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Category: Politics (Page 2 of 2)

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.

Of Gangs and Justice…

Today Dermot Ahern published the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009.  It’s the latest in a series of changes to criminal justice laws here in Ireland that have been published in the last couple of weeks.

Last month the minister published the Criminal Procedure Bill 2009 with removes the Double Jeopardy rule, under which a person cannot be tried twice for an offence for which they have been acquitted.  Under the proposed legislation there will be three exceptions to the rule; where new evidence becomes available, where a trial was “tainted” by intimidation of witnesses and perjury and where a judge gave a mistaken ruling on a point of law which subsequently led to an acquittal.

It’ll be very interesting to see if any familiar faces appear again in court if this legislation is passed.  There have been a couple of high profile murder acquittals in the past couple of years which I’m sure the gardai and the DPP would love to revisit if they can.

Today’s publication deals with another highly contentious issue – that of organised crime.  With gang violence a major problem in modern Ireland, gangland murder trials have become a fairly common occurrence.  You can always tell when there’s one coming up on a Monday morning because Court 1 suddenly has a garda checkpoint outside it and everyone’s bags are checked and pockets emptied.

Defendants like Gary Campion, convicted in April of the murder of “Fat” Frankie Ryan.  Campion is connected with the Dundon McCarthy gang in Limerick and was convicted in November 2007 of the murder of bouncer Brian Fitzgerald. Both these trials took place in Cloverhill Courthouse, a court where increased security is easier to arrange than in the historic Four Courts complex.

Under the new bill, which the Minister hopes to get passed into law before the Dail rises for the summer, those accused of gang crime, where there was a major problem with witnesses or juries being intimidated, could be tried by judge alone in the Special Criminal Court.

At the moment, the Special Criminal Court is reserved for paramilitary or terrorist crimes.  The idea of extending it’s use to include those involved in criminal gangs is not a new one.  Previous justice minister Michael McDowell had mooted it and there have been one or two of these cases tried there already.

In 1996, Brian Meehan, the only person tried for the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin, was convicted to life in the Special Criminal Court.   But there has always been a lot of opposition to the idea on the basis of civil liberties.  Almost as soon as it was published the Irish Council for Civil Liberties accused the bill of “trampling on the rule of law”.

I’ve heard arguments on both sides for the use of the Special Criminal.  I must admit though that when you’ve sat through a trial where witness after witness will barely admit to their name on the stand or changes their story at the last minute it’s easy to see the sense in a trial where gardai will be permitted to give evidence of what was claimed in these cases.  After all, is there that big a difference between some of the trials that have gone through the Special for those members of an “illegal organisation” and the facts of some of the cases that now take place under the gangland banner.

I remember being taught about the Diplock courts when I studied in Northern Ireland.  We were told that all offences that involved firearms were treated as “scheduled offences” and could be tried in the Diplocks.

I’m sure that we’ll hear all the arguments for and against the changes in the law when the legislation is debated in the next few weeks.  It’ll be a very interesting one to keep an eye on.

A Question of Immunity

I’ve not been in court for the past week or so.  Instead I’ve been working on The Novel.  At the moment I’m reading through a hard copy of the manuscript and editing in preparation for a full rewrite.  In practice this means my days involve not moving from whatever spot I park myself in the morning with occasion burst of movement to get food, water or any other basic need.

My days are counted in pages and chapters and my grasp on reality is, for the moment, slightly less than firm.

This morning I was on my way into town for groceries when I bumped into a colleague from the courts.  It feels like I’ve been away for months, even though it’s only been a week or so.

In my moments of resurfacing into the real world I’ve been watching the ongoing controversy of the judges’ pay cuts.  For any non Irish readers let me explain.  The Irish economy is rather bolloxed at the moment as you may have heard.  We’ve gone from being the poster child of economic boom to an illustration of how not to do things.  We have crashed and burned quite spectacularly since the new year.

The government desperately needs to save money to try and keep some kind of check on a spiralling deficit.  Consequently they are trying to persuade all public sector workers to agree to pay cuts and stop being such a strain on the national purse strings.

Now it would be easy to imagine that the Irish economy is almost entirely propped up by public sector workers who have job security the rest of us can only dream of, the strongest unions in the country and a bench marking process that was supposed to protect them from being worse paid than the private sector but has in many areas led to them being paid a lot more.  But this isn’t a post about public sector workers or rather it is about one particular kind of public sector workers.

Judges do not have to take a pay cut.  It’s in the constitution that they can’t be forced to.  So the government have asked them to make a voluntary cut…a move which has so far proved a not particularly popular option.

I can see why people are so upset about the failure of 129 out of the countries 148 judges to volunteer for the cut.  In a climate where there’s more bad news every day then the reluctance of a group who individually earn between €170,000 and €290,000 a year to make a gesture of solidarity is going to stick in most gullets.

