara site. He was supposed to come, but apparently he was advised not to come. I do not wish to attribute any sinister motives, but we should be told.
I have spoken about what I thought were the unreasonable demands of a Chinese delegation to meet the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs in private. I have said that it was wrong. The European Union's director of security, Javier Solana, demanded a similar meeting in private and it was wrong. The US ambassador apparently announced yesterday that he will meet the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs only if it meets in private. I do not care whether the source of such requests is a tyranny or a democracy. To tell us that the representative of a sovereign state will debate the issues of the day in private only is an intrusion on our democracy. I do not criticise the committee — I criticise the governments of the countries which have decided to adopt such a policy.
I agree with the proposition that the House should discuss defamation and the right of the individual to privacy in an era in which the media is all-intrusive. I have previously spoken about this matter. It seems to me that those who work in the media like nothing more than to write about other people who work in the media.
I was recently struck by the degree to which high-powered telephoto lenses can be used in cameras to intrude in private grief. There was an evocative picture on the front page of a newspaper when Robert Holohan was buried in Midleton. The picture, which was taken at the graveyard, spoke more than a thousand words, to use the cliche. When one turns to other pages, however, it is entirely wrong that one should find close-up photographs of people at their most vulnerable. It is wrong that photographs of them when they are devastated should be published on the front pages of newspapers. Private grief is a matter for families and should not be part of the public domain. It is just one manifestation of the malaise which has been discussed here this morning.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform indicated yesterday that he will introduce proposals on defamation, which I am sure will come to the House in due course. The House has discussed and made proposals on the report of the Law Reform Commission on defamation. I share the view expressed by Senator O'Toole about the difference between the right to information and the right to privacy. They are two separate issues which should be treated as such. I agree with Senator Ryan that it would be preferable for the industry to regulate itself. There is no coherent commitment to respecting the rights of our citizens, however, particularly private citizens. I accept fully that in the public domain, where there is a right to public interest, there should be intrusion, just as there is sometimes intrusion into the lives of politicians. I accept that proposition. If they are not prepared to abide by reasonable norms, they will have to be regulated whether they like it or not.
——in response to fears of a nuclear attack. The tablets are due to expire in March of this year. Perhaps the Leader can ask the Minister for Health and Children whether it has been decided to issue new iodine tablets to replace the old ones.
There is an increased level of gender equality in the highest reaches of the public service as a result of a number of recent merited appointments, the latest to the position of Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science. We should all welcome that, even though it has taken the best part of the 30 years, since the abolition of the marriage ban, to come to pass.
Everybody agrees that immigrant labour is essential to our economy at this time. The proper enforcement of the laws governing the use of such labour should be debated again because it is an important subject.
If employers are unable or unwilling to abide by those laws, we should consider withholding future employment permits in addition to financial penalties. It does absolutely no credit to us and we are all a little ashamed of it. More fundamental reforms may also be required.
I, too, support the calls by my colleagues for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to the House to debate the libel laws. We should do what we can to protect the privacy of individuals. As we know, too many lives have been destroyed by the intrusion of the press into people's private lives. The victims must carry the burden for the rest of their lives.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to the House to debate the high costs of natural gas and electricity? I have called for such a debate previously. We are told these products are three times more expensive in Ireland than in Great Britain and other European countries. This will have an effect on our economy and industry and their future development. The matter needs to be addressed urgently and I request a debate on it as soon as possible.
Let us consider the issue of tolling and Government policy. Tolling has recently received widespread media coverage because of the increase in toll charges on the M50. I would like the House to debate the purpose and location of toll booths across the country. Only yesterday at the M3 inquiry did we hear that there will be a toll booth located on the approach road to a park and ride facility on the Navan Road which is to accommodate 1,200 vehicles. If there is to be joined-up thinking, we cannot continue with the ludicrous practice of encouraging people to use park and ride facilities while charging them a toll to gain access thereto.
I have no objection to tolling across the country. It is part of the programme for Government and part of our road building programme. I would like to hear a wide ranging debate on the M50, traffic congestion around Dublin and how tolling can be a means to resolving our difficulties.
A suggestion was made to me in light of the decision of the Government last week to build a new prison in north County Dublin and I would like the Leader to pass it on to the Minister, namely, that a court should be located near the prison. My mentioning this has nothing to do with the site of the complex, wherever that will eventually be, but concerns the very high travel costs that are incurred. My attention was drawn to the fact that if a prisoner in Oberstown in north County Dublin had to attend a court in County Cork, a driver and two, or possibly three, gardaí would be required to leave Oberstown at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. to attend that court. They would not be allowed to leave again until 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. if the warrant had not been issued. The cost incurred by the State in such cases must be considerable. The logical suggestion is that a court should be built close to wherever the new prison is built.
