NEW laws granting greater privacy rights to household names, even in public places, were unveiled by Justice Minister Michael McDowell last night.
The proposed Privacy Bill will go in tandem with a reform of libel laws which includes some stronger defences for media investigations, but also provides for a press council, which will be set up — but not operated — on a statutory basis.
The Justice Minister insisted the moves represented a “two-way street” granting the press wider legal protection, while it also safeguarded the rights of individuals.
Frank Cullen of the Press Industry Steering Committee (PISC), which has been in discussion with the Justice Minister on how a Press Council could operate in Ireland, welcomed the Defamation Bill, but stated privacy issues should be handled by the new body and not legislation.
“The PISC believe that privacy — as it relates to the media — is best dealt with by the Press Council and not by legislation. It should be dealt with on a case by case basis,” he said.
Mr McDowell said privacy laws were needed in response to a landmark European Court of Human Rights ruling in favour of Princess Caroline of Monaco after she complained about being photographed in a café.
It is believed Mr McDowell faced intense lobbying from Fianna Fáil Cabinet colleagues, including Transport Minister Martin Cullen, for tougher privacy legislation to balance the first comprehensive reform of libel laws since 1861.
Mr McDowell said the press would benefit from parts of the proposed Defamation Bill such as provisions that those bringing defamation actions will have to swear an affidavit, the offer of an apology will not be considered an admission of liability, and a defence of fair and reasonable publication in a matter of public importance will be created.
“The range of defences provided under the bill explicitly recognises the vital and necessary role of bona fide news-gathering,” he said.
The defences outlined in the Defamation Bill will be available to publications who sign up to a new Press Council, which will draw six of its directors from inside the industry while the remaining seven will be “public interest” directors.
The European Court of Human Rights decision gave individuals in all EU countries the same level of privacy rights. The court stressed the fundamental importance of protecting private life and found that everyone, including people known to the public, had a “legitimate expectation” that their private life would be protected.