Privacy laws - Be wary of politics and privacy mix

Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte has fired a shot across the bows of some of his Fine Gael colleagues in relation to reform of our privacy laws. Fine Gael ministers have been pushing the idea of statutory regulation of the media in recent months.

RTÉ’s handling of the Fr Kevin Reynolds affair exposed a serious mistake on the part of RTÉ, but the organisation was slapped with heavy financial penalties that most of the Irish media would find crippling, and this is likely to serve as a much more effective deterrent to the press than any legislation.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter stated that, as a result of the Irish Daily Star’s publication of topless photographs of Kate Middleton, he is looking at reviving privacy legislation that the previous Fianna Fáil-led administration was considering. The controversy surrounding that publication was not really prompted by the privacy issue so much as commercial posturing by the British element of the joint venture company behind that newspaper.

The reluctance of the communications minister to get involved in the introduction of legislation as a result of that controversy is therefore commendable. He suggested legislation would be like “taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut”. It would certainly be counterproductive in terms of free expression and the role the media should play in a free society.

One judicial tribunal after another has clearly demonstrated that, if anything, our legislation has been too restrictive, because it has not properly facilitated the media in engaging in the kind of rigorous coverage necessary in a democratic society. There have undoubtedly been media excesses in Britain that were exposed in the Leveson Report, published in Nov 2012. That inquiry was sparked by telephone hacking at the News of the World. There was unwarranted and indefensible intrusion into the privacy of citizens in Britain, but Mr Rabbitte has noted that press regulation has been working well in this country.

The more comparable scandals in this state were the result of government hacking into the telephones of journalists. Even though there was a paucity of documentation in recently released state papers in relation to 1982, many people will be well aware of the Haughey administration’s outrageous abuse in tapping telephones of Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold.

Of course, political opponents of Fianna Fáil highlighted this sordid affair at the time. In the process they conveniently overlooked the fact a previous Fine Gael-Labour government placed unjustifiable taps on the phones of Vincent Browne and Tim Pat Coogan.

It is not just the communications minister but the electorate as a whole which should be highly sceptical of the politicians of any party seeking to introduce a privacy bill without a clear and demonstrable need for such legislation. In the absence of such a need, the measure will more likely be just a political diversion to detract attention from government failings.

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