Why the future of the media lies in its most recent past
One of the most egregious examples was in relation to the pop manager Louis Walsh, whom the Irish edition of the Sun libelled 18 months ago by publishing a false allegation that he had sexually assaulted a man in a Dublin club.
Walsh had pleaded with two senior Sun editors in London to hold off so that the club’s CCTV footage could confirm his innocence. Without any evidence to support it, however, the Sun ran the story.
When the footage proved the allegation was untrue, the accuser became the accused and was subsequently jailed for making a false statement to the Garda. The Sun’s failure to apologise to Walsh even then gave a flavour of the empire’s intransigence even when faced with inevitable loss. Refused a stay on a discovery order in Walsh’s civil case, the Sun finally apologised unreservedly last month, paying him €500,000 damages and sparing the public whatever delights discovery might have unearthed.
The editor in Dublin who handled the story, Michael McNiffe, had for more than three years been one of the 13 members of the Press Council of Ireland and, as such, would have considered a wide range of complaints about press behaviour. He retired from the council three months before the story about Walsh was published. In October, after seven years in charge of the Irish Sun, he stepped down.
Even though the Republic and Australia have robust media regulators, the behaviour of Southern Cross Austereo and News Corporation suggests their deterrent effect is limited. The barrister Gavin Bonnar, who worked on Walsh’s libel case, suggests that in an ideal world a rebalancing of privacy rights, financial penalties as suggested by Leveson and a mechanism of prior notification that involved an independent-minded person sifting evidence before publication could prevent incidents such as the Irish Sun’s. Such a scenario is unlikely to materialise, but a debate about the right to privacy would be a useful start.
The day after the Irish Sun splashed with “Louis probed over ‘sex attack’ on man in loo”, the British mothership led with “Simon Cowell: I back Louis Walsh 100 per cent”, ostensibly supportive but only adding to the damage. Since the case was settled, the mothership has made friendly overtures to Walsh. That libel thing? Nothing personal: just business.
Fintan O’Toole is on leave