Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Defamation Act

Poetry and profanity–a couple of thoughts on Miggeldy and blasphemy

Michael D. at Arbour Hill

So Ireland has voted to #keepthepoet and take blasphemy out of the constitution. Miggeldy will have another seven years in the Aras. For any non-Irish readers I should explain, Miggeldy is the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. Miggeldy is an affectionate pet name for this president used widely by Irish people after a child’s school essay misspelling his name went viral some years ago. The name is a joke on how the president has been referred to for years, especially in the West of Ireland, as a popular left-leaning politician and minister. Back then he was universally known as Michael D. rather than as Minister or Deputy Higgins. It’s fitting for someone who has spent his entire career arguing for equality and fairness. Michael D. was the politician everyone would stop on the street to say hello to. Miggedly is the president who loves his dogs and is immortalised in a popular tea cosy. He’s also the president who had a pleasingly humanistic inauguration ceremony the first time round and who’s official speeches have made me repeatedly proud of one of my countries on a regular basis over the past seven years.

Since Mary Robinson took the job back in 1990 the Irish presidency has become a very aspirational role. The presidency was where the Irish people could try out new ideas for size. There have been two female presidents but no female Taoiseach for example. Seven years ago Ireland could have had their first openly gay president in the shape of Senator David Norris but instead voted for their first humanist president, someone who’s further left than the majority of TDs. Michael D. was elected before Ireland’s historic referendum votes in favour of marriage equality and to remove the 8th amendment banning abortion. The winds of change might have already been blowing but once again, it was the presidency that tried out the idea to look for a fit. I’ve often thought that in recent years the presidency has become the face Ireland wants to show the world, a “good room” in human form to be brought out for visitors and kept under plastic covers the rest of the time – and we’re almost back to tea cosies.

This election campaign has been a bit extreme though. Coming so soon after the abortion vote it was always going to be. That vote revealed a lie that had been told to liberal Ireland for a generation – there are more of us than you. That vote proved the lie and gave a breakdown. Of course there are complexities in any vote result, a variety of reasons why people may vote this way or that, but the abortion vote, like marriage equality before it, showed the breakdown to be  somewhere in the region of a 60/40 split. You see Ireland, like many other countries has always had two faces. There is conservative, Catholic Ireland – the country of greys and blacks, right wing, dogmatic tendencies and an ultra Catholic tone – and there’s liberal Ireland – the land of saints and scholars, dark cynical humour, dazzling discoveries. These two countries have always existed in theory. In practice Ireland as she really is is a balance of the two. The question is always what is the balance. It’s the balance we glimpse in referendum results. Divorce in 1992 told us it was 50/50. Since marriage equality we know it’s shifted a bit but you can never be certain.

So when it was announced that Miggeldy was in fact going to seek a second term (he had always said he would only do the one) they all came out of the woodwork. That’s how there were early stories about famine theme parks and anti-vaxxers and Dragons Den. Actually it all got very odd. In the end there was only one other contender. Peter Casey managed to garner around a third of the vote by dog whistling anti traveller sentiments and being generally reactionary. The last 24 hours have seen a flurry of articles explaining that Casey is not the Irish Trump. He’s not – but his comments about travellers did appeal very neatly to that section of Irish society who are reeling from discovering that they don’t have 50 % of the vote anymore, that they are now in the minority. They didn’t vote for Miggeldy the first time round, they didn’t vote for marriage equality and they didn’t vote to repeal the 8th. That lot have always been there, they just can’t say they’re in the majority anymore. It isn’t that long ago when Casey may well have won. This isn’t a sign that Ireland has a growing rump of right wing sentiment, it’s just an indication of where they are.

Which brings me to blasphemy. As well as the presidential election there was also a referendum on whether or not to remove “blasphemous” from the statement “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” This hadn’t been a major problem until 2009 when a clause on blasphemy was added to the Defamation Act, thus defining it in law. Now it might have been a pretty useless law that was ultimately unprosecutable but it was still put in there. It seems to have just been there to catch out comics with Tommy Tiernan inadvertently triggering the damn thing in the first place and Stephen Fry falling foul of it and ultimately setting the ball rolling to get rid of it. Well kind of. Most of the coverage of this blasphemy referendum has referred to the Irish people voting to remove the law on blasphemy. They’re not. The law will still stand but at least now politicians can no longer argue it’s a gap that needs filling and hopefully speedily remove the clause from the Defamation Act.

