Media runs for cover at mention of 'family law'

Fri, Aug 6, 2010, 01:00

The in camera rule was never intended to shield the legal system from public scrutiny, but that is the result of media’s interpretation of it, writes JOHN WATERS

IMAGINE THAT, sometime in recent days, the following events had occurred: that a garda had broken into a private dwelling and, without being able to display a warrant or court order, seized an infant from its mother’s arms. What if the mother, in the course of this break-in, had sustained an injury? What if the mother and the child were Irish citizens and if the purpose of this operation was so that the child could be despatched to a foreign jurisdiction and forcibly adopted?

Imagine that this distraught mother, on subsequently calling to ask the Irish childcare authorities about her son’s health and welfare, had been told that she had no right to such information. Imagine, finally, that no authority in this jurisdiction had ever expressed the slightest concern about this mother’s capacity to care for her own child?

There are many questions that should properly flow from such a scenario but I have, to begin with, just one: should such a story be considered newsworthy? Does the public have an interest in knowing about it? Yes or no? How, in terms of importance to our democracy, would such a story rank alongside one about, say, the dubious expenses of a public representative?

These events described above occurred in this State within the last week. But because they followed on proceedings in Irish courts which were held in camera, I have a difficulty. These proceedings had many worrying aspects, not least that they were allowed to proceed. But, arising from the interpretation of the law accepted in most media organisations, I risk being censored if I seek to give further details.

My immediate focus, therefore, relates not to the substantive questions raised by this case, but to the fact that the Irish media has decided it cannot be reported. Several journalists are aware of the broad facts, but nothing has been published. This circumstance arises from an extraordinarily narrow interpretation of the meaning and purpose of the in camera rule, which requires that proceedings concerning families and children be held in private.

Editors, reporters and, perhaps most pertinently, lawyers acting for media organisations, tend nowadays to interpret the in camera rule as a blanket ban on all coverage of or commentary upon such cases.

The purpose and intention of the in camera rule is not secrecy for its own sake, however, but the protection of the privacy of families involved in legal proceedings. It was never intended to shield the legal system from public scrutiny, although that is the end result of the media’s approach.

Conventionally, the wording of a court order in respect of the in camera dimension requires that any report of the proceedings should contain no information which would tend to identify minors or family members implicated in the proceedings.

Sometimes, the provision may be broadened to include respondents and/or notice parties. There is no requirement that other facts of the case be withheld from the public, and the standard reference in court orders to “reports” would seem to suggest that some reporting is invited.

Through the evolution of media custom and practice, however, a situation has developed whereby the very mention of “childcare proceedings” or “family law” is enough to have media lawyers and editors running for cover. Even though it is very often abundantly clear that the only purpose being served by a blanket suppression of information is the protection of judges, lawyers, State agencies and professionals, media practitioners continue to impose an interpretation of the in camera rule that implicitly assumes these outcomes to be legitimate.

Such interpretations of the legal situation are grossly inimical to the interests of democracy.

Something deeply ugly is happening at the heart of our society and the manner of its governance in the most intimate areas of human life.

If social workers from a foreign jurisdiction are enabled to run whooping and high-fiving from an Irish courtroom because they have been permitted to snatch the child of a blameless Irish mother, is it not time we asked what is happening?

The media offers the only forum in which such questions can be put. Media practitioners therefore have a sacred duty to take their courage in their hands and shine harsh searchlights on those who are empowered to intervene in the intimate lives of citizens to a close-to-absolute degree.

If we cannot report on such matters, why bother reporting anything?

Does it matter whether the economy functions?

Why should we care who sits in Leinster House?

Whatever happened to “publish and be damned”?

Are we journalists or entertainers?

How seriously do we take our role in democratic society?

Are we concerned with the public consequences of the events we write about, or simply seeking adequately interesting material to fill space and time to shift “product”?

Unless journalists and editors are prepared to address these questions, we may as well pull the blinds down on the enterprise of journalism and leave the protection of our democracy to the bloggers and tweeters, who at least have the excuse of having no responsibility for what happens to human freedom.