Keep that law out

Observations on privacy

Anyone cheered by the recent libel ruling in the House of Lords, giving journalists a limited defence for acting in the public interest, should prepare for some dispiriting news from Ireland. A controversial new privacy bill is expected to go before the Senate this autumn, and opponents fear the worst. They say it is politically motivated, has been hastily written, and is being published without any public debate. It poses a serious threat to press freedom on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Introduced in July by the deputy prime minister, Michael McDowell, in a package of proposed changes to the country's defamation law, the bill gives public figures a greater right to privacy. Specifically, it bans the publication of their letters, diaries or medical records, the disclosure of documents given to a third party without consent, and surveillance - broadly defined to include listening to or watching an individual.

Critics say the bill could cripple the press, and that investigative journalism in particular may suffer. True, the proposals include a four-part test for legitimate news-gathering: to quash a breach of privacy claim, a publication must prove its disclosure of the information obtained was in good faith, to discuss a matter of public importance, for the public benefit, and fair and reasonable. But public figures who feel harassed by reporters will simply cut them off at source, says Frank Cullen of the National Newspapers of Ireland.

"All they have to do is get an injunction in a closed court and put the brakes on the investigation, preventing the newspaper from obtaining the very information it needs to meet the test," he explains. Indeed, revelations that Bertie Ahern accepted thousands in loans from business friends when his marriage collapsed could have been quashed by the proposed law.

The effect would be felt beyond Ireland. Many UK newspapers publish Irish editions and, under the proposed law, would also face eleventh-hour court orders and risk being dragged through the courts by disgruntled celebrities and politicians. So, too, would foreign publications sold in Ireland or accessible online there.

In fact, the expansion of the internet is being pleaded in defence of the bill. Databases containing increasing volumes of personal information, such as bank details and email records, are vulnerable to abuse, while the explosion of citizen journalism, thanks to camera phones, blogs and websites such as YouTube, has severely diminished the private sphere.

"There is a cattle market for salacious stories, and all too often the press acts with impunity," says Paul Tweed, a Belfast lawyer who recently represented Britney Spears against the National Enquirer. Nonsense, says Cullen. "It will merely protect those who want to keep information out of the public eye," he warns.

McDowell may have included the bill in his reform package as a sop to three opposition members who have recently had their private lives investigated by the press. But you can be sure that all eyes will be on Ireland to see how well the law works. Don't rule out its migration across the Irish Sea.