But I can also see why they have constitutional protection in the first place.  Judges need to be impartial and should not be in a position where they are tempted to make political decisions based on financial, or other, pressure.  Justice should be impartial and it’s right that there should be some form of constitutional  protection for that.  The pay protection is there for the same reason as the protection from prosecution…because judges should not be vulnerable to any form of pressure when they are trying a case.

Now before everyone jumps on me I know that judges are human beings like the rest of us and are still public servants.  It might be easy to forget that when you see them sailing through the corridors of the Four Courts preceded by their tipstaff carrying an impressive staff to announce their presence.

I know a lot of people would like to see an end to that kind of pomp and circumstance but for the moment that’s the way things are and that’s an argument for another day.  It’ll be interesting to see how this one pans out.  I’ll be watching with interest.

A National Shame


Thousands of people took to the streets of Dublin today to show their outrage at the abuse meted out by the Catholic Church in institutions over the years.  Once the crowds had assembled outside Leinster House where the politicians were arguing about the worth of the Government, stories were told of how the abuse wrecked lives and calls were made for belated justice.

I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t with the marchers.  The husband was, that’s his photograph at the top of this post.  I was working on editing the book, sitting in a favourite hideaway where I can work in the centre of town in peace and quite.  This afternoon there was another sound that drowned out the buzzing of the bees, from Kildare Street a good ten minutes walk away I could hear the speakers at the march.  Their voices carried through megaphones, bounced between buildings, came through the air in a strange ebbing echo, fragments of their stories reaching me on the wind while the shouts of the massive crowd were only a murmur.  This is as it should be.  Their stories should ring out across town and the whole country should hang their heads in shame at the hurt and harm that so many children and pregnant women had to undergo at the hands of a too powerful church.

The first time I personally became aware of the scale of the abuse was when my mother was cast as the head nun in Louis Lentin’s 1996 documentary Dear Daughter.  She was staying with me while the series was filmed and told me about visiting the old Golden Bridge orphanage with some of the women who had suffered so horrifically there.  One of them, Christine Buckley, whose story Dear Daughter followed, is in the photograph above, in the front row of protesters.

My mother told me about the first day of filming, when she was in her nun’s costume for the first time.  She got ready for her entrance at the top of a flight of stairs.  The women who had once been inmates of that grim place were standing in the hall below watching the shot.  She told me that as she came down the stairs as Sister Xavieria, the woman who had been in charge of Goldenbridge in the 1950s, the women all gasped and became visibly upset.  The similarity was far too great, the memories too vivid.

Dear Daughter came three years before the infamous States of Fear series which detailed the abuse suffered by the children who had been sent to the infamous industrial schools.  It told of horrendous abuse perpetrated by the Sisters of Mercy nuns on the children in their care.

But now 13 years later we are still being shocked at the details of that abuse.  Every time there is another report further details of the cruel, sick, inhumane treatment suffered by some of the most vulnerable citizens of this country, come out and the people react with horror, as they should.  But in those thirteen years very little progress has been made.  The story just keep getting bigger and bigger, with more and more victims hurt by a church that should never have been allowed to have such a stranglehold on the country as a whole.

When the Ferns Report was published, detailing more than 100 allegations of child abuse in a single diocese, the same noises were made and the same outrage expressed.  Now we have the Ryan Report which goes into institutional abuse across the whole country but still there is a lack of decisive action on the part of the Government.  How many abusers are still walking free and how many victims still waiting for closure and justice?

The fact that one organisation, the Catholic church, was so twisted and corrupt as to allow and condone such wholesale abuse of the people in their care, is horrifying.  The fact that the State still seems to show deference to the religious rather than ordering them to face up fully to what they have done, is even worse.  There is something very, very wrong with a country in which a slavish subservience to those in power means blind eyes will be turned to whatever abuses the powerful ones choose to get up to.  Whether you are talking about the religious orders who had care of the countries children or the likes of Dr Michael Shine, struck off last year for abusing youngsters, there are those who will gather round them protectively, looking up to the priest or the doctor in adoration and hearing no ill.

Surely it’s time that justice was finally doles out?  There is no excuse, no mitigation to what these people did.  The laws of the land still apply.  But instead of being cast out, the religious are treated as a special case.  They were handed a ludicrously sweet deal when it came to compensating their victims and the news that they are to cough up more is greeted as if they are doing the country some kind of favour.

It can only be hoped that the voices raised this afternoon were heard and a change in attitude takes place.  But going on past evidence it’s going to take a lot more marches before anything changes.

