All this week I’ve been working through a paper edit of The Novel. The next stage is to add all the changes into the actual document and write a few extra bits and pieces that need to be worked in. I’ve been working pretty intensively, far faster than I would have if I was writing a draft or actually typing up changes. It means that I’ve been totally zoned out for the whole week. I resurfaced long enough to notice that Michael Jackson had died, at some stage last night but apart from that…
Because I’ve been working with a hard copy of The Novel I haven’t been on-line much at all for the past few days, with the result that this blog has suffered somewhat. I didn’t, for example comment on Wednesday about Monica Leech being awarded record libel damages against the Evening Herald.
For any readers not familiar with the story, Ms Leech is a PR woman who worked in an extremely well paid capacity for the Department of the Environment. This was back in 2002 and 2003, when the Government purse strings were not quite so tightly knotted. Things blew up in 2004 when several papers printed articles suggesting that she had only got the contract because she was having an affair with the then Minister.
There have been several libel actions in the wake of these claims. In 2007 she won €250,000 after allegations against her voiced by a caller to the Liveline show on RTE radio. She failed to successfully sue the Irish Independent for printing the allegations from the show. Last November she was awarded €125,000 against the Irish Mail and the Mail on Sunday.
This week was the daddy of all awards. A High Court jury awarded her…wait for it…€1.9 million against the Evening Herald.
Now in Ireland, a jury in a libel trial can name a figure they think should be awarded to the complainant. It’s not like the UK, where the judge gives them a ball park figure and they make their decision around that.
Being accused of having an affair in the national press might be a deeply traumatic experience, especially if it’s not true but is the damage worse than, say, someone who has been paralysed in a horrific car accident, or someone disabled for life after a problem at their birth? With the proceeds from her various actions Ms Leech now has enough money to avoid the media spotlight for quite a while should she choose to.
€1.9 million is an extremely large figure and one can’t help see it as highly punitive rather than simply a reparation for harm caused. There has been a lot of comment this week about the size of the award and what it means for the Irish media.
It does seem ridiculous that in a criminal trial a judge imposing a sentence for a crime that does not automatically carry a life sentence must come up with the term according to strict guidelines. Each sentence must be decided along a sliding scale of seriousness within the definition of the offence. The judge must arrive at a figure then take into account any mitigating circumstances that would lessen the term. If he doesn’t arrive at a sentence this way there is a pretty good chance it will simply be overturned on appeal.
However, a libel judge doesn’t have any sliding scale. There may well be one but he doesn’t share it with the jury who are sitting in judgement. So twelve people who have probably never set foot in a court of law before are allowed to come to a decision unfettered by any rules or case law.
I’ve written in the past here about some of the bizarre things juries can get up to. I’ve seen them fail to reach a unanimous decision when both sides of barristers were in absolute agreement (a case of not guilty of murder by reason of insanity for a classic paranoid schizophrenic). There have been numerous occasions when a verdict has come as a shock and I’ve wondered if I was sitting in the same trial as those twelve.
Yet this unpredictable beast is let loose when it comes to civil damages. All their prejudices against the media are left to run riot when they are not allowed to when a person’s liberty is at stake. I know that a jail term is different from a fine and a criminal trial is very different from a civil one but a jury is a jury.
I’m not saying that Monica Leech wasn’t wronged against or that certain sectors of the press might have pushed the story further than they should but lottery sized libel wins don’t help. They just weaken the press. Stories that need to be reported go uncommented on. The threat of such massive payouts will frighten papers into inaction.
Any country needs a strong press. Of course it should be an ethical press but it shouldn’t be afraid to pursue stories that might upset the great and good. Because sometimes the great and good are doing things to the public detriment. That’s what the press are for…and there’s been plenty of evidence in Ireland how much we need one like that.