Media silence on privacy makes case for Shatter's law
Our independent model of press regulation, dominated by the industry, isn’t working, writes NOEL WHELAN
I HAVE to admit that when I first saw them, I was drawn to the photographs. They were compelling, powerful and well-taken. As I focused on them, however, I regretted doing so, realising they were intrusive and exploitative.
They captured a moment which, although it occurred within sight of a camera, should have been the most intimate of private moments. We should not have been able to see it. They shouldn’t have been taken. They should not have been published.
I speak not of the topless photographs of a British royal carried in the Irish Daily Star last weekend but of the pictures of a grieving Irish father published on the front page of that paper and many others three weeks ago.
On Monday, September 3rd, a father in a Cork town was told to come to the home of his eight-year-old son, where something terrible had happened. He got this word some time after 9.30am. He arrived to discover his son had been found dead in his bed and that the child’s mother had been taken to hospital.
That father then apparently spent a long time walking around aimlessly in shock outside the house. He wept, he paced, he muttered: “It’s terrible, just terrible.” He sat on a nearby wall, sometimes alone, sometimes comforted by friends.
While he did so some photographers and reporters arrived. They were asked to go away by one of the men present. The next day the harrowing photos of the father’s distress appeared in several national newspapers, accompanied by names and detailed descriptions of the scene. The photos were taken in a public place, but surely anyone there could see the father had no idea where he was. He son’s body was still where it had been found, a few feet away.
The need for a privacy law in this country is growing, not to protect celebrities like Kate Middleton but to protect ordinary citizens whose tragedies have routinely become news fodder for media organisations.
What happened in Cork earlier this month was not an isolated incident. The same news editors this week sent photographers and reporters to Tullamore seeking similar images and copy. Thankfully that family, undergoing a similar tragedy, managed in the main to avoid the media and bury their 11-year-old girl in a private, unphotographed, ceremony.
A year ago when I last wrote on this theme, my column met with a strong response from some of the doyens of Irish journalism. They were critical of my daring to suggest that standards in Irish media may be falling to the depths then revealed in Britain. While acknowledging some of the privacy breaches I raised, they did so only in passing condemnation. There was no real engagement on the obligation of Irish media itself to address these grievous intrusions.
Since then the pattern of intrusion has, if anything, intensified. Among other disturbing examples was that of a woman in Roscommon last November whose horrible ordeal the media felt entitled to depict because her partner had jumped off the Cliffs of Moher.