Ireland Goes Left For Once…

Over the weekend Ireland bucked the trend throughout Europe and went to the left instead of the right when voting in the European elections.  Having got rather used to being permanently embarrassed and frustrated by the almost Thatcherite tendencies repeatedly shown by two successive Fianna Fail / PD coalitions and there having been bugger all in the way of change since the PDs imploded and Fianna Fail got into bed with a mixture of Greens and Independents, the results came as a pleasant surprise.

I remember being thoroughly depressed in France in 1998 (I was studying there at the time) when a news report called Ireland one of only three right wing states in the EU.  Of course a lot has changed in the last eleven years.  The Celtic Tiger has roared, scratched the furniture and finally slunk off taking a lot of what made Ireland a nice place to live with it.  We’re now pretty much where we started but at least this weekend we moved a step in the right direction.

While the rest of Europe stayed away from the polling stations, allowing the right and centre right to claim victories all over the place, here in Ireland we voted in higher numbers than usual and used the three votes at our disposal to show a resounding two fingers to the ruling parties.  Fianna Fail have been well and truly trounced and the Greens have been decimated.  After impressive gains in the local elections Fine Gael are the largest party in the State for the first time in 80 years (that’s pretty much the entire time the state has been in existence) and Labour are the biggest party in the capital.

In the small hours of this morning Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party activist and politician succeeded in shunting Fianna Fail’s Eoin Ryan out of his Euro seat and claiming it for himself.  It’s a marked contrast to the UK where this afternoon and evening there are demonstrations taking place across England in protest at the victory of two British National Party (far-right nationalists as the name suggests) Euro candidates.

I’ve watched the coverage of the last three general elections here in Ireland feeling increasingly frustrated at my fellow voters as again and again Fianna Fail sailed to victory even though the warning signs that what they were doing with the economy was not the best long term plan were there for all to see.  It might have taken over a decade and a global economic crash for the people to vote for an alternative but better late than never.

It remains to be seen whether a general election would get the same result but there’s a vote of no confidence in the government tomorrow so there’s a chance we’ll find out sooner rather than later.

A Web 2.0 Election

If you’ve worked as a journalist and ever covered an election count with all the boredom and rushes of excitement and pandemonium it’s hard not to get the politics bug.  Yesterday’s elections in Ireland have today provided some of the most interesting counts in years and then there’s the added ghoulish fascination with watching the Government parties take heavy hits.

I’m not working today, it’s been a while since I’ve been on the general news beat and so in line to get sent to a count centre but these days the Net provides so many ways to follow proceedings that you can have the information pretty much as soon as it’s felt on the count centre floor.  It’s at times like these that the immediacy of the social web and the speed and ease that information can now be transmitted and received really come into their own.

I’m a big fan of Twitter.  I’ve tweeted updates of trials I’ve followed in the past and have long been fascinated by the possibilities of the service as way of getting news.  Twitter has hit the headlines in the past when news of major events has spread like wildfire through the community, beating conventional news outlets.  The Mumbai attacks and the Hudson River plane crash were two cases in point and both garnered the site international press attention.

Today, watching the steady stream of chatter from Irish twitterers around the country, was like a virtual equivalent of covering a count.  You’re hearing the chatter, the gossip and the early tallys as well as the comments and the jokes.  Quite a different experience to watching the coverage on TV or listening to the radio.  Of course it helps that Irish twitters are a  media savvy lot and are passionate about what’s going on today.  This election was always going to get people interested with Government approval ratings plummeting and job losses hitting record highs every month.

I watch a lot of media types and bloggers so a fair few were down in the count centres which added to the atmosphere but this really was a day when Twitter came into it’s own.  These days Twitter is often my first port of call when I want to see how a story is developing, maybe it’s because it’s like having access to a wire service at home, but also because I know I can shout out a question and chances are someone will come back with the answer quicker than I could find it through more conventional means.  A day like today is absolutely ideal to see these strengths in action.

All over the country people were tweeting from count centres, giving updates often before they were available through the conventional media.

  1. Christine Bohan
    christinebohan Joe Higgins just elected to Fingal with a surplus of over one thousand #le09
  2. Simon McGarr
    Tupp_Ed RDS awash with Labour, triumphant. Other parties circumspect. #le09
  3. Suzy Byrne
    suzybie Fine Gael to move motion of no confidence in government next week #le09
  4. Emily Tully
    EmilyTully Pat the Cope Gallagher: “Its been a bad day for FF – we expected that” #le09

this quote was brought to you by quoteurl

This is the first time I’ve monitored a story like this entirely online.  I’ve been streaming Newstalk 106’s coverage which was excellent, and available after RTE radio had switched their attention to sport.  They had live coverage from the RDS count centre (the main centre in Dublin) with reports from around the country at regular intervals.  For a station with far smaller resources than RTE they really mobilised well and provided great coverage.

Irishelection.com also provided excellent coverage from the count centres with a live blog of election results which again rivalled the coverage provided by RTE.  It’s great to see online news services providing such great coverage of something like this – it opens up so many possibilities.