So having Miggeldy for another seven years is a good thing. Having further confirmation that liberal Ireland is still in the majority is a good thing – even if there is still a third of the population who would vote hard right conservatism. Given Ireland’s history this is actually a pretty good figure. There’s still a very long way to go but at least Ireland has decided to put a progressive face to the world.

To Defame or Not to Defame

On Monday Justice Minister Dermot Ahern announced that comments posted on social networking sites could be defamatory.  The papers the following day were full of headlines that warned users of Facebook and Twitter to be careful what they said because they could now be guilty of libel.

This is all fine and dandy but for one thing. They always could be.  Libel covers any defamatory material that is written, printed or otherwise permanently represented. Surely any first year journalism student could work out that just as letters, emails, blogs or graffiti can be defamatory so can tweets or Facebook updates.

We should all be aware that what we write online is no different from something written in a newspaper or set down permanently in any other way.  I have to be aware that anything I write online about the trials I cover is not going to land me in contempt of court just as I have to be careful with any copy I write for newspapers, magazines or books.  Defamation is no different.

I understand that there are millions of people now writing stuff online who have not been taught a basic primer in defamation law that the average journalist receives in college but surely most people have a rough idea of what libel is?

The minister’s comments at the second annual report of the Press Ombudsman on Monday evening were indicative of a widespread assumption that online words somehow exist in a special alternative reality that needs special laws and special rules.  The defamation laws are not suddenly applying to stuff that has been blissfully unregulated since it came into being, they always did.  If online material is permanent then surely it is covered by the standard libel definition, just as letters to a third party have always been, just as graffiti has always been and just as blogs and emails are and have been proved to be in recent cases here in Ireland.

Yes the spectacular growth of social networking has given a lot of new ways to libel people but it beats me why this should come as a shock to anyone.  The idea that online communities are in some way private, or at least give that impression, is often bandied around as as reason for why people are so cavalier about basic common sense online but this doesn’t really wash.  You can commit libel in a letter to your mum…if you’re talking about a third party and the letter is put lovingly away in a box.  It’s the making of defamatory comments to a third party that breaks the law.  That could be over the counter in your local shop (talking the old offence of slander), over a pint in your local pub or standing with semaphore flags on your roof. 

We should all be familiar with the basic idea of defamation.  Now we all spend so much time writing down our defamatory thoughts, rather than cheerfully slandering people with gay abandon, we all need to be more aware of libel.

It’s something that internet forums have long needed to deal with, as has anyone who has to monitor comments on a website or blog and it’s not something that only journalists need to understand.

I remember being taught media law in college.  Our lecturer came from the assumption that there was a lot we would already know.  When did people stop assuming that? When did people start thinking that new rules applied?  There are a lot of things that do need to be looked at afresh in light of modern technological changes, things that will have to be decided in the courts at some stage because they’ve never existed before.  Defamation isn’t one of them.

Maybe it’s about time that social media sites or blogging platforms started to give people signing up a primer on the legal issues they’ll be facing.  It could be something you had to work through before you could finish signing up…like reading the Terms and Conditions always is. 

Commentators are fond of saying that we’re all journalists now.  No we’re not, but we will all need to learn how not to defame people.  It’s something we should all already know.  It’s hardly rocket science.  The penny is going to have to drop sometime that social networks are not some magic special case where the normal rules do not apply.  It’s common sense.  It shouldn’t be such a big shock that it makes headlines.

A Busy Year…

It’s the last day of the year and the end of the decade to boot.  Time to take stock and look back over the last twelve months with mixed feelings…whatever else 2009 has been it’s seldom been boring.  There have been opportunities and set backs but on the whole I think we’re going out with a bang.  It may have been used as a curse in the past but I’d rather live in Interesting Times than dull ones!

