Media silence on privacy makes case for Shatter's law

Sat, Sep 22, 2012, 01:00

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.

Information from her partner’s mobile phone led the gardaí to her house, where she had been tied up for over two days. While she was recovering in hospital the newspapers, including The Irish Times, named her and published detailed accounts of her ordeal. Two days after she was found the Evening Herald carried a two-page spread with photographs headlined “the grim scene where boyfriend drank before attack”.

She had never courted public attention nor sought publicity. She lived an ordinary if difficult life and, at its most difficult moment, the details and scenes of her life were splashed all over the papers.

Given the frequency of such privacy breaches one might expect this would be the biggest issue dealt with by the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council of Ireland. It is not. On this aspect at least, the Irish model of independent regulation, dominated by the press industry, just isn’t working.

Even if basic human decency doesn’t prevent such publications, one might have hoped that fear of the Press Council would prompt some level of restraint. The Ombudsman and council are neutered because they can only act when victims themselves complain. They have no power to initiate their own inquiry or even to examine or report on patterns of press misbehaviour.

One can see why a citizen who had been through such an ordeal might be otherwise occupied or choose not to subject themselves to further media attention by seeking to assert their rights. Indeed this perceived flaw in our system was raised by Lord Leveson during Irish Press Ombudsman Prof John Horgan’s recent evidence to that inquiry.

In fairness to the Ombudsman, in the handful of instances where such complaints have been made, he has been assertive against newspaper suggestions that publication was somehow in the public interest. He did so most recently on behalf of the parents of a man who died by suicide and who complained that the Corkman had contravened the press code by its “gratuitous publication of a description of the mother’s distress” at the inquest when details of her son’s last text messages were read out.

On that test the incidents described above were even clearer breaches of the code, but unless the families themselves complain nobody will be held to account. Even if they do, no editor will ever face suspension for such breaches. The only “punishment” the newspapers will “suffer” is the publication of the Ombudsman’s decision.

The media are still at it, still publishing pictures from funerals where they are not welcome and still approaching bereaved families within hours of a death seeking photos and interviews, knowing other journalists have already been refused.

Some leading figures in the media must shout stop. By their silence, they are making Alan Shatter’s case for him.

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