In previous elections the only constant coverage would have been RTE television, which is always excellent but it’s only one view.  Being able to follow so many different viewpoints gives a far rounder idea of what’s going on and if you’re slightly obsessive like me, it makes for a fascinating afternoon.

This election has been the first one that can truly be said to have been fought online.  During the campaign candidate after candidate took a leaf out of Obama’s book and fought the fight through Twitter and Facebook.  The list of Irish politicians on Twitter exploded with names like Joe Higgins, Ivana Bacik, Proinsias De Rossa and Eoin Ryan all seeking to woo the twitterverse.  Many of them also courted the Facebook generation with hastily elected pages once the fight had begun.

It seems fitting that their success or demise should be so comprehensively examined in the same places they sought to kiss virtual babies and press virtual flesh.  Certainly from now on the way elections are covered will never be the same.  The traditional Irish media might have been wary of  new fangled social networking in the past but it has finally come of age in Ireland.  This election, new media arguably beat old media when it came to rapidly getting news out there.  Irish election coverage was all the better for it.

Hard Not to Feel Just a Little Excited…

I wasn’t going to post about Obama’s inauguration today but it’s a bit hard to ignore.  I’ve watched a couple of inaugurations over the years but none of them quite like today’s.

I remember watching Bill Clinton being sworn, on an old 1960s black & white telly that was all I could afford at the time.  The Rainbow Coalition had just been voted in here, a combination of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left elected after Labour walked away from previous partners in government, Fianna Fail after a string of scandals, most notably the mishandling of prosecutions against paedophile priests.

Back then I was skint and on the dole but it all seemed so optimistic, finally walking away from conservatism, cronyism and corruption into a bright new future.  I remember watching Clinton’s inauguration from the big old iron bed I’d bought in a junk shop and, with the help of my boyfriend at the time sanded down and painted with Hammerite.

It was a particularly cold January that year and bed was usually the warmest place to sit to watch anything longer than half an hour.  It was a lovely flat, a big basement one bedroom with sole access to a rambling over grown garden but I remember it being very cold!

Fast forward eight years and it was all change; Democratic Left merged with Labour and Fine Gael seemed to have lost the knack of getting elected.  Over the course of Clinton’s two terms I had completed two college courses in journalism, split with both the boyfriend and the iron bed (I regret the loss of the bed) and met and married the Husband.

I remember arriving into work to write Internet news updates in the weeks after George W Bush had been elected to yet another story about hanging chads.  The whole election process in the States seemed murky and sordid.  Mind you things here had changed considerably as well.  The Celtic Tiger had been spawned and the centre right dream team of Fianna Fail and the PDs were slaves to Mammon.

Financially I could afford to put the fire on by the time Dubya came to power but the policies on either side of the Atlantic didn’t sit easily with me.  These were the days of the Teflon Taoiseach (Bertie Ahern) whose grinning face we seemed doomed to put up with for many years to come.  In a post 9/11 world the bogeyman seemed to lurk under every bed and dark shadows lurked behind all the glitz.

But today it’s all change again. After 8 years of wars and suspicion in the US and scandal and corruption in Ireland something really had to give.  Bertie jumped just before anyone could push and before the failing economy totally scuppered what little reputation he had left and Barack Hussein Obama has been sworn in today as the first black president of the United States.

Life is a little more scary these days with more responsibilities and less money.  After eight years I’m back at the freelancing, even if there have been a few steps up the ladder.  I don’t work in commercial radio anymore for a start!

Watching the ceremony it was hard not to be moved by the sense of optimism and hope that was being welcomed in.  Back when Clinton got the job I was in my twenties and optimism came so easily. These days I’m a lot more cynical. It’ll take more than a single day to right the harm done over the past eight years.

But today’s not the day for talking about that.  I’ll join with the general consensus today in wishing President Obama well and hoping he can live up to the task he has before him…listening to his inauguration speech it sounds like he’s going to have a pretty good stab at it.

Here in Ireland we’ve a way to go yet but today it feels like a return to more caring, socially responsible way of life may, just may be possible. I’m not belittling the economic mess we find ourselves in but we couldn’t go on the way we were.  Ireland was in danger of losing any soul or sense of self it had for a crazy chase after crass commercialism and greed.

Today I’m just very glad to have witnessed a piece of history and remembered the past.  Quite frankly I’d much rather live in a world where America is a benevolent patrician force rather than a hulking bully wielding a big stick.  Now we seem to have got that one sorted maybe we can get Ireland to cop on as well.

By the way, if you missed the inauguration you can find the text of Obama’s speech here.  I’m off to make dinner now safe in the knowledge that tonight the world seems like a nicer, warmer place for once.  Long may it continue.

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