In terms of the courts it’s been a very interesting year.  In terms of both trials, and legislation that will affect both how I do my job and what happens in the trials I cover, there’s been a lot fitted into the past 12 months.  I’ll try at touch the main points but feel free to comment if I’ve missed anything.  I’ve linked back to my posts on the subject where they exist.  With the longer trials the name of both the victim and the accused should be prominent in the tag cloud to the right.

The year started off quietly enough.  In January Brian McBarron pleaded guilty to the murder of his girlfriend, nurse Sara Neligan, daughter of the prominent former consultant surgeon, Mr Maurice Neligan.  Sara had planned to leave him so he stabbed her.  He told gardai “she belonged to me.”

The same month serial child rapist Philip Sullivan had his life sentence overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

In February, a familiar face, Kathleen Mulhall, mother of the infamous Scissor Sisters, pleaded guilty to concealing evidence about her daughters gruesome murder of their mother’s Kenyan boyfriend, Farah Swelah Noor.  She was sentenced in May to five years in prison.

March began with the passing into law of the Legal Services Ombudsman Act 2009 setting up the office of Legal Services Ombudsman to oversee complaints by and about members of the legal profession.  The office will also be responsible for making the public aware of what complaint procedures are available against solicitors and barristers.

In the Central Criminal Court a run of high profile murder trials began in March with that of Gerald Barry, the brutal killer and rapist who would be sentenced to life for the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo.

The Barry trial was swiftly followed by that of wife killer David Bourke.  Bourke had murdered his wife, Jean Gilbert, when she left him for an old flame.

In April we entered the strange world of Ronnie Dunbar, the man on trial for the murder of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.  Melissa herself was a waif like figure throughout the trial as we heard about her infatuation with Dunbar, also known as McManus.  We heard how her short unhappy life spiralled out of control in a few months in 2006.  Dunbar was eventually found guilty of her manslaughter and later sentenced to a life term.

After that run of trials things got a lot quieter in the courts.  During the summer break I was working on my first novel and a world away from murder.  During July though a rash of legal legislation was written into law that will definitely have an impact on the day job.

First up was the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act which controversially allows for covert surveillance to be used in prosecutions.  This kind of evidence will undoubtedly become a major part of any gangland trials that come to court from now on.

A couple of weeks later the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act introduced new laws governing the owning and use of guns.  Aimed at tackling violent crimes it also introduced new laws on knives and gave gardai greater search powers.

Hot on it’s heels came two highly discussed Acts.  The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act allowed for gangland trials to take place without a jury in the Special Criminal Court (previously used only for paramilitary trials).  The three Criminal Justice Acts will all have an effect on how gangland trials are conducted…it’ll be interesting.

Passing into law the same day as the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act was the long awaited Defamation Act. I’m not going to go into a full analysis of the new Act, which replaces the 1961 Act but there are a few points of difference.  Slander and libel are no more, they’ve been replaced by the cover all term of defamation – which’ll make life easier for anyone studying law as part of a journalism course in the future.  The act also allows a judge to direct a jury on the amount of damages they can award and allows the defendant to make submissions to mitigate damages.

But where the Defamation Act really hit the headlines was the controversial clause that makes blasphemy a criminal offence for the first time in Ireland.  We’ll just have to wait and see if that clause has any practical implications but many people felt that simply writing in what is essentially a religious law in the 21st Century was a dangerous step backwards.

The biggest development of year, court reporting wise was probably the completion of the place where I will be working from now on.  The Criminal Courts of Justice are now finished and they’ve been given a test run and we’ll all be moving in once the new term starts in a little more than a week.

New Criminal Courts of Justice photo by Michael Stamp all rights reserved.

To go with the new courts a new piece of legislation, the Courts and Court Officers Act was brought in in November, to make changes to bail for those on trial and also to make provisions for those in custody in the same circumstances.  A final bit of t-crossing and i-dotting before the big move.

So that’s a round up of the trials and legislation that shaped my year.  2010 is getting off to a lively start with the trial of Eamonn Lillis, accused of the murder of his wife, former Bond girl Celine Cawley.  It’ll be the first big trial in the new courts so it looks like there will be more interesting times ahead.

I’ll be back tomorrow looking forward instead of back.  Until then, a very happy new year to all my readers.  I hope 2010 brings you everything you’re looking for.


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