I wish to make three points. The first concerns Senator Brian Hayes's point on misinformation in the newspapers. In this regard, my colleagues should note that Alison Healy states incorrectly in today's The Irish Times that I am an investor in the new newspaper Daily Ireland. I am not an investor and am not receiving any money from it.
I laud Trevor Ringland, who played rugby for Ireland, on his advertising campaign One Small Step, the purpose of which is to stop people using emotional words such as "Taig" and "Brit" in an effort to break down sectarian barriers in Northern Ireland. In yesterday's edition of Daily Ireland he stated that he wants every human being to make a little step for peace and reach out to people on the other side as part of this effort.
I cannot remember my third point.
In the past three weeks an old age pensioner suffering from Parkinson's disease was admitted to a hospital in the west. During his stay there he was infected with MRSA. It took some time for the hospital authorities to admit that the patient had been so infected.
On his discharge, the patient, who holds a medical card, was told that the best items to cure the infection were not available to him on the medical card system. Given that the infection arose in the hospital, it should be the responsibility of the hospital to provide the best and most effective remedy. The Minister for Health and Children should so direct the hospital and that should be done in all such cases nationwide.
I join previous speakers in calling for a debate on defamation as outlined by Senators Brian Hayes and O'Toole. Yesterday, a new centre for public inquiry was announced. This will be privately funded by somebody from outside the State to investigate people in public life and institutions. I have serious reservations about the prospect of moving in that direction.
The debate should be broadened to examine this proposal. A sovereign State cannot have an organisation, funded privately from outside the State, conducting investigations, and accountable to no one.
Who will draw up the remit of this organisation and what protections will people have? This is a serious and worrying development. I urge all those who support the institutions of the State to examine the establishment of this centre. I hope when the Leader arranges a debate on defamation that it can be extended to include such centres.
I join my colleagues in expressing concern about the behaviour of certain sections of the media. I have raised this issue on several occasions and warned that we should not be pusillanimous in facing up to these sections of the press. It is horrifying to learn that Ireland on Sunday, a most disreputable newspaper, described Charlie Bird as "fair game". Who are they to decide which citizen is "fair game" in a situation where there is no clear public interest? This is an unsavoury, prurient intrusion into other people's private lives, and the facts are not even right.
I am a member of the National Union of Journalists. Seamus Dooley, the Irish organiser of the union, has spoken well for the honourable trade of journalism and established reasonable standards. He deplored that kind of behaviour. It is a policy of that newspaper to ensure that no unions are involved so it is not subject to the discipline of the NUJ. This is an English practice and the newspaper is English. These standards are disgraceful.
I disagree with my friend and colleague, Senator Dardis, that the press council should be self-regulatory. That system exists in England and it is toothless. It does not work. The council should be independent. As a journalist I laugh when I hear the media calling for independent regulation of the Garda Síochána, the medical profession, nurses — everybody except ourselves. If the principle is right for everybody else, it is right for the media also and let us not be afraid to say so.
I call for a debate on the management of our roads. I have spoken on numerous occasions about the inadequate way in which speed limits are regarded, and the fact that there are many arbitrary, capricious changes to them. To quote from The Irish Times of 26 January last:
The Minister [for Transport] pointed to the N11 at Loughlinstown in south County Dublin. In one short stretch of the dual carriageway, the speed drops from 80km/h to 50km/h and then back to 80km/h. "You actually find gardaí there regularly taking otherwise law abiding citizens to the side and writing them tickets," said the Minister. "I have to say I feel it brings the whole process into disrepute and it causes a lot of ill-will among otherwise law abiding, tax paying citizens."
The Minister knows this but we should do something about it. While he is at it, the Minister should consider the issue of speed ramps. I am happy that we should have road safety, speed ramps and the rest but there is no regulation of this area. Ramps can be built from 18 inches high to two feet high, which are a danger to vehicles.
Yes, thank you.
I wish to comment on the unfortunate day in the various committees yesterday. The American ambassador did not turn up at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which I and Senator Ryan are members, and there was a last minute change. The committee has no compellability with respect to foreign ambassadors and must deal with them in a courteous and diplomatic way — we simply point to precedents. With regard to yesterday's meeting, we were concerned that the American Government was attempting to establish a precedent whereby its ambassador would meet with us in private. This has been strongly resisted by the committee. However, my understanding is that this was not a personal decision of the ambassador as I believe his cards were well and truly marked by the State Department. We have no quarrel with the ambassador, who has always been very courteous.
