A gag that’s not funny… and is a threat to democracy

Sunday Tribune, April 5

Picture this: Bertie Ahern picks up the Sunday Tribune, sees a portrait of himself in the nude on page one and immediately despatches his art dealer with a brown envelope to buy it. Bertie doesn’t want an unflattering picture of himself in the public domain. The only aras he wants the public to connect him with is the one in the Park.
Plausible? Highly. True? Unfortunately not. The preceding scenario formed a newspaper’s April Fool’s gag last week and I’m not ashamed to admit that I fell for it. That’s the thing about Bertie – you wouldn’t put anything past him. For a man who loves the limelight, he’s fiercely protective of his privacy. He doesn’t like the papers showing him up. That is probably why, under his stewardship, the VAT on newspapers rose to 13.5% – the highest in Europe (Britain has zero VAT). It probably also explains why his administration published a Privacy Bill in 2006 to curb the power of the press. Naughty press, Fianna Fáil will learn youse.
That bill was subsequently ‘parked’ to give the now year-old Press Council time to prove itself effective at dealing with media complaints. Last week, another Ahern – Dermot – announced that he is going to introduce the legislation. Why? Because “there seems to be a growing disregard for the privacy of the individual”. Note the word “seems”. According to who? Who has been calling for a privacy law? Was it Dermot Ahern himself?
Ahern knows the value of privacy. For example, the equality minister now knows it’s better to keep his views on homosexuals private. Back in 1993 he agreed with Fine Gael’s Brendan McGahon that gays were deviants. Once the press highlighted this, he was branded homophobic.
His dealings with the family of terror chief Michael McKevitt might have been kept private if the press hadn’t reported that he forwarded an email on his behalf to Michael McDowell. The press hasn’t done Ahern any favours. Could this be personal?
The new law forbids “surveillance”, “stalking/harassment” and “disclosure of documentation” – all legitimate weapons in the journalist’s armoury. Documents that can’t be published will include publicly available material from, among others, county council planning files and the Land Registry Office. Without the disclosure of such documents, the extent of planning corruption in north Dublin may never have come to light.
Without “stalking”, the documentary that led to the beef tribunal might not have been made. In that programme, journalist Susan O’Keeffe approaches beef baron Larry Goodman for a comment as he is leaving mass and pursues him until he drives off. Under the new rules, Goodman could have got an injunction and halted production. Similarily, Brendan O’Brien’s legendary “stalking” of Martin ‘The General’ Cahill might not have been aired. The print labours of Veronica Guerin would have been hampered too.
With the new restrictions, Seanie Fitz might be able to get an injunction against a newspaper revealing that he’s enjoying a nice holiday in Spain.
The new law states that invasions of privacy are justified when they’re in good faith, the public interest and fair. Sounds reasonable? It isn’t. It’s ‘Catch 22’: for an invasion of privacy to be justified, you must invade someone’s privacy to prove it. However, you can’t invade someone’s privacy because that’s not justified without proof. A reporter who is stymied by an injunction can be found to have broken the rules just because he was unable to finish his investigation.
So, again, who has asked for this privacy law? Take a guess. Last year, Dublin City University released a study which revealed that two-thirds of all privacy complaints over the past 25 years had come from public figures, chiefly politicians.
The hypocrisy at the heart of this law is staggering. In February, minister Ahern was forced to introduce new European legislation requiring telephone operators to store details of all calls made for two years. Under Irish law, they had to store them for three years. All your calls, emails and internet usage are logged by the government. How about a privacy law against that?
Ahern’s announcement last week was all the more telling because of its timing. It came just weeks after this newspaper broke the Brian Cowen portraits story. This was a clear threat to the press. It was a slap on the wrist for getting uppity and a direct attack on the fundamental right to freedom of information.
We don’t need this law. The press ombudsman is doing a good job of correcting rogue journalism. It’s independent, fast and binding. As it’s free, the public aren’t put off complaining by legal costs. That’s good for democracy, unlike privacy laws and VAT on newspapers.
This brings us back to Bertie, as it was his administration that dreamed up this nonsense. When I read the April Fool’s portrait gag about him last week, it struck me that the words ‘Ahern’ and ‘gag’ were entirely appropriate given the decision to silence the press.
Forget about Cowen: Bertie deserves to be hung in the National Gallery.
I’ll start building the scaffold…

dave@davekenny.com

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