Testing the facts
Opinion writers as a class are hardly shy creatures prone to self-doubt or easily cowed. That’s what makes the best of them and makes them important to democracy – they stimulate and provoke, taunting establishment figures and the status quo, challenging received wisdom , and often, yes, pushing facts to the limit. Not beyond. But should they be held to the same standard of truth as a reporter? Their words, after all, carry the health warning “Comment”. Caveat emptor.
Yesterday morning in the wake of businessman Denis O’Brien’s victory against the Irish Daily Mail and columnist Paul Drury not a few of Ireland’s editors and columnists were asking themselves again where to draw the line on comment. Some of that self-questioning is entirely justified – there is no harm in repeatedly probing whether the facts on which diatribes are based are soundly rooted.
But the jury’s decision will go beyond that and have a chilling effect on all the media and on freedom of speech. It decided that Mr Drury’s opinion was sincerely held, but not based on fact and not defensible as in the public interest. The last is strange – what then is the public interest? Defining it is not the jury’s job.
And, although we cannot know the minds of the twelve, their scepticism about Mr Drury’s facts appears from a reading of the evidence to rest largely on an assessment of Mr O’Brien’s frame of mind – he undoubtedly has an established reputation for charitable work and concern for the people of Haiti. But the charge of hypocrisy is ultimately subjective, an opinion. We are on dangerous ground if we cannot call a public figure a hypocrite, even wrongly.
It was also disappointing to see the lawyer of a substantial media and newspaper owner disparagingly dismiss in his summation the role of the Press Council. The independent council, widely seen as a success, was established by the industry as a response to the arbitrariness and cost of the old defamation regime, both to curb the excesses of the press and to provide redress for those without Mr O’Brien’s deep pockets.