I support the calls for a debate on the libel laws, particularly the need for a press council and press complaints board. It is almost a year since I raised this matter in regard to the Club Anabel case, where irresponsible journalists caused great upset, not alone to the families of those involved but to all those reading the newspapers. It is interesting to note that the appeals in this matter cite irresponsible journalists as part of their case.
In recent days it has become apparent that journalists writing for tabloids are using fictitious names. When one tries to check out a particular journalist, it is found that nobody of that name works for the newspaper. Journalists are putting a name to a story, spreading their nets and writing what they want. It is probably typical of everything that happens in this country that when ordinary Joe or Josephine Citizen raises some matter, or is hurt or hounded by somebody, it goes unnoticed. However, when a journalist, politician or celebrity is hounded or tracked down by journalists, we all sit up.
As Senator Brian Hayes noted, it does not matter who is hounded or hurt, the result is the same. However, as this has been highlighted by the Charlie Bird issue, we should not let the matter slip and should follow it through. I hope I will not have to ask for such a debate again in a year's time.
I support the call of Senator Brian Hayes and others for a debate on privacy, libel, defamation and the establishment of a press council and press complaints board.
Some Members will be aware of an increasing difficulty in the vicinity of Killarney. I previously stated in the House that the authorities, namely, the heritage division of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, is not able to keep the deer in or the sheep out. Deer are roaming more freely and at will than ever before.
It is healthy that we have such increasing numbers of the native red deer but they are invading neighbouring farms. It is becoming a serious problem given the increasing number of road accidents, as we read about recently. Unfortunately, a cull is necessary. I would like the Leader to ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ensure that any necessary cull will deal, in the first instance, with the imported sika species. We should not deal with red deer, prematurely at least. They are majestic animals and a very fine species. A former Taoiseach managed to preserve the gene pool and gave assistance in that respect on his own island property off the coast. Perhaps the State could seek other places where we could preserve the gene pool of the native red deer.
I support Senator White in lauding the work of Trevor Ringland, which is very commendable. As an average run-of-the-mill "Taig", I would be even more offended by being called a "Tadhg".
As regards the earlier calls for a debate on the libel and privacy laws, as a director of Independent Newspapers I want to declare an interest. I support the request for such a debate. I have been working with a group which includes the National Union of Journalists and publishers in developing proposals for adjudication by independent people, but not by political appointees. The group is anxious to talk to the Minister and is also anxious for legislation. In having a debate, we should also press for legislation so that it does not get pushed back on the list of priorities.
I too was surprised by the withdrawal of Dr. Wallace from helping the debate on the M3. It is a strange situation where the senior professional advising the public is not allowed to help the House. We should think of the view we would take if the chief medical officer was not allowed to talk on a matter of public health. It is regrettable.
I join my colleagues in seeking a debate on the libel laws. We have acknowledged that over the years many people in our own profession spent most of their time going to the newspapers instead of trying to resolve issues on the ground. Unfortunately, the situation has come full circle. A debate would help to clarify many of the issues.
I ask the Leader to invite the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to attend the House. The Minister should either clarify or deny that the hospital transport service, which has been very successful over the years in bringing patients to and from hospital appointments, has now been withdrawn. I am led to believe that currently in the Western Health Board region, as it was, word has come from the Minister that only cancer patients or those on dialysis treatment will be able to avail of the free transport service. It is causing great hardship for many patients. I am aware of elderly people who had to pay over €80 for taxis to attend hospital. This is unfair and unjust. The Minister should attend the House to resolve these issues.
I support the call for a debate on the libel laws. Much has been said both inside and outside the House, and especially by the media, about the freedom of people in both Houses to say what they feel they can say — in other words, they are referring to the privilege enjoyed by elected Members of the Oireachtas. It would appear, however, that total privilege pertains to certain sections of the press and that whoever is hurt in the interim is of little consequence to the people concerned.
On a number of occasions, I have called for a debate on bullying in schools and I realise that such debates have taken place. I would welcome another such debate since much new material has come to light in recent months.
It has been brought to my attention by a number of motorists — I have observed it myself — that while we all welcome people taking exercise, the wearing of reflective armbands by people out jogging is not sufficient because if they are wearing a top it may fall down over the armbands and they are not seen by motorists. It would be desirable if it were mandatory to wear a reflective vest.
Before I reply I wish to inform the House that a former Senator, Gordon Lambert, has passed away. The House will express sympathy tomorrow. I mention it now to give Senators an opportunity to prepare their contributions.
Senator Brian Hayes, Leader of the Opposition, asked for a debate on libel laws and standards in journalism. It is ironic that it took the invasion of the privacy of a member of the media to heighten the debate. The person in question was quite right to raise the issue because his privacy has been invaded. We could have bleated on forever and the issue would not have reached the level of coverage it reached when the other matter arose.
