With the recent controversial decision by the Irish Daily Star to publish nude pictures of Kate Middleton, the Minister for Justice has called for a change to Ireland’s privacy laws. Colm Egan examines the consequences of such a decision.
“The Germans will love it, the French will ignore it and the Italians and Irish will be too chaotic too enforce it”, goes the line from the seminal British sitcom Yes, Minister, accurately reflecting the British opinion of the Irish, which has lingered since the days when the Boyne was a river, not a battle. This opinion has undoubtedly died a death in recent years but the behaviour of the Irish Daily Starin publishing the controversial pictures of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge is grounds for such opinions to re-surface.
The now infamous phone hacking scandal of News International has ensured the British tabloid press will forever be tarred with a particularly brutal brush but the recent Kate Middleton defamation has pointed to the fact that the problem is in fact more widespread than one may have hoped. The actions of our very own Irish Daily Star has rendered the view that a tabloid media void of ethics was a problem unique to Britain spectacularly spurious.
What the Irish Daily Star has published is no doubt horrifically lacking in moral judgement and is simply another example of how low the gutter press will go to sell papers. While British papers try to position themselves as morally upright for refusing to publish the images, this stance has been rightfully admonished by other British media sources as simply requesting praise for something which should be automatic. Publishing the pictures should be considered completely unthinkable. The Irish Daily Star doesn’t agree and in the process have thus opened the debate on media censorship in Ireland.
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has responded to this controversy by advocating the introduction of stricter privacy laws in the media, and while on the face of it this may seem like a reasonable course of action and would undoubtedly be popular among vast swathes of the population that doesn’t mean it would have the desired effect for two reasons. Firstly, the law of unintended consequences may ensure morally upright journalists are constricted more than their fallible counterparts and secondly, privacy laws are notoriously difficult to perfect and more often than not are manoeuvred around.
Shatter has spent much of the last week stressing the fact that it is of imperative importance that he, as Minster for Justice, clamps out unacceptable aspects of the print media, to do so too forcibly would run the risk of handicapping a profession which has also done a lot of good work, work which struggles for column inches at times like this.
Just two years ago the revelations of the Pakistani cricket team’s spot fixing scandal highlighted all that was good about journalism and its capacity to put a stop to outrageous behaviour, rather than initiating it themselves. The proof was sublimely collected by News of the World journalists, professionally published and justice was efficiently brought to bear. The world was a better fairer place, thanks to good journalism.
The second point is illustrated perfectly by the Leveson inquiry and its various intricacies. While it is obvious that numerous codes of ethics and moral standards have been smashed by those embroiled in the controversy, the simple fact that the enquiry is taking such a long time is evidence enough of the difficulty faced by legislators to compose laws which pin down perpetrators efficiently.
Indeed, even France, a country renowned for what are considered strong privacy laws, found itself in hot water last week, as it was in fact one of the first countries to have the Middleton pictures published. It is a criminal offence to publish information on a person’s personal life without the permission of the person in question in the country which is home to such illustrious titles as Le Monde and Le Figaro, but this legislation has proved itself in effect worthless during the last week. Surely this is reason enough that, even if Mr. Shatter is successful in bring an impressive set of laws to cabinet on the matter next year, this is far from a guarantee that they will actually result in a more strictly regulated sector.
Advocates of stricter laws may believe that ruining the lives of people, such as victims of the phone hacking scandal, is reason enough for vast changes to be made. A price can’t be put on people’s lives and while the freedom of the journalistic profession may be tempered somewhat, this is a small price to pay for the ensuring the scandals of the past aren’t repeated.
Social media becomes more central to how news is broadcast, as websites such as Storyful illustrate, now more than ever stricter guidelines and laws are needed to restrain in ensure the accurateness and morally acceptable nature of news stories which pop up on our newsfeeds and Twitter accounts. However, as we continue to struggle to keep a handle on print media, it seems unlikely that we will be capable of marshalling the internet effectively either, at least not in the near future.
Mr. Shatter’s proposals may have good intentions, but if they could put the good work of journalists in jeopardy, maybe proposals is how they should stay.