It is an outrage if anybody's privacy is invaded, whether the person is in public or private life. Such invasion is prurient and wrong. It belittles people to have their private lives laid out so that newspapers will sell, and that is what this is about. We had a debate on defamation in this House nine months ago. Now that the Minister is preparing proposals we should seek a further debate.
It is amazing that whenever we debate the issue of privacy and intrusion into people's privacy, it is linked to an expansion of the libel laws, which newspapers require. It do not know that that is necessarily an appropriate quid pro quo.
It certainly merits a debate in the House.
Senator O'Toole also raised the issue of intrusion into personal privacy by newspapers. The experience of the young man, details of whose private life were highlighted yesterday, was appalling. He was clearly a mature student, aged 29, but had got himself together and was going to Trinity College, and details of who he was and his parentage and so on were published in the newspapers. It is cruel. It is like putting people on a spit and turning them, and raking in the money when the newspapers sell.
Senator Brendan Ryan stated that he is strongly against the idea of regulating the media. However, he also states that if they will not regulate themselves, regulation will have to be imposed through legislation.
Senator Ryan asked why the director of the museum was barred from attending a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government.
Senator Dardis also raised the issue of privacy, defamation and the right to information. We are not trying to cocoon ourselves and prevent anybody writing anything about us. However, invasion into private life is wrong because writing about what people do in their private relationships is not in the public interest. I feel very strongly about this attack on people's dignity and self respect.
Senator Finucane changed tack and asked whether another batch of iodine tablets was due to be delivered. I cannot remember whether I got the first one.
Senator Mansergh stated that the gender imbalance in public appointments is beginning to thaw. Although I will not mention her name because it would not be correct to do so, we wish the new appointee to the post of Secretary General at the Department of Education and Science the best of good luck.
The Senator also sought a debate on immigrant labour laws. This matter was raised before Christmas at the time when a book worth debating was published by a group here. I will seek that debate.
Senator Bannon asked that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, come into the House to debate the privacy issue, and that the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, come in to debate the price of gas and electricity. Senator Morrissey called for a debate on tolling and the inappropriate siting of toll plazas on a particular road. Such a debate would be welcome. We have a toll expert here, Senator Ross.
For whom the bell tolls. A debate would be worthwhile. Senator Quinn suggested that a court should be included in the new prison complex, which seems sensible. I am indebted to my colleague, Senator Leyden, who has informed me that a new courthouse was built and is operational outside the gates of Castlerea Prison. I thank the Senator for that information.
Senator White wished to point out that incorrect information was published about her; she is not an investor in the new daily newspaper, Daily Ireland. Trevor Ringland said we should each make one small step per day to bring about peace and extend the hand of friendship.
Senator Ulick Burke raised the matter of the pensioner who contracted MRSA in hospital and was later told the medical card did not allow for the best treatment. He said it should be a policy of hospitals that if a person contracts MRSA in hospitals, he or she should then get the best of treatment.
Senator Minihan recounted an interesting item in the newspaper, which I invite all Members to read. I do not know what one might call it. A private investigative body is to look at all aspects of Ireland but I would like to know its terms of reference. While one would welcome investment in Ireland the gentleman who has the dollars has made very significant investments in universities, particularly in the University of Limerick where he has invested $11 million, and also in the peace process. I am wary of this investigative body if it does not say what it will look it, and I am particularly wary of the staffing arrangements.
Senator Norris said that Ireland on Sunday had described Charlie Bird as "fair game". I read that comment. I do not think so. When Charlie Bird investigates we may think he is intrusive but it is always about a public matter which is of interest.
Senator Norris raised the issue of the management of roads and speed bumps and also the fact that the American ambassador did not turn up yesterday. He was told not to attend.
Senator Feeney raised the issue of libel laws and privacy. She had raised the matter previously relating to the Anabel case. I will seek to have that debate next week. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, may seek to ventilate his ideas which would be good. Senator Coghlan raised the issue of deer, sheep and the culling of deer which he considers necessary. He suggests that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should deal first with the imported deer. Senator Maurice Hayes called for legislation in the area of privacy and behaviour. I think the time is ripe to do so. This issue should be moved on sharply and smartly, otherwise we are all diminished. He also said he was surprised by the withdrawal of Dr. Wallace from assisting at the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. Senator Feighan raised the issue of the libel laws. He raised also the issue of the withdrawal of the hospital transport service except for cancer and dialysis patients. I do not know if that is the case. I am sure it is not but I will inquire. Senator Glynn asked for a debate on the law of libel and total privilege and on bullying. We are hoping to have the Minister for Education and Science come to the House soon. I will request that the subject be